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In 'warm' phone call, Trump invites Philippines' Duterte to White House

President Trump placed a "warm" phone call to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been widely criticized for a bloody anti-drug crackdown, and invited him to visit the White House, both countries said. 

A White House statement late Saturday said the conversation between the two leaders was “very friendly,” and added that the U.S.-Philippine alliance was “heading in a very positive direction.”

In the Philippines, a presidential spokesman said Trump had expressed understanding of challenges facing Duterte, “especially on the matter of dangerous drugs.”

Human rights groups have expressed deep concern over Duterte’s harsh methods against suspected drug users and drug dealers during his tenure in office. Human Rights Watch estimated earlier this year that at least 7,000 people, an average of 30 a day, had been killed by death squads since Duterte became president in what appeared a deliberate campaign of extrajudicial executions.

Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, defended the invitation to Duterte, saying Sunday that the outreach was made largely in the context of calming regional tensions with North Korea and did not signal approval for Duterte’s methods in the drug war or a larger disdain for human rights.

“The purpose of this call is all about North Korea,” Priebus said on ABC’s “This Week.” He said that Trump has been “speaking a lot to all our partners in southeast Asia” amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Manila is about 1,800 miles from Pyongyang, and the Philippine navy is barely a coastal defense force, so it's unclear how it would fit into a regional strategy for northeast Asia. Pyongyang regularly issues threats to South Korea and Japan, not the Philippines. 

Duterte had been notably bellicose in his stance toward Trump’s predecessor, Barak Obama, and at one point threatened to essentially scrap the longstanding U.S.-Philippines military alliance and end cooperation on counter-terrorism. Duterte called Obama a Philippine epithet loosely translated as “son of a whore" after Obama criticized the brutal anti-drug crackdown.

It was not the first time Trump's dealings with a foreign strongman have raised eyebrows.

Trump earlier in April hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi at the White House and praised him for doing a “fantastic job” despite Sisi’s jailing of thousands of political opponents after he took power in a military coup.

Also in April, Trump was alone among Western leaders in making a congratulatory phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after Erdogan claimed victory in a referendum that vastly enhanced presidential powers.

Critics called the Turkish referendum, whose results have been disputed by the leading opposition party, a blow to democracy.

 

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