Signaling what’s perhaps a warmingÂ relationship between their two countries, President Trump invited the controversial leader of the Philippines to the White House in a phone call Saturday.
TheÂ two leaders had âa very friendly conversationâ in which they talked about the North Korea threat, according to the White House’s readout of the call. The two men, who have drawn comparisonsÂ for their tough rhetoric, also discussed the Philippine government’s fightÂ against drugs.
What remained unmentioned, however, are the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users as part of the government’s drug war. Thousands have been killed by police and vigilantes since Duterte took office and vowed toÂ eradicate his country’s massive drug problem. The rising death toll has drawn criticisms from international human rights groups, at least one of which, the Human Rights Watch, has made the case for a criminal investigation of the Duterte administration.
The relationship between the United States and the Philippines soured under President Barack Obama, who criticized Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. Not one to take criticism lightly, Duterte snapped at Obama on a few occasions, telling him to âgo to hellâ and, at one point, using the Tagalog phrase for âson of a bitchâ or âson of a whoreâ when addressing the then-U.S. president. In September, Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte, whom he called a âcolorful guy.â
With Trump at the helm, theÂ relationship between the two countries seems to be shifting.
In a brief phone callÂ in December about the drug war, then-President-elect Trump told Duterte that he was doing it the âright way,â according to the Philippine president’s account of the conversation.
The White House said that the relationship between the two countries âis now heading in a very positive directionâ and that Trump is looking forward to visiting the Philippines in November during the East Asia and U.S.-Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, summits.
The Philippines hosted the 30th ASEAN Summit on Saturday. The nuclear threat posed byÂ North Korea â and how the Trump administration will deal with the secretive country â wasÂ brought up during a discussion with ASEAN leaders, according to a statement.
Duterte imploredÂ the United States to show restraint and patience in dealing with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and warned againstÂ an aggressive approach.
âI’m sure President Trump by now is cautioning his military to just may be hang on there and not to start something which they cannot control,â Duterte said in a statement. âEverybody’s worried. Nobody’s clapping his hand. And I’m sure that if war breaks out in the Korean Peninsula, the imponderables of life is really, you cannot foresee, even project what will happen.â
In a news conference before the call Saturday, Duterte said he wouldÂ urgeÂ Trump to ensure that war is avoided. Otherwise,Â âmy region will suffer immensely,â according to the Associated Press.
âIt behooves upon America, who wields the biggest stick, just to be prudent and patient,â Duterte said. âWe know that we are playing with somebody who relishes letting go of his missiles and everything.â
Whether Trump will take his ally’s advice remains unclear.
In an interview with Reuters on Thursday,Â Trump said he prefers a diplomatic approachÂ to settleÂ mounting friction over North Korea’s nuclear program but warned that a conflict is possible.
âThere is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,â Trump said. âWe’d love to solve things diplomatically, but it’s very difficult.â
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus defended Trump’sÂ praise of DuterteÂ on Sunday, saying the president’s top priority is addressing the threat of North Korea andÂ partnering with countries in Southeast Asia.Â
âThe issue on the table is North Korea, and there is nothing right now facing this country and facing the region that is a bigger threat than what’s happening in North Korea,â Priebus said on ABC News’s âThis Weekâ on Sunday morning. âAnd if we don’t have all of our folks together âÂ whether they’re good folks, bad folks, people thatÂ we wish would do better in their country, doesn’t matter, we’ve got to be on the same page.â
ABC’sÂ Jonathan Karl repeatedly pressed Priebus on Duterte’s âabysmal human rights record,â asking how TrumpÂ could praise a leader accused of mass killings. Priebus would not say whether the issue came up in the call, saying he didn’t hearÂ the entire conversation.Â
âWe obviously want to encourage him to do better, but this call, the purpose of the call, is all about North Korea,â Priebus said.Â
At one point, Karl asked, âDoes that mean that human rights don’t matter now?âÂ
âAbsolutely not,â Priebus responded. âIt doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter, but what it does mean is that the issues facing us, developing out of North Korea, are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get.â
Priebus added that human rights are âvery high at the top of the listâ of the president’s priorities, citingÂ Trump’s decision to attack an airfield in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad was accused of using chemical weapons against his own people.Â
Emily Rauhala contributed to this report.