Trump invites controversial Duterte to White House

In another departure from the Obama administration, President Donald Trump invited outspoken Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House during a "very friendly" phone conversation Saturday, the White House said.

Trump extended the invitation while the two leaders discussed North Korea and growing tension on the Korean peninsula.

While Duterte implored the United States to show restraint in dealing with North Korea, he has not shown restraint in his country's bloody extrajudicial anti-drug crackdown. He has incited the deaths of more than 7,000 people accused of dealing or using drugs have been killed since he took office last year, Human Rights Watch reported earlier this year.

In September, Duterte even compared himself to Adolf Hitler. "Hitler massacred three million Jews," he said. "Now, there are three million drug addicts [in the Philippines]. I'd be happy to slaughter them."

John Sifton of Human Rights Watch criticized Trump's invitation as an endorsement of Duterte's policies.

"By essentially endorsing Duterte's murderous war on drugs," he told the New York Times, "Trump is now morally complicit in future killings."

Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, said Trump's call to Duterte was "all about North Korea," he said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

Trump has been "speaking a lot to all our partners in southeast Asia," Priebus added.

However, a spokesman for Duterte said Trump expressed his understanding of challenges facing his Philippine counterpart, "especially on the matter of dangerous drugs."

After they spoke in December, Duterte said Trump lauded his anti-drug campaign as "the right way."

Duterte told former President Barack Obama to "go to hell" after Obama criticized the Philippine leader's drug war.

The White House said Trump will visit the Phillipines in November. There were no details on when or if Duterte will visit the White House.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte prepares for a command conference on Feb. 27, 2017, with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila. Duterte announced that he will again use police in his controversial war on drugs, which has claimed the lives of more than 7,000 people since he took office last year. Photo by Mark R. Cristino/EPA



Trump’s ‘Very Friendly’ Talk With Duterte Stuns Aides and Critics Alike

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 with drugs.

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 Syrian airfield.

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.”


Trump Invites Rodrigo Duterte to the White House

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Saturday invited the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House, embracing an authoritarian leader who is accused of ordering extrajudicial killings of drug suspects and who crudely disparaged Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump had a “very friendly conversation with Mr. Duterte,” according to a statement issued by the White House late Saturday. It said that the two leaders “discussed the fact that the Philippines is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs.”

In fact, Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs 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 with drugs. Human rights groups and many Western governments have condemned Mr. Duterte for the bloody campaign.

A spokesman for Mr. Duterte, Ernesto Abella, confirmed the White House invitation, saying that Mr. Trump had expressed “his understanding and appreciation of the challenges facing the Philippine president, especially on the matter” of drugs.

Mr. Trump’s embrace of the Philippine leader comes a week after Mr. Trump called to congratulate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey for his victory in a disputed referendum that cemented his autocratic rule. He has also lavishly praised President Xi Jinping of China in recent days for his cooperation in pressuring North Korea, overlooking the fact that Mr. Xi, too, has shown an increasingly repressive streak in his country.

Mr. Trump has spoken warmly of the Egyptian leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who seized power in a military coup. And he vowed during the presidential campaign to reset relations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

An outspoken populist with a shoot-from-the-hip style, Mr. Duterte shares some characteristics with Mr. Trump. That was not the case with Mr. Obama, whom Mr. Duterte called a “son of a whore” when he was asked how he would react if Mr. Obama raised human rights issues with him. He later apologized, and his aides said his comment was an expression of frustration rather than a personal attack against the American president.

In its statement, the White House suggested that Mr. Trump was eager to mend relations. The president’s invitation, it said, was aimed at discussing “the importance of the United States-Philippine alliance, which is now headed in a very positive direction.”

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