Itâs no longer just VladiÂmir Putin.
As he settles into office, President Trumpâs affections for totalitarian leaders have grown beyond Russiaâs president to include strongmen around the globe.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has had his opponents gunned down, but Trump praised him for doing âa fantastic job.â Thailand President Prayut Chan-o-cha is a junta chief whose military jailed dissidents after taking power in a coup, yet Trump offered to meet with him at the White House. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has eroded basic freedoms of his citizens, but after a recent political victory, he got a congratulatory call from Trump.
Then thereâs the case of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. He is accused of the extrajudicial killing of hundreds of drug users, and he maligned then-U.S. President Barack Obama as âson of a whoreâ at an international summit last year. Yet on Sunday, in what the White House characterized as a âvery friendly conversation,â Trump invited Duterte to Washington for an official visit.
In a undeniable shift in American foreign policy, Trump is cultivating authoritarian leaders, one after another, in an effort to reset relations following an era of ostracism and public shaming by Obama and his predecessors.
For instance, it has become an almost daily occurrence for Trump to gush about Chinese President Xi Jinping since their Mar-a-Lago summit last month. Trump has called Xi âa very good man,â âhighly respectedâ and a âgentleman,â as he tries to persuade Xi to convince North Korea to scale back or give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Trumpâs praise is not limited to potential U.S. allies. Even as North Korean leader Kim Jung Un ratchets up his provocations, Trump called Un âa smart cookieâ in a CBS News interview over the weekend. On Monday, Trump told Bloomberg News he would be âhonoredâ to personally meet with Un âunder the right circumstances.â
Every American president since at least the 1970s has used his office to champion human rights and democratic values around the world. Yet so far at least, Trump has willingly turned a blind eye to dictatorsâ records of brutality and oppression in hopes that these leaders might become his partners in isolating North Korea or fighting terrorism.
Indeed, in his first 102 days in office, Trump has neither delivered substantive remarks nor taken action supporting democracy movements or condemning human rights abuses, other than the missile strike he authorized on Syria after President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against his own citizens.
âHe doesnât even pretend to utter the words,â said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama. âSmall-d democrats all over the world are incredibly despondent right now about Donald Trump â and thatâs true in China, in Iran, in Egypt, in Russia. They feel like the leader of the free world is absent.â
A tipping point for many Trump critics was his invitation to Duterte to visit the White House. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was âdeeply disturbedâ by Trumpâs âcavalier invitationâ and called on him to rescind it.
âThis is a man who has boasted publicly about killing his own citizens,â Cardin said of Duterte in a statement. âThe United States is unique in the world because our values â respect for human rights, respect for the rule of law â are our interests. Ignoring human rights will not advance U.S. interests in the Philippines or any place else. Just the opposite.â
Yet Trumpâs advisers said the presidentâs silence on human rights matters is purposeful, part of a grand strategy to rebuild alliances or create new ones. Trumpâs outreach is designed to isolate North Korea in the Asia-Pacific region and to build coalitions to defeat the Islamic State in the Middle East and North Africa, senior administration officials said.
Inside the Trump White House, the thinking goes that if mending bridges with a country like the Philippines â historically a treaty ally whose relationship with the United States deteriorated as Duterte gravitated toward China â means covering up or even ignoring concerns like human rights, then so be it.
âThe United States has a limited ability to direct things,â said Michael Anton, the National Security Councilâs director of strategic communications. âWe canât force these countries to behave certain ways. We can apply pressure, but if the alternative is not talking, how effective would it be if we had no relationships? If you walk away from relationships, you canât make any progress.â
Anton explained that Trump is trying to âbalanceâ interests. He said the decision to invite Duterte to the White House â a symbolic gesture that gives credibility to the autocratâs rule â was agreed to by most of Trumpâs advisers.
âItâs not binary,â he said. âItâs not that you care about human rights so you canât have a relationship with the Philippines, or if you have a relationship with the Philippines you donât care about human rights.â
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) described the Trump strategy as establishing commonality with offending nations before publicly chastising them for offenses.
âTheir approach is to obviously continue to hold up the values that we have here in America,â Corker said in a recent interview. âBut their approach is to build some commonality â never let go of that as an American cause, but to work on it in ways where they achieve a result, and to not go in on the front end.â
White House officials cite the release last month of Aya Hijazi â an Egyptian American charity worker who had been imprisoned in Cairo for three years amid Sissiâs brutal crackdown on civil society â as evidence that their strategy is paying dividends.
Trump and his aides worked for several weeks with Sissi and his government to secure Hijaziâs freedom. The Obama administration had pressed unsuccessfully for her release, but once Trump moved to reset U.S. relations with Egypt by embracing Sissi at the White House, Egyptâs posture changed.
Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for human rights and democracy under Obama, said Trump appears to be living up to his campaign promise.
âThe whole idea of âAmerica Firstâ is that weâre not trying to make the world better,â Malinowski said. âWeâre trying to protect the homeland and the domestic economy, and the rest is all cutting deals with whoever is willing to cut deals with us. Thereâs not much room in that equation for standing up for the rights, freedoms and well-being of other people.â
Human rights activists are concerned that Trump is condoning the actions of dictators when he is warm to them or extends invitations to visit.
âInviting these men to the White House in effect places the United Statesâ seal of approval on their heinous actions,â said Rob Berschinski, senior vice president at Human Rights First. He went on to say, ânothing excuses President Trumpâs clear inclination to reward mass-murders and torturers with undeserved honors.â
Asked at the daily White House press briefing whether Trump had âa thingâ for totalitarian leaders, press secretary Sean Spicer suggested he was cultivating such leaders with the explicit aim of weakening North Korea.
âThe president clearly, as I said, understands the threat that North Korea poses,â Spicer said. âHaving someone with the potential nuclear capability to strike another country â and potentially our country â at some point in the future is something that the president takes very seriously.â
But McFaul posited that the Trump administration may be naive in calculating that personal outreach and warm praise will convince authoritarian leaders to support U.S. interests.
âThe converse of that is that these leaders are taking him for a ride,â McFaul said. âHe tends to over-personalize relationships between states. He says Chinaâs ârapingâ us, then he meets President Xi and suddenly heâs this wise man with whom he has a good chemistry. I hope this will produce outcomes that are good for us, but right now itâs producing outcomes that are good for China.â
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.