ABC News(NEW YORK) — President Trump ignored a reporter’s question about whether he would address human rights abuses with controversial Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the beginning of the two leaders’ first official bilateral meeting Monday on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines.
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 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.
The White House has previously described Trump as having a “warm rapport” with Duterte. And 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 in April and 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 leader 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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