MANILA — President Trump said he has a “great relationship” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a controversial leader accused of human rights violations and who is overseeing a bloody drugs war.
Trump’s comments came as he prepared to wrap up his 12-day trip to Asia on Monday by attending an economic conference in the Philippines, including a meeting with Duterte that touched only briefly on human rights.
The two leaders focused on fighting the Islamic State, drug trafficking, and trade issues, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said, adding: “Human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs.”
Trump did not say publicly whether he would bring up the series of extra-judicial killings that have marked the Philippines’ war on drugs, instead telling Duterte in remarks to reporters that “we’ve had a great relationship” and “this has been very successful.”
Duterte, who has bragged about personally killing people as part of his anti-drug effort, returned the pleasantries, telling Trump he was looking forward to discussing issues of mutual concern.
Duterte has called President Obama a “son of a whore” for criticizing his record on human rights but was full of praise for Trump. The Philippine leader sang a duet of the song “Ikaw” with singer Pilita Corrales during a gala dinner at the economic summit in Manila on Sunday night. Duterte told the audience he had done so “upon the orders of the Commander-in-Chief of the United States,” drawing a smile from Trump.
In addition to Duterte and other meetings at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, Trump teased the approaching end of his trip by telling reporters he would have a “major announcement” Wednesday back at the White House on the two issues that topped the Asia agenda: trade and North Korea.
“We’ve made some very big steps with respect to trade, far bigger than anything you know, in addition to about $300 billion in additional sales to various companies, including China,” Trump said during a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
When reporters at the Duterte meeting asked Trump if he raised human rights issues behind closed doors, the Philippines president shut them down by saying it was not a news conference.
Duterte also described reporters as “spies,” drawing a laugh from Trump.
Human rights groups have assailed Duterte for his administration of the Philippines and implementing a war on drugs that includes extrajudicial killings, some of which Duterte has claimed to have participated in.
At a summit session later, Trump praised “Rodrigo” for his role in chairing ASEAN meetings, and for his “incredible hospitality” in general.
“And the show last night … the talent at that show, I assume mostly from the Philippines, was fantastic,” Trump said. “And you were fantastic – also very much from the Philippines. We couldn’t tell the difference.”
After thanking Trump, Duterte said, “this signifies the end of our open session. I would like to request media to leave us alone.”
Hours before his scheduled bilateral meeting with Duterte, Trump also participated in a photo opportunity with the Philippine leader in his role as host of the ASEAN summit.
As an orchestra played a stately processional in a Manila auditorium, the ASEAN delegates lined up for a special group handshake, with Trump standing next to Duterte. Trump appeared to have some difficulty figuring out how to do the crossed-arm maneuver. Soon, he caught on.
Duterte did not specifically discuss his government’s efforts in a statement opening the ASEAN conference, but told those gathered that the “the menace of the illegal drug trade continues to threaten the fabric of our societies.”
The host also talked about the Philippines’ military actions against the Islamic State.
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“I apologize for setting the tone of statement in such a manner,” he said, but “these threats know no boundaries.”
During his tenure Obama criticized Duterte over his drug war, and the two never met.
Trump has been more conciliatory toward the Philippine strongman. After an April phone call between Trump and Duterte, a White House statement said the Philippines is “fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said “Trump’s failure to raise human rights with Duterte will be interpreted in Manila as a fist-bump style endorsement to continue the campaign of savage extra-judicial killings that may well constitute crimes against humanity.”
In advance of the meeting, Trump had been cautioned by aides against doing the “fist-bump” salute with Duterte, a gesture that has become a symbol of the strongman leader’s violent drug war.
An anti-Trump rally turned violent on Monday, as police used water cannons and sonic alarms to drive back hundreds of protesters who took to the streets carrying banners that read “Ban Trump,” and “Trump Go Home.”
In addition to the summit and the Duterte meeting, Trump is holding a series of meetings with allies, including Turnbull, Abe, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
During the session with Trumbull and Abe, Trump talked about efforts to reduce trade deficits with other countries.
Trump also said “this has been a very fruitful trip for us,” one in which he has asked other countries to put an economic squeeze on North Korea, trying to pressure Kim Jong Un’s government to give up nuclear weapons.
The president also praised the way other countries have treated him.
“Red carpet like I think probably nobody has ever received,” Trump said. “That really is a sense of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our country, and I’m very proud of that.”
The leaders of the United States, Australia and Japan all said North Korea is a primary focus.
“For the three of us,” Abe said, “the immediate challenge is North Korea.”
Turnbull said, “We’ve got the same values and the same focus — insuring that the North Korean regime comes to its senses and stops its reckless provocations and threats of conflict on our region.”
The Australian prime minister is the leader Trump clashed with during a phone call placed the first weekend of his administration back in January. Trump complained about a refugee agreement that the Obama administration had reached with Australia.
Monday was supposed to have been the final day of the Asia trip for which Trump left the White House on Nov. 3.
Trump extended the trip by a day to attend the East Asia Summit in the Philippines on Tuesday. The administration had been criticized for planning to skip the event at a time when China is trying to increase its influence in the region.
The Asia trip, coming a year after his Election Day win, has taken Trump to Japan, South Korea and China. His focus has been on changing global trade rules and lobbying other countries over North Korea.
Trump also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at an economic summit in Vietnam; that session sparked more arguments over a special counsel investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
Jackson reported from Vietnam; Maresca from Manila
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