Trump’s ‘Very Friendly’ Talk With Duterte Stuns Aides and Critics Alike
By MARK LANDLER
APRIL 30, 2017
WASHINGTON — When President Trump called President Rodrigo Duterte of
the Philippines on Saturday, White House officials saw it as part of a
routine diplomatic outreach to Southeast Asian leaders. Mr. Trump,
characteristically, had his own ideas.
During their “very friendly conversation,” the administration said in a
late-night statement, Mr. Trump invited Mr. Duterte, an authoritarian
leader accused of ordering extrajudicial killings of drug suspects in
the Philippines, to visit him at the White House.
Now, the administration is bracing for an avalanche of criticism from
human rights groups. Two senior officials said they expected the State
Department and the National Security Council, both of which were caught
off guard by the invitation, to raise objections internally.
The White House disclosed the news on a day when Mr. Trump fired up his
supporters at a campaign-style rally in Harrisburg, Pa. The timing of
the announcement — after a speech that was a grievance-filled jeremiad —
encapsulated this president after 100 days in office: still ready to say
and do things that leave people, even on his staff, slack-jawed.
“By essentially endorsing Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, Trump is now
morally complicit in future killings,” said John Sifton, the Asia
advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. “Although the traits of his
personality likely make it impossible, Trump should be ashamed of himself.”
Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Twitter, “We are
watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit
disintegrates into ash.”
Administration officials said the call to Mr. Duterte was one of several
to Southeast Asian leaders that the White House arranged after picking
up signs that the leaders felt neglected because of Mr. Trump’s intense
focus on China, Japan and tensions over North Korea. On Sunday, Mr.
Trump spoke to the prime ministers of Singapore and Thailand; both got
White House invitations.
Mr. Duterte’s toxic reputation had already given pause to some in the
White House. The Philippines is set to host a summit meeting of the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations in November, and officials said
there had been a brief debate about whether Mr. Trump should attend.
It is not even clear, given the accusations of human rights abuses
against him, that Mr. Duterte would be granted a visa to the United
States were he not a head of state, according to human rights advocates.
Still, Mr. Trump’s affinity for Mr. Duterte, and other strongmen as
well, is firmly established. Both presidents are populist insurgent
leaders with a penchant for making inflammatory statements. Both ran for
office calling for a wholesale crackdown on Islamist militancy and the
drug trade. And both display impatience with the courts.
After Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Duterte called to congratulate him.
Later, the Philippine leader issued a statement saying that the
president-elect had wished him well in his antidrug campaign, which has
resulted in the deaths of several thousand people suspected of using or
selling narcotics, as well as others who may have had no involvement
Mr. Trump’s cultivation of Mr. Duterte has a strategic rationale,
officials said. Mr. Duterte has pivoted away from the United States, a
longtime treaty ally, and toward China. The alienation deepened after he
referred to President Barack Obama as a “son of a whore” when he was
asked how he would react if Mr. Obama raised human rights concerns with him.
In October, Mr. Duterte called for a “separation” between the
Philippines and the United States. “America has lost now,” he told an
audience of business executives in Beijing. “I’ve realigned myself in
your ideological flow.” He later threatened to rip up an agreement that
allows American troops to visit the Philippines.
Administration officials said Mr. Trump wanted to mend the alliance with
the Philippines as a bulwark against China’s expansionism in the South
China Sea. The Philippines has clashed with China over disputed reefs
and shoals in the waterway, which the two countries share.
Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, drew a connection between a
visit by Mr. Duterte and the tensions with North Korea. Building
solidarity throughout Asia, he said on ABC’s “This Week,” is needed to
pressure North Korea on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Experts said that argument was tenuous, however, noting that it was more
important to corral a country like Malaysia, where North Koreans hold
meetings to buy or sell weapons-related technology.
Mr. Trump has a commercial connection to the Philippines: His name is
stamped on a $150 million, 57-floor tower in Manila, a licensing deal
that netted his company millions of dollars. Mr. Duterte appointed the
chairman of the company developing the tower, Jose E. B. Antonio, as an
envoy to Washington for trade, investment and economic affairs.
Certainly, the two leaders have similar agendas. Mr. Duterte is battling
Islamist extremists who have terrorized the southern islands of the
Philippine archipelago. He once declared that if he were presented with
a terrorism suspect, “give me salt and vinegar and I’ll eat his liver.”
They are also in tune on the need for a crackdown on drugs, even if Mr.
Trump is not advocating Mr. Duterte’s brutal methods. Attorney General
Jeff Sessions has revived the language of the “war on drugs,” which the
Obama administration shunned as part of its policy to reduce lengthy
prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
Mr. Trump has drawn the line with one autocrat: President Bashar
al-Assad of Syria, whose chemical weapons strike on his own people
prompted the American president to order a Tomahawk missile strike on a
But Mr. Trump’s affinity for strongmen is instinctive and longstanding.
He recently called to congratulate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of
Turkey on his victory in a much-disputed referendum expanding his
powers, which some critics painted as a death knell for Turkish democracy.
At his rally in Harrisburg, Mr. Trump went after many of the targets he
vilified during the campaign: the news media, Democrats, immigrants. But
he reversed course on one — China — and the reason may be that he met
recently with China’s president, Xi Jinping, in Palm Beach, Fla.
At home, Mr. Xi is cracking down on dissent and consolidating his power.
But Mr. Trump has enlisted Mr. Xi to pressure China’s neighbor, North
Korea, and is giving him the benefit of the doubt. “I honestly believe
he’s trying very hard,” Mr. Trump told the crowd. “He’s a good man.”
Mr. Trump credited his relationship with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah
el-Sisi, as a factor in obtaining the release of an Egyptian-American
aid worker, Aya Hijazi, who had been detained there. Mr. Trump played
host at the White House to Mr. Sisi, who had not been granted an
invitation since he seized power in a military coup nearly four years ago.
Then there is, of course, Mr. Trump’s vow during the campaign to pursue
a warmer relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. That
effort has faltered somewhat because of persistent questions about links
between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Even Mr. Trump’s prime antagonist — the North Korean dictator, Kim
Jong-un — has earned a surprisingly generous assessment from the
president in recent days. Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Mr. Trump
expressed admiration that Mr. Kim had been able to keep a grip on power.
“A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it
was his uncle or anybody else,” Mr. Trump said. “And he was able to do
it. So, obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie.”