A couple of weeks ago in the White House cabinet room, Donald Trump boasted about the “historic trip” he’d soon launch to Asia-Pacific countries. He placed a special emphasis on the Philippines: “You remember the Philippines – the last trip made by a president, that turned out to be not so good. Never quite got to land.”
The way the president speaks, it’s sometimes difficult to know what he’s trying to say, so when I first heard that comment, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. But Trump keeps talking about this, telling reporters over the weekend that Barack Obama had “a rough trip” to the Philippines, unlike himself. This morning, in another press gaggle, Trump said it again, this time with more detail.
“…I mean, the Philippines, we just could not have been treated nicer. And as you know, we were having a lot of problems with the Philippines. The relationship with the past administration was horrible, to use a nice word. I would say ‘horrible’ is putting it mildly. You know what happened. Many of you were there, and you never got to land. The plane came close but it didn’t land.
And now we have a very, very strong relationship with the Philippines, which is really important…. So we’ve accomplished a lot.”
Apparently, Trump has convinced himself that Barack Obama, aboard Air Force One, intended to travel to the Philippines, but en route to the country, the American president was not permitted to touch down on Filipino soil.
That in no way reflects reality. In the real world, Obama was scheduled to meet Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Laos last year, but the Democratic president canceled following a Duterte tantrum.
A year earlier, before Duterte took office, Obama visited the Philippines and the trip went smoothly.
In other words, Trump has embraced an odd fantasy as if it were true, pointing to an incident that never occurred as evidence of his diplomatic superiority over his predecessor.
The Republican president’s difficulties in separating fact from fiction is unsettling, but let’s not overlook the underlying point Trump seems so eager to emphasize: he’s bragging about his chumminess with an authoritarian president accused of mass murder.
A couple of weeks ago, after Trump falsely claimed Obama “was not exactly welcome” in the Philippines, the Washington Post said the Republican president’s rhetoric was “exceedingly strange.”
The first reason is that Obama actually called off his meeting with Duterte — not the Philippines. So it’s unclear what Trump means when he says the Obama administration “was not exactly welcome.”
And Obama had some pretty good reasons for not meeting with Duterte. Chief among them is that police in the Philippines, with Duterte’s apparent blessing, have killed thousands of people without due process during Duterte’s drug war. After Obama criticized those killings, Duterte called him a “son of a whore.” That’s what led to Obama canceling a planned meeting with Duterte at the ASEAN conference in Laos. Obama said it wasn’t personal, but his State Department said that it didn’t think such insults were conducive to constructive dialogue.
And yet, Trump and Duterte were nevertheless friendly yesterday, with the American leader apparently enjoying his Filipino counterpart’s criticism of journalists – a group of professionals Duterte had previously threatened to assassinate.
If Trump thinks this makes him look better than Obama, he’s badly confused.