Why Trump’s embrace of Duterte is raising alarm

In a "very friendly" phone call, President Trump extended a surprise White House invitation to Filipino President Duterte, prompting outcry from human rights advocates. Thousands of people have been killed under Duterte in an anti-drug crackdown. Former State Department official David Kramer joins William Brangham to discuss Mr. Trump's relationships with authoritarian leaders.

Read the Full Transcript


    Now: the president's weekend phone call with the president of the Philippines and the uproar that has ensued.

  • SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary:

    There's a lot that the president talks to these leaders in private about. Privately talking about them, building a relationship can achieve results.


    The White House defended what it said was a very friendly phone call. On the other end of that call, the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, a man who's presided over a bloody anti-drug crackdown that's killed thousands of people in his country.

    Also during Saturday's conversation was an apparent surprise invitation from President Trump to Duterte to visit him in person at the White House.

    That prompted an outcry from human rights advocates, including the United Nations' human rights commissioner.

    ZEID BIN RA'AD ZEID AL-HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: My hope is that the president of the United States will convey this deep sense of alarm about the apparent shirking of the obligations under law.


    The scale of the killing in the Philippines is enormous. Human Rights Watch found that over 7,000 people were killed in Duterte's first six months in office. Duterte has been defiant, and was roundly condemned for comments like this last fall:

  • RODRIGO DUTERTE, Philippine President:

    Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there is three million, what is it, three million drug addicts, there are. I would be happy to slaughter them.


    White House officials said the overture part of a wider effort to rally Asian leaders against North Korea and its missile program.

    Speaking to a summit of South Asian nations just before the phone call with President Trump, Duterte appealed to the U.S. to show restraint.


    I will say just, Mr. President, please see to it that there is no war, because my region will suffer immensely.


    Poor relations with the Obama White House led Duterte to threaten a pivot to warmer relations with China. The Philippines and China continue to dispute territory in the South China Sea, but, today, Duterte welcomed a Chinese naval fleet to his country's shores.

    As for taking up President Trump's invitation to the White House, Duterte played coy, saying he was — quote — "tied up" with a full schedule.

    For more on President Trump's invitation to President Duterte, as well as his relationships with other authoritarian leaders, we turn to David Kramer. He served as assistant secretary of state for human rights during the George W. Bush administration, and is now with the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.


  • DAVID KRAMER, Former State Department Official:



    Your first reaction to the invitation to President Duterte?


    I think it's one thing for the president to have a phone call with President Duterte. It needs to be done, given the tensions in Asia, the problems with North Korea, the challenges with China.

    It is a different matter, though, to embrace Duterte and to invite him here to Washington and to visit the White House. I think that's going much too far, given the gross human rights abuses that are occurring in the Philippines, with estimates of some 7,000 people killed since Duterte became president in June, a number of victims of extrajudicial killings.


    We touched a little bit of this in the setup. How much do you hold Duterte responsible for those killings?


    He certainly is not discouraging them. In fact, he is encouraging them. He has taken credit for some killings, including when he was mayor before becoming president.

    And he is creating an environment in which this kind of action is being encouraged, not just condoned. So, I think Duterte does deserve a lot of responsibility. It is popular in certain segments, in part because a lot of the people being killed come from poor, impoverished areas, and they don't have strong advocates speaking out for them.

    But there is this concern that it could spin out of control and create all sorts of problems. And it already has. I mean, 7,000, if that number is right, is an extraordinary number in such a short period of time.


    Apparently, President Trump didn't clear this with the State Department before issuing this invitation. Is that unusual?


    Well, the president of the United States, whether it's Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George Bush, can basically do what he wants when it comes to invitations to the White House.

    But it is a little unusual that this kind of invitation wouldn't have been prepared ahead of time as part of his talking points. The reports indicate that it came as a surprise, not only to the State Department, but to some people on the National Security Council and the White House as well.


    Do you think of this invitation as an endorsement? You have described this as an open-arms embrace of sorts. Is the president endorsing this behavior by bringing this man seemingly with open arms?


    Well, in the statement, there didn't appear to be any reference to human rights concerns in the Philippines.

    And by inviting a leader to the White House or to the United States to visit with his American counterpart, it does send a signal that the president is not attaching much importance to human rights concerns.

    We have seen the embrace of President Sisi from Egypt, the phone call to President Erdogan after the very controversial referendum in Turkey. We have seen the admiration voiced by candidate Trump and President Trump toward Vladimir Putin.

    So, there does seem to be this affinity for strongmen around the world, without an accompanying expression of concern about the human rights abuses that are occurring in these countries.


    You were in the State Department. You know that presidents often have to deal with unsavory characters and sometimes that there is a strategic goal in putting your arm around someone who you may personally feel is a reprehensible human being.

    Couldn't there be a strategic interest? I mean, couldn't this really just be about North Korea?


    Well, for sure. Those of us in the human rights community have never argued that human rights should drown out other interests the United States has.

    We have energy, economic interests with countries, security interests, but we also have democracy, human rights interests with countries.

    And our argument is that that last set of interests shouldn't be shortchanged in the pursuit of these other interests.


    Let's say President Trump did speak out and somehow condemned what Duterte has been doing or been involved in.

    Isn't there a risk, given Duterte's personality, that we could jeopardize the Philippines as an ally, who are a very crucial ally to us? Isn't there a risk that he could sully that relationship?


    There is a risk. And we saw this last year when President Obama indicated he was going to raise human rights issues if he had met with Duterte, and Duterte responded with an epithet toward the president, and basically said he was going to turn to China and Russia.

    I think that's a little more bluff, even though today there were Chinese naval vessels in a port in the Philippines that Duterte himself visited. But, at the end of the day, the Philippines-American relationship is longstanding.

    We have very strong ties between our peoples, our countries and our governments. And I think it's important to use those ties as leverage to insist and press for better treatment of the people of the Philippines.


    Last quick question.

    President Trump today also said that he would meet with the North Korean leader. How does that sit with you?


    I would hope that that would be a last resort after everything else is tried at lower levels. Granting an audience to the worst abuser of human rights, the North Korean leader, President Kim, is something I would hope we don't see any time soon.

    The problem is, obviously, not just nuclear concerns, nuclear security, but also the treatment of North Korean people by its leader. That is a huge problem. And I hope that would also not get swept under the rug.


    All right, David Kramer of the McCain Institute, thank you very much.


    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment