His lengthy Asia trip down to its final days, President Donald Trump opted Monday to keep his public focus on top priorities such as trade and combating terrorism rather than human rights, declining to shine a spotlight on the violent drug war overseen by his Philippine host.
Trump repeatedly praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, calling him by his first name, sharing a joke about the media and even complimenting Manila’s weather. What he did not do was what many predecessors have done before: highlight human rights abuses while overseas.
The White House said the two leaders discussed the Islamic State group, illegal drugs and trade during the 40-minute meeting. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said human rights came up “briefly” in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs. She did not say if Trump was critical of Duterte’s program.
That appeared to conflict with the Filipino version of the meeting. Harry Roque, a spokesman for Duterte, said, “There was no mention of human rights. There was no mention of extralegal killings. There was only a rather lengthy discussion of the Philippine war on drugs with President Duterte doing most of the explaining.”
Despite all that, the two sides later issued a joint statement saying that “the two sides underscored that human rights and the dignity of human life are essential, and agreed to continue mainstreaming the human rights agenda in their national programs.”
On the sidelines of an international summit, Trump looked to strengthen ties with Pacific Rim allies, aiming to strike bilateral rather than multinational trade agreements, and increase pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. He met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday and highlighted their two nations’ “deeper and more comprehensive” ties, looking to strengthen a relationship that is vital to the U.S. vision of an Indo-Pacific region that attempts to de-emphasize China’s influence.
He jointly met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with whom he had a contentious phone call last winter, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who hosted the president in Tokyo earlier in the trip. Trump raved about his accomplishments on his five-nation journey, particularly on trade and on North Korea, which the White House has suggested may be designated a state sponsor of terror.
Trump said he would wait until his return to Washington on Wednesday to elaborate with a “major statement” on those two topics but hinted at progress while in Manila.
“We’ve made some very big steps with regard to trade — far bigger than anything you know,” Trump told reporters, pointing to business deals forged between U.S. and foreign companies.
Advisers had said that while Trump was always unlikely to publicly chastise Duterte, he might offer criticisms behind closed doors. Trump would hold his tongue in public to avoid embarrassing Duterte, whom he is urging to help pressure North Korea and fight terrorism, and to avoid pushing him into the arms of China. Duterte has seemed less committed to the strategic partnership with the U.S.