Trump Defends Invite to Philippines' Duterte Amid Drug War

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Donald Trump underscored his eagerness to meet with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte despite international condemnation of the Asian leader’s violent crackdown on drug addicts and dealers.

“The Philippines is very important to me strategically and militarily,” Trump said Monday in an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg News, two days after he invited the Philippine leader to Washington. “I look forward to meeting him. If he comes to the White House that’s fine.”

Trump Defends Invite to Philippines' Duterte Amid Drug War

Trump speaks during a Bloomberg interview in the Oval Office on May 1.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

A White House statement after the April 29 call said the two leaders discussed “the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs.” Trump also committed to taking part in a summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations hosted by Duterte in November.

Duterte first gained global prominence as well as criticism for his aggressive and violent war on drugs as mayor of Davao City. Human rights groups say that, as president, his narcotics crackdown has led to more than 7,000 extrajudicial killings.

“He’s been very, very tough on that drug problem, but he has a massive drug problem,” Trump said in the interview.

Trump’s invitation to Duterte was denounced by human rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers for overlooking the abuses.

For a QuickTake on why Trump’s invite has some jaws dropping, click here

"President Trump weakens American values when he fails to stand up for human rights,” Senator Chris Coons of Delaware,  a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement Monday. “President Duterte has overseen the illegal killing of thousands of his own people in the Philippines. By welcoming Duterte to meet with him in the White House, Trump risks giving Duterte’s actions -- and his brutal human rights violations -- an American stamp of approval.”

While the U.S.-Philippine relationship dates back to the Asian nation’s position as a U.S. colony in the late 1800s -- and includes a mutual defense treaty -- those ties were strained last year as Duterte hurled insults toward Washington during and after his successful campaign for the presidency. At one point, he told then-President Barack Obama in a speech to “go to hell” for opposing his drugs war, announced a “separation from the U.S.” during a trip to Beijing and called then-Secretary of State John Kerry “crazy” following a meeting just weeks after taking office.

‘Colorful Guy’

“Clearly he’s a colorful guy,” Obama said ahead of a September meeting between the two men, which was eventually canceled.

The 72-year-old Philippine leader, whose populist appeal and unconventional approach to politics has drawn comparisons with Trump, has since softened his tone as he seeks continued U.S. support for security and cooperation in the disputed South China Sea.

Trump Defends Invite to Philippines' Duterte Amid Drug War

Rodrigo Duterte

Photographer: Veejay Villafranca/Bloomberg

“Our relationship with the U.S. is strong and vibrant,” Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said in an interview last month. “The key is not letting these rough patches affect the core of the relationship.”

Duterte echoed those comments in his weekend call with Trump, telling reporters in Davao afterward that the U.S. president “wants to make friends, and it seems that we are friends.” Nevertheless, Duterte also said he may not accept the invitation from Trump because of his busy schedule, citing commitments to Israel and Russia, the New York Times reported.

In the interview Monday, Trump emphasized public support for Duterte despite the condemnations over the drug conflict.

“You know he’s very popular in the Philippines,” Trump said. “He has a very high approval rating in the Philippines.”