Donald Trump’s 12-day visit to Asia has included an assortment of awkward moments — like a fumble during a group handshake in Manila — but his performance in the Philippines may be one of the more disappointing parts of his tour. It’s fair to ask whether the United States should legitimize a brutal dictatorship with a state visit in the first place, but to visit without publicly discussing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s human rights record is very troubling.
It’s not unusual, though. Even before the election, Trump didn’t make a secret out of his affection for dictators. Duterte’s time at the helm of the Philippines has been characterized by a brutal drug war that has killed thousands of people, including in gruesome extrajudicial killings committed by law enforcement with active encouragement from the government.
That makes for a “fantastic” host, according to Trump, who sang Duterte’s praises after their meeting and indicated that he thought the Philippines made an excellent strategic partner.
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Duterte has bragged about killing people on multiple occasions, encouraged members of the public to turn vigilante and kill drug dealers and compared himself to Hitler — favorably. His bloody “war on drugs” has devastated communities across the country, and it certainly hasn’t done anything to address the ebb and flow of illegal drugs, drug abuse and drug addiction. Duterte claims to be against corruption and abuse, but his political record doesn’t support that assertion — and his election pledge to step down if he couldn’t get these issues under control hasn’t been honored.
The Obama administration took a frosty view on the current government of the Philippines, and the sentiment was returned; Duterte infamously called President Barack Obama a: “son of a whore.” Throughout his presidency, Obama wasn’t shy about commenting on human rights issues and criticizing foreign leaders who don’t protect the rights of their citizenry, but Trump hasn’t chosen to follow suit.
So what happens when one infamously colorful foreign leader meets another? Smiles and rounds of handshakes, apparently, with no discussion of the human rights threats posed by Philippine drug policy under Duterte. And the two pointedly ignored questions from the press about the human impact of the drug war.
Chillingly, when Duterte made a crack about journalists, referring to them as “spies,” the two men laughed. It’s not the first time Trump has made light of threats to freedom of the press, but it’s a disturbing reflection of his attitude about the role of the media in society
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders asserts that the subject of human rights came up while the two men met in private, but a representative of the Philippine government disputes that claim. Instead, he says, Duterte “explained” the “drug problem” to Trump, who allegedly spent much of his time listening — unlike in May, when he praised the dictator for his handling of drug issues in the region.
Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Justice Trudeau apparently had no problem with criticizing Duterte’s record. Duterte referred to Trudeau’s comments, which expressing worries about human rights, as “an insult.”