President Trump praised the Philippines' president for an "unbelievable job" in a fight against illegal drugs that has left thousands dead and drawn condemnation from American lawmakers, according to a leaked transcript of their telephone conversation last month.
Trump's discussion with Rodrigo Duterte is likely to reinforce the impression that Trump is sidelining human rights concerns in his foreign policy. Trump has met with several authoritarian leaders since taking office in January, offering few critiques of their records on democracy, the rule of law and protecting essential freedoms.
The transcript of the April 29 call was first posted by the Washington Post. It is marked confidential and is contained under a cover sheet from the Philippine Foreign Ministry. Neither the Philippine government nor the White House verified the transcript, but they didn't dispute its contents.
It also shows the leaders discussing the North Korean threat, with each referring to North Korea's ruler, Kim Jong Un, as a "madman." In an unusual disclosure of the movements of U.S. military assets, Trump revealed the U.S. had two nuclear submarines in the region. He said the United States didn't want to use them.
Democratic lawmakers criticized Trump for his reported comments.
"Today's reporting leaves me even more concerned by President Trump's strange fascination with dictators, his support for the extrajudicial killings central to President Duterte's 'drug war,' and his recklessness with sensitive information," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Twelve Democratic senators, led by Edward J. Markey, wrote to Trump on Wednesday calling for him to denounce the "murderous" anti-drug campaign and delay any visit by Duterte to Washington until there are improvements in his human rights record.
The Philippines declined to comment on the transcript Wednesday. The Foreign Ministry noted that the unauthorized disclosure and use of illegally or inadvertently obtained government documents are not permitted under Philippine law. A White House official said he could not confirm or deny the accuracy of leaked documents, especially those purportedly from a foreign government.
At the time of the call, Trump raised hackles in Washington by inviting Duterte to the White House. Since Duterte took power in June, his anti-drug campaign has killed 7,000 to 9,000 suspected dealers and addicts, according to human rights groups. The State Department has voiced concern over extrajudicial killings, and U.S. lawmakers have pushed for restrictions on arms sales to Philippine police in response.
"I just want to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem," Trump said in the phone call, according to the transcript. "Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that."
Duterte responded that drugs are a "scourge" of his nation. Trump then added, "I think we had a previous president who did not understand that."
President Obama had criticized Duterte's drug fight, prompting the Philippine leader to refer to Obama as a "son of a whore." The insult derailed a planned meeting between them. Strains also grew as Duterte sought warmer ties with China and threatened to end the U.S.-Philippine military alliance.
In the call, Duterte described Southeast Asian nations feeling "nervous" over North Korean rockets and warheads. He offered to call Chinese President Xi Jinping to urge Beijing to use its leverage with Pyongyang. Trump, who hosted Xi at Trump's Florida resort in April, described Xi as a "good guy."
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, criticized the contents of the conversation.
"Trump's celebration of Duterte's record is nothing short of horrifying," Sifton said. "It is an endorsement of the mass killing of the Philippines' poorest and most vulnerable."