President Donald Trump’s decision to invite Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, a populist demagogue who has admitted to personally killing people accused of crimes, to Washington is a sign that “the issues facing us, developing out of North Korea, are so serious that we need a cooperation at some level from as many partners in the area as possible,” Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
Priebus is “not so sure” the invitation “is a matter of honoring” Duterte, he said. But foreign leaders covet presidential invitations to D.C.; receiving them has long been regarded as a sign that a leader is in Washington’s good graces. And there’s little indication that the conversation in which Trump invited Duterte to Washington was anything but friendly. Trump had a “very friendly conversation with Mr. Duterte,” according to a statement issued by the White House Saturday evening. The two presidents “discussed the fact that the Philippines is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs,” the statement said.
Human rights still matter, Priebus assured ABC’s Jonathan Karl. Duterte, who took office in June 2016 after promising to kill tens of thousands of drug users and other criminals, has overseen a campaign of extrajudicial murder that has taken the lives of thousands of Filipinos, almost none of whom had actually been convicted of capital crimes. Police in the Philippines, whose units have historically been funded and trained by the U.S., now often simply shoot drug suspects.
A man who said he was a member of a Duterte-backed death squad in Davao, where Duterte was mayor for 21 years, testified to a Phillippine Senate committee in September that Duterte had once killed a justice department agent with an Uzi submachine gun. Duterte, who denies those allegations and sometimes claims that he has not killed anyone, remains extremely popular. But maybe the two leaders’ mutual affection isn’t so surprising. At a campaign rally last January, Trump boasted that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Here’s the video of Priebus’ defense of his boss:
To learn more about extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, check out this great photo essay:
And you can find out more about Duterte in Adrian Chen’s New Yorker story: