Donald Trump’s meeting on Monday with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, accused of ordering thousands of extrajudicial killings in the country’s war on drugs, did not exceed the low expectations human rights groups had for it.
Prior to the meeting, Duterte, who had famously called Barack Obama a “son of a whore” for criticizing him, said he would tell Trump to “lay off” if the U.S. president brought up human rights issues. He didn’t have to worry.
Their conversation focused on the fight against ISIS, trade, and illegal drugs, according to the White House. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said human rights “briefly” came up in the context of anti-drug measures, whatever that means. Trump has previously praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” so it’s hard to believe he was too critical this time. The Philippines government denied that human rights concerns were raised at all.
Trump said prior to the meeting that he and Duterte had a “great relationship.”
According to the pool report, Trump also laughed when Duterte ordered journalists out of the room, calling them “spies.” For context, it’s worth remembering that Reporters Without Borders calls the Philippines “one of the most dangerous countries for the media,” noting that “Private militias, often hired by local politicians, silence journalists with complete impunity.” (In June, Duterte remarked “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch. … Most of those killed, to be frank, have done something. You won’t be killed if you don’t do anything wrong.”)
The moment was reminiscent of a July meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin of Russia, also not the safest country for journalists, at which Trump chuckled at Putin pointing to journalists and saying, “These are the ones hurting you?” The Trump administration was also criticized for going along with the Chinese government’s restrictions on reporters asking questions during his meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing last week. Previous administrations have pushed back on these restrictions during meetings with Chinese leaders.
Of course, no one seriously expected human rights or press freedom to be a major focus of Trump’s trip. Yet even on the issues he cares more about, it’s not clear what he gained. There wasn’t much progress on the North Korean threat (though Trump did call Kim Jong-un “short and fat” on Twitter, so there’s that). As for trade, Trump is getting many takers for the bilateral trade deals he favors, however, separately the Asia-Pacific countries that had been part of the now-abandoned TPP agreed to move forward on a trade deal without the United States. Trump has promised a “major announcement” on both North Korea and trade on Wednesday after he gets back to the U.S.