President Donald Trump is spending the last leg of his two-week Asia trip with President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Trump arrived in Manila on Sunday, Nov. 12, and is attending a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as a celebration of 40 years of U.S.-ASEAN relations. The controversy of Duterte's presidency and infamous drug war has people wondering how friendly the two world leaders. So, what is Trump's relationship with Duterte?
During a public appearance together on Monday, Trump said he had a “great relationship” with Duterte and called the meetings he had in Manila “very successful.” Duterte told Trump, according to a White House transcript, “We are your ally. We are an important ally.”
Trump and Duterte's companionship has raised some eyebrows considering the Philippine president's politics. Since being elected president in May 2016, Duterte launched a brutal anti-drug campaign to eradicate drugs in his country, resulting in over 4,000 deaths. Unrelated to the campaign, Duterte has been accused of allegedly allowing police to kill thousands more unlawfully.
With this knowledge in mind, people were waiting to see if Trump would publicly rebuke Duterte's actions and raise concerns about human rights, like foreign leaders have done in the past. However, Trump made no public denouncement, as he was rather amiable with Duterte.
In response to the criticism, U.S. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Monday that "human rights came up briefly in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs," implying the issue of human rights happened behind closed doors. However, Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, had a conflicting account, denying that the topic of human rights ever came up.
According to The New York Times, Roque said 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. The issue of human rights did not arise; it was not brought up."
That being said, Duterte did warn the president via reporters to not bring up the human rights issue. On Nov. 8, Duterte told reporters to "lay off," with questions. "That is not your business. That is my business. I take care of my country and I will nurture my country to health," he said, according to Politico.
Prior to their meeting, Trump praised Duterte's good work on his quest to eradicate drugs in early 2017. According to leaked transcript obtained by The Washington Post, Trump told Duterte in their first phone call, "I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem."
If Trump was willing to comply with Duterte's "don't ask, don't tell" demands, it's no wonder the pair are apparently getting along so swimmingly. The two world leaders' "great relationship" may also in part be due to their shared opinion of former President Barack Obama. Duterte's spokesman, Roque, told reporters on Monday, according to Bloomberg, that the two leaders have been, "very candid in their dealings, and it’s very apparent that both of them have a person who they consider as not their best friend. They have similar feelings toward former U.S. President Barack Obama.”
Duterte and Obama have previously had a tense relationship, to say the least. In October 2016, Duterte publicly scolded Obama, telling him to "go to hell" shortly after Obama raised concerns of his drug campaign. Shortly after the U.S. and Philippines started joint military exercise in October 2016, Duterte announced, "I serve notice to you now that this will be the last joint military exercise with U.S." His bitter feelings have apparently lingered even after the Obama presidency. Just a few days before Trump's visit, Duterte reportedly called Obama "so black and arrogant" at a regional summit in Vietnam, according to Fox News.
Trump's Asia trip has been a clear attempt for the Trump administration to improve relations with world leaders in Asia, and his friendliness with Duterte is just another example of that at play. For this administration, it seems that maintaining foreign relations quite literally trumps matters of human rights.