Signaling what’s perhaps a warming relationship between their two countries, President Trump invited the controversial leader of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House in a phone call Saturday.
The two leaders had “a very friendly conversation” in which they talked about the North Korea threat, according to the White House’s readout of the call. The two men, who have drawn comparisons for their tough rhetoric, also discussed the Philippine government’s fight against drugs.
What remained unmentioned, however, are the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users as part of the government’s drug war. Thousands have been killed by police and vigilantes since Duterte took office and vowed to eradicate his country’s massive drug problem. The rising death toll has drawn criticisms from international human rights groups, at least one of which, the Human Rights Watch, has made the case for a criminal investigation of the Duterte administration.
The relationship between the United States and the Philippines soured under President Barack Obama, who criticized Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. Not one to take criticism lightly, Duterte snapped at Obama on a few occasions, telling him to “go to hell” and, at one point, using the Tagalog phrase for “son of a bitch” or “son of a whore” when addressing the then-U.S. president. In September, Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte, whom he called a “colorful guy.”
With Trump at the helm, the relationship between the two countries seems to be shifting.
In a brief phone call in December about the drug war, then-President-elect Trump told Duterte that he was doing it the “right way,” according to the Philippine president’s account of the conversation.
The White House said that the relationship between the two countries “is now heading in a very positive direction” and that Trump is looking forward to visiting the Philippines in November during the East Asia and U.S.-Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, summits.
The Philippines hosted the 30th ASEAN Summit on Saturday. The nuclear threat posed by North Korea — and how the Trump administration will deal with the secretive country — was brought up during a discussion with ASEAN leaders, according to a statement.
Duterte implored the United States to show restraint and patience in dealing with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and warned against an aggressive approach.
“I’m sure President Trump by now is cautioning his military to just may be hang on there and not to start something which they cannot control,” Duterte said in a statement. “Everybody’s worried. Nobody’s clapping his hand. And I’m sure that if war breaks out in the Korean Peninsula, the imponderables of life is really, you cannot foresee, even project what will happen.”
In a news conference before the call Saturday, Duterte said he would urge Trump to ensure that war is avoided. Otherwise, “my region will suffer immensely,” according to the Associated Press.
“It behooves upon America, who wields the biggest stick, just to be prudent and patient,” Duterte said. “We know that we are playing with somebody who relishes letting go of his missiles and everything.”
Whether Trump will take his ally’s advice remains unclear.
In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Trump said he prefers a diplomatic approach to settle mounting friction over North Korea’s nuclear program but warned that a conflict is possible.
“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump said. “We’d love to solve things diplomatically, but it’s very difficult.”
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus defended Trump’s praise of Duterte on Sunday, saying the president’s top priority is addressing the threat of North Korea and partnering with countries in Southeast Asia.
“The issue on the table is North Korea, and there is nothing right now facing this country and facing the region that is a bigger threat than what’s happening in North Korea,” Priebus said on ABC News’s “This Week” on Sunday morning. “And if we don’t have all of our folks together — whether they’re good folks, bad folks, people that we wish would do better in their country, doesn’t matter, we’ve got to be on the same page.”
ABC’s Jonathan Karl repeatedly pressed Priebus on Duterte’s “abysmal human rights record,” asking how Trump could praise a leader accused of mass killings. Priebus would not say whether the issue came up in the call, saying he didn’t hear the entire conversation.
“We obviously want to encourage him to do better, but this call, the purpose of the call, is all about North Korea,” Priebus said.
At one point, Karl asked, “Does that mean that human rights don’t matter now?”
“Absolutely not,” Priebus responded. “It doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter, but what it does mean is that the issues facing us, developing out of North Korea, are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get.”
Priebus added that human rights are “very high at the top of the list” of the president’s priorities, citing Trump’s decision to attack an airfield in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad was accused of using chemical weapons against his own people.
Trump’s invitation to Duterte immediately attracted criticisms from the Human Rights Watch.
“Speaking glowingly of a man who boasts killing of his own citizens, inviting him to the White House, and saying nothing of his terrifying human rights record, sends a terrifying message, and entirely a different tone than many other parts of the U.S. government and the U.S. Congress would want to send,” John Sifton, the organization’s Asia advocacy director, said in a statement. “By essentially endorsing Duterte’s murderous ‘war on drugs,’ Trump is now morally complicit in future killings.”
Emily Rauhala contributed to this report.