As President Donald Trump basked in the adulation of his most fervent supporters at a campaign-style rally on Saturday, reiterating the populist rhetoric that fueled both his political rise and anxieties that he yearned to flout democratic norms, his administration released yet another piece of evidence that suggests he feels a kinship with leaders who do exactly that.
In a readout of a phone call conducted earlier Saturday, the White House press office announced that Trump had invited President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to visit the White House. The invitation, made at the end of what the press office called a “very friendly conversation,” is an embrace of a figure who has been condemned by other world leaders and by human-rights organizations as a violent thug.
Duterte was swept into power after vowing that he would eliminate crime in the Philippines within six months—a promise that has come to fruition in the form of an organized campaign of extrajudicial murder of suspected drug dealers, carried out in large part by police officers who receive cash payouts in exchange for executing suspects on the streets of the nation’s cities and towns.
More than 7,000 people were killed in Duterte’s “war on drugs” in the first six months after he took office, according to interior police statistics, many of them innocent bystanders or children earning money as low-level drug runners. Public “drug watch lists,” prepared by local officials on the basis of hearsay, rumors, and even personal grudges, are shared with municipal police, who report being paid an average of $200 per “job” in a country where the average annual income is less than $5,400.
Critics of Duterte’s policies have been accused of being in the pocket of drug lords; politicians who speak out against the war have been arrested on drug charges or had the budgets for their security details slashed, exposing them to the same contract-style killings that have claimed thousands of Philippine lives.
Duterte, for his part, has made no effort to hide or obscure the extrajudicial executions. In the Philippines, where championship boxer Manny Pacquiao is a senator and kleptocratic shoe fetishist Imelda Marcos serves in the House of Representatives, Duterte’s reveling in vulgar machismo and ultra-violent rhetoric—he has claimed to have killed at least three suspected criminals with his own hands—is seen as a sign of authenticity.
Duterte has even gone so far as to encourage police officers arrested for assassinating a Philippine mayor to plead guilty, so as to streamline the process of pardoning them for the murder.
“If they are convicted? No problem,” Duterte said in April. “I’ll tell the judge to pardon them all.”
The subject of Duterte’s purges was discussed in his phone call with Trump, the White House said, but only to acknowledge that “the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world.”
The White House invitation, which a source within the State Department characterized to The Daily Beast as “a big fucking surprise to us,” has infuriated international watchdogs, who see the move as severely undermining U.S. credibility on human rights.
“For Trump to celebrate somebody who boasts of killing his own citizens, and then invite him to the White House while remaining silent on his disgusting human rights record, sends a terrible message,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights issues. “It says to the world that illegal violence is legitimate and that rule of law and human rights can be ignored.”
Existing U.S. laws prohibit any persons against whom credible allegations have been made of gross human rights abuses from entering the country. Heads of state are exempt from those provisions.
Sifton called Trump’s implicit endorsement of Duterte’s actions “the language of thugs and criminals, not government servants—not presidents who have taken oaths to protect their citizens and their laws.”
When pressed by ABC’s Jonathan Karl about Duterte’s human rights record, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said concern over North Korea’s pursuit of advanced missile technology requires “cooperation among our partners in Southeast Asia,” although “obviously, we want to encourage [Duterte] to do better.”
“We need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get to make sure we have our ducks in a row,” Priebus said, an argument Sifton called “entirely bogus.”
“Even if you were to secure Duterte’s unconditional help and support in promoting [North Korean disarmament], it’s not that meaningful because the Philippines is not that powerful a player on the global stage,” Sifton said. “The real issue is tightening the enforcement of sanctions on North Korea, and that’s a matter of bilateral outreach to key countries that are either not enforcing the sanctions or are violating them—Malaysia, Nigeria, Uganda—not the Philippines.”
More likely, Trump’s entreaty to Duterte is the latest step in a decades-old dance between two jostling superpowers and a former colonial territory. Duterte has mused about distancing the Philippines from its former colonial overseer, threatening to boot American special forces from the country and openly contemplating a complete removal of U.S. forces from the archipelago.
Meanwhile, Duterte has publicly flirted with a closer relationship with China, securing a pledge from Beijing to increase investment in the Philippines in exchange for tabling a territorial dispute in the South China Sea that a previous president had taken to The Hague.
By turning a blind eye to Duterte’s human rights abuses, Trump may be attempting to pull the Philippines back into the fold of American influence. But as Trump breaks a key campaign promise by refusing to declare China a currency manipulator in exchange for Chinese pressure on North Korea, the public wooing of both China and the Philippines may prove untenable in the long term.
The geopolitical argument for ignoring Duterte’s human rights abuses also obscures Trump’s longtime public fascination—and occasional admiration—for strongmen, autocrats, and totalitarian responses to crime or public criticism.
Beyond the president’s conspicuously bro-mantic relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose concentration of political power would put the Romanovs to blushing shame, Trump has remarked positively on totalitarian oppression for decades.
“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump told Playboy in 1990, referring to pro-democratic demonstrators who protested China’s one-party rule in 1989. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
The “strength” Trump was referring to is commonly known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in which troops with automatic rifles and tanks killed hundreds of civilians.
Trump has more recently reached out to other would-be autocrats as president. Last week, the president called President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey to congratulate him on the results of a highly disputed referendum that gave him sweeping executive powers.
Only a few weeks before, Trump welcomed Egyptian President Abdel el-Sisi to the White House with a courtesy he failed to extend to German Chancellor Angela Merkel—namely, a handshake. El-Sisi seized power in a military coup in 2013, after ousting democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi.
“He certainly seems to have a preference for people who look at law and human rights as something to be ignored, and simply do what they want to do, whether it’s legal or not,” Sifton said of Trump.
“His psychological status aside, what’s going on here is the embrace of a theory that backing autocrats and human-rights abusers can advance U.S. interests better than promoting human rights,” Sifton continued. “But that theory has failed time and time again in U.S. history, from El Salvador and Guatemala to South Africa to the Philippines under Marcos.”
In the Philippines, however, both Duterte and Trump’s tendency to “tell it like it is,” often to the point of vulgarity, has made each a popular figure among the other’s political supporters.
Comparisons between the two leaders—spoken either admiringly or condemningly—are astonishingly common, with Americans as likely to hear Philippine citizens describe Duterte as “our Trump” as they are to hear Trump dubbed “your Duterte.”
Trump’s commercial investments in the Philippines, in the form of a Trump-branded 57-floor tower in the posh Makati section of Manila, have further popularized the American president in the country. (The chairman of the company that developed the tower, Jose E.B. Antonio, was appointed by Duterte as the nation’s trade envoy to the U.S. soon after Trump’s election.)
But with the State Department blindsided by Trump’s Duterte invitation and human rights organizations in an uproar, the president may soon be forced to decide which is more valuable to American interests: his mercurial cohort in the South China Sea or maintaining moral credibility on the issue of human rights.