Trump touts ‘great’ relations with Duterte
In public, president avoids subject of rights concerns involving Filipino leader
MANILA, Philippines — Winding down his visit to Asia, President Donald Trump repeatedly praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, called him by his first name, shared a joke with him about the media and even complimented Manila’s weather. What he did not do Monday was what many of his predecessors made a point of doing while abroad: publicly highlight human rights abuses.
Duterte has overseen a violent drug war that has featured extrajudicial killings.
But during brief remarks to reporters as he sat with Duterte at the start of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathering, Trump said he and Duterte have “had a great relationship,” and he avoided questions about whether he’d raise human rights concerns with the Filipino leader during a private meeting on the sidelines of the summit.
Duterte, host of this year’s summit, dismissed the reporters in the room as “spies” — drawing a laugh from Trump — and didn’t conceal his displeasure at their presence as he had them quickly hustled out.
The White House later said the two leaders discussed the Islamic State group, illegal drugs and trade during the 40-minute meeting. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said human rights came up “briefly” in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs, but she did not say if Trump was critical of Duterte’s program.
That appeared to conflict with the Filipino version of the meeting. Harry Roque, a spokesman for Duterte, said: “There was no mention of human rights. There was no mention of extralegal killings. There was only a rather lengthy discussion of the Philippine war on drugs with President Duterte doing most of the explaining.”
“From the body language of the U.S. president, he seemed to be in agreement,” Roque added.
A joint statement issued later said that “the two sides underscored that human rights and the dignity of human life are essential, and agreed to continue mainstreaming the human rights agenda in their national programs.”
Duterte’s war on drugs has alarmed human rights advocates around the world who say it has allowed police officers and vigilantes to ignore due process and take justice into their own hands.
Government officials estimate that 3,000 people, mostly drug users and dealers, have died in the ongoing crackdown. Human rights groups believe the victim total is perhaps closer to 9,000.
In Manila at the ASEAN conference, Trump looked to strengthen ties with Pacific Rim allies, aiming to strike one-on-one trade deals rather than multinational trade agreements, and increase pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
He met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and highlighted their two nations’ “deeper and more comprehensive” ties, looking to strengthen a relationship that is vital to the U.S. vision of an IndoPacific region that attempts to de-emphasize China’s influence.
He jointly met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with whom he had a contentious phone call last winter, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who hosted the president in Tokyo earlier in the trip. Trump touted his accomplishments on his fivenation journey, particularly on trade and on North Korea, which the White House has suggested may be designated a state sponsor of terror.
Trump said he would wait until his return to Washington on Wednesday to elaborate with a “major statement” on those two topics but hinted at progress while in Manila.
“We’ve made some very big steps with regard to trade — far bigger than anything you know,” Trump told reporters, pointing to business deals forged between U.S. and foreign companies.
Trump also said the trip had been “very fruitful” for the United States and pointed to the warm welcomes he had received in capitals including Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing.
“It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received,” Trump said. “And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little, but really for our country. And I’m really proud of that.”
On Tuesday, Trump will attend a second conference, the annual East Asia Summit, before returning to Washington late that night.
Washington Bureau’s Noah Bierman and The Washington Post contributed.
President Donald Trump said Monday he and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have “had a great relationship.” They met at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations event.