Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while delivering a speech during the 80th National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) founding anniversary at the NBI headquarters in metro Manila, Philippines on Nov. 14, 2016.
Photo by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

With Duterte, Trump misses another opportunity to lead

A couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump boasted to the press about his upcoming trip to the Philippines, where he expected a warm welcome from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. “We’re going to the Philippines … where the previous administration was not exactly welcome,” Trump bragged.

What the Republican president may not realize is that it was Barack Obama, disgusted by Duterte’s human-rights abuses, who called off his scheduled meeting with the Filipino leader. (The Washington Post noted the relevant details made Trump’s boast “exceedingly strange.”)

Nevertheless, the American president is in Manila, where, as the Associated Press noted, Trump “repeatedly praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, calling him by his first name,” and shared “a joke about the media.”

In context, Duterte, who has publicly raised the specter of assassinating journalists he disapproves of, accused reporters today of being “spies” – a line Trump seemed to enjoy.

After the meeting, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said human rights “briefly came up in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs.” Duterte aides said that wasn’t true.

…Mr. Duterte’s spokesman denied that the subject of rights was ever broached, even as the Philippine president spoke about the “drug menace” in his country.

Mr. Trump “appeared sympathetic and did not have any official position on the matter and was merely nodding his head, indicating that he understood the domestic problem that we faced on drugs,” said Harry Roque, Mr. Duterte’s spokesman. “The issue of human rights did not arise; it was not brought up.”

Of course, even for those who are inclined to give the White House the benefit of the doubt, there’s a broader concern here: if Trump “briefly” broached the subject of human rights, what exactly did the American president say?

The answer matters because we learned in the spring that Trump called Duterte earlier this year, and according to a leaked transcript, the American leader praised the Philippine president for his handling of his country’s drug crisis.

In case anyone needs a refresher, as we discussed in May, the authoritarian Filipino president has been accused of a series of extrajudicial killings, and earlier this year, a lawyer in the Philippines asked the International Criminal Court in The Hague to charge Duterte and officials in his government “with mass murder and crimes against humanity.”

In addition to accusations about relying on death squads in his native country, Duterte has threatened to assassinate Filipino journalists, boasted about personally executing people without so much as a hint of due process, and before taking office, spoke openly about his willingness to commit rape. Let’s also not overlook the time Duterte compared himself to Adolf Hitler.

It’s against this backdrop that Trump, unprompted, told Duterte earlier this year, “Many countries have the problem [with drugs], we have the problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”

So, when Huckabee Sanders says human rights “briefly came up” between the two presidents “in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs,” did Trump offer criticism or praise?