President Barack Obama has commented publicly on meeting his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte, with whom he “exchanged pleasantries” in Laos this week after canceling a one-on-one meeting over Duterte calling Obama a “son of a whore.”
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, President Obama confirmed that he shook hands with the president of the Philippines and “indicated to him… that my team should be meeting with his to determine how we can move forward on a range of issues,” but no substantive business was discussed. The two reportedly met in a holding room before a dinner event at this week’s Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) summit in Laos.
“It was not a long interaction,” he affirmed.
Asked about Duterte’s profanity against him, Obama said, “I do not take these comments personally, because… this is a phrase he has used repeatedly, including directed at the pope and others.” Duterte referred to Pope Francis as putang ina (“son of a whore”) in May but, unlike in Obama’s case, apologized to the pope for the insult. Duterte also made that remark before assuming the office of the presidency, when many in Philippine media were still wondering whether Duterte would alter his well-known profane way of speaking to better fit the office of the presidency once inaugurated.
“I think it’s just a habit, a way of speaking for him,” Obama concluded. Time notes that National Security Advisor Susan Rice “seemed to shake her head in exasperation” in response to Obama’s explanation.
President Obama’s remarks about the meeting were significantly more muted than the initial confirmation that the meeting occurred from Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay. “I am happy. This shows that the relationship between the two allies is strong,” Yasay said Wednesday, reiterating the next day, “I am very happy it happened.” Yasay told reporters that the two heads of state were the last to leave the holding room before the ASEAN dinner.
The two leaders were to meet again Thursday at a joint meeting between Southeast Asian leaders, Obama, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but Duterte did not attend. Spokesman Martin Andanar excused the president, stating that he had a “migraine.” Philippine media also reported that Duterte’s daughter had just suffered a miscarriage, likely affecting Duterte’s state of mind.
Duterte has made a name for himself, internationally implementing his signature campaign promise: a “bloody” war on drug addicts and drug traffickers. Concerns for human rights amid reports of police brutality sparked Duterte’s initial tirade against Obama — Duterte warned that, if Obama attempted to lecture him on human rights, “son of a whore, I will swear at you.”
Presidential aide Ben Rhodes later told reporters the U.S. canceled the two leaders’ one-on-one meeting after the remark because “the nature of those comments was not constructive and… having a meeting where all we were gonna discuss was a series of comments, frankly did not strike us as the most constructive way to approach a bilateral meeting.”
Duterte ultimately expressed “regret” through a spokesman that the meeting was canceled but has not apologized to President Obama publicly nor is there any indication that he apologized to the president personally during the brief meeting Wednesday.