Trump on phone call to Philippines president Duterte: You're doing an "unbelievable job on the drug problem"

Almost literally unbelievable, in fact. Duterte, mid-April:

“It really hurts to give this P1 billion [$2 billion] to community-based drug addicts. But what can I do? I have to treat them, just as citizens of this Republic.But I really feel bad about it,” Duterte said…

After the speech, Duterte was heard telling concerned workers: “If you lose your job, I’ll give you one. Kill all the drug addicts.” He then said: “Help me kill addicts” and “Let’s kill addicts everyday.”


Note: Not drug dealers, although not all of them are violent either. Drug addicts. And if you think he was joking, read this.

Here’s Trump on a phone call with Duterte a week or so later, according to a transcript made by the Philippines government:

Trump’s call with Duterte, during which he extended an invitation to visit him at the White House, was met with skepticism from some foreign policy analysts and human rights groups. Since taking office in June, Duterte has moved to hedge on the Philippines’ long-standing defense alliance with the United States by establishing closer relations with China. And his administration has overseen a brutal extrajudicial campaign that has resulted in the killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers…

“Many countries have the problem, we have the problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that,” Trump said, according to the transcript.

After Duterte replied that drugs are the “scourge of my nation now and I have to do something to preserve the Filipino nation,” Trump appeared to take a swipe at his predecessor, Barack Obama, who had canceled a bilateral meeting with Duterte after the Philippines leader insulted him.

“I understand that and fully understand that and I think we had a previous president who did not understand that,” Trump said.


Fake news? Well, the Post, the Times, and the Intercept all received copies of the same transcript, and a “senior administration official” in Washington confirmed for the Times that it was an “accurate representation” of the phone call between the two leaders. To repeat a point made last month, we all understand that diplomacy sometimes requires overlooking an ally’s ugliest practices in the name of advancing American interests. But why congratulate them on those practices?

What you think Trump was up to here depends on whether you view him as ill-informed, amoral, or authoritarian. The “ill-informed” read is that he has no idea what Duterte has done in the name of containing drugs, only that he’s dealt with the problem “strongly” or whatever. The “amoral” read is that Trump knows what Duterte’s up to but simply doesn’t care, even to the point that he’s willing to flatter him on his drug-war policies if it means a better relationship with the United States. And the “authoritarian” read, of course, is that Trump knows what Duterte’s up to and sincerely admires his ruthlessness, which wouldn’t be the first time he’s marveled at an autocrat’s display of force in solving problems.


Could be a blend of the three, I suppose. Trump doesn’t know all the details of Duterte death squads, but as he finds out more, he moves from not caring to appreciating Duterte’s willingness to use “strength.” When do we start “solving” the opioid epidemic Duterte-style?

Another mystery, or actually two mysteries, from the same phone call:

U.S. President Donald Trump told his Philippine counterpart that Washington has sent two nuclear submarines to waters off the Korean peninsula, the New York Times said, comments likely to raise questions about his handling of sensitive information…

“We have two submarines — the best in the world. We have two nuclear submarines, not that we want to use them at all,” the newspaper quoted Trump as telling Duterte, based on the transcript.

The first, obvious mystery is why Trump would reveal which strategic assets are positioned where to an ally who’s not particularly close to the White House and a loose cannon in his own right. The deeper mystery is why the source who leaked the transcript would have left that detail in knowing how it might embarrass the United States. Presumably the reason the document was circulated was to show America’s support for Duterte’s scorched-earth drug war at a moment when he’s under pressure internationally to stop killing people. The detail about the subs is ancillary to that and could have been redacted; it wasn’t, and now Trump is taking heat again for blabbing to a foreign official. Why did he share that info and why did the leaker share that info? And why, for that matter, did the Times et al. publish it instead of redacting sensitive info as it normally does?


Could it be because … the fact that two nuclear subs were near North Korea was about to become public knowledge anyway? Read this dispatch from May 3. Reports that the USS Michigan was in South Korea were published April 25th, days before Trump’s call with Duterte. The “secret” wasn’t a secret!

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