ABC News(NEW YORK) — Human rights was discussed “briefly” during President Trump’s first one-on-one meeting with controversial Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Monday on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines, according to the White House.
“Human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who said that ISIS, illegal drugs, and trade were the main topics of discussion.
At the beginning of Monday’s meeting, President Trump did not respond to a reporter’s question about whether he would broach the topic of human rights with Duterte. While Trump ignored the shouted question, Duterte did address reporters if only to shut down further attempts for comment: “This is not the press statement. We are in a bilateral meeting. Maybe the press conference would follow.”
Duterte has drawn the ire of human rights groups for his anti-drug campaign that has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings since he came to power in June of last year. Duterte has defended the killings as necessary to “cleanse” the country of a drug scourge.
Referring to President Duterte on a first-name basis, President Trump later thanked the Philippine leader for his “incredible hospitality” — calling him “fantastic” — and complimenting the entertainment that accompanied the summit.
“Rodrigo, I would like to commend you on your success as ASEAN chair at this very critical moment in time, and in the association’s history, such an important event, and I want to thank you for your incredible hospitality,” Trump said during remarks at the beginning of a leaders session that followed the bilateral meeting. “And the show last night, the talent at that show, I assume mostly from the Philippines was fantastic, thank you, and you were fantastic also, very much from the Philippines.”
The White House has previously described Trump as having a “warm rapport” with Duterte. During an April phone call, Trump even praised him directly for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem” in his country, according to a transcript of a call between the two leaders obtained by the Washington Post and other outlets. A White House official did not deny the authenticity of the transcript.
While the White House has said that the president will not shy from raising the issue of human rights in their meeting, the president’s chief of staff John Kelly suggested to reporters Sunday that it would not dominate the discussion. One senior administration official said the discussion was expected to be both “frank and friendly.”
White House advisers have defended Trump against critics who say he has not done enough to raise the issue of human rights on the world stage by saying that the president has taken a strategic approach of raising the issue privately, rather than speaking out publicly.
“The President is focused on is being effective in advancing and protecting human rights and advancing the rule of law,” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters before the president’s trip. “We’ve seen him do it quietly in every relationship. And so how much does it help to yell about these problems? It hasn’t really delivered in recent history anyway.”
Trump’s warm relations with Duterte stand in stark contrast to former President Obama, who clashed with Duterte over his alleged human rights abuses. Duterte, who has a reputation for using expletives, publicly called Obama a “son of a wh**e” and said he should “go to hell.”
Trump made clear prior to departing on his Asia tour that he intends to capitalize on turning the page in relations with the “strategically important” Philippines, noting that the “the previous administration was not exactly welcome, as you probably remember.” The Philippines is seen as an important U.S. ally on both trade and counter-terrorism, among other issues. The president has also invited Duterte to visit the White House.
In his remarks prior to their meeting Monday, Trump said he’s “had a great relationship” with the Philippine president and praised the job he’s done hosting the ASEAN summit.
“We’ve had a great relationship,” Trump said. “This has been very successful we have many meetings today with many other leaders. The ASEAN conference has been handled beautifully by the president and the Philippines and your representatives. And I’ve really enjoyed being here.”
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