President Donald Trump met his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte on two separate occasions during the final leg of his two-week trip to Asia, telling reporters on Sunday that the two have “a great relationship” and thanking Manila for its hospitality.
The White House claims that, during a private meeting, Trump “briefly” mentioned human rights concerns surrounding Duterte’s government. Philippines palace spokesman Harry Roque told reporters human rights did not come up in conversation.
Duterte won the presidency of the Philippines in 2016, making a violent war against drug trafficking a cornerstone promise of his campaign. He has since kept to that promise, endorsing extra-judicial killings of drug suspects and launching a nationwide police operation that has left at least 7,000 dead, according to human rights advocates. The Philippine National Police (PNP) has estimated that number as being closer to 4,000.
Trump and Duterte first had a brief encounter in Vietnam on Saturday, where both were attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Duterte told reporters that the two shook hands and Trump complimented him.
“He said something about, ‘You know, you handle it very well.’ … I do not want to brag. These are the things that you do not brag about: (our handling of the) Marawi (siege) and the drug war—words of encouragement,” Duterte said upon landing in Manila, according to the Philippine Star.
Asked about the human rights issue, Duterte said that Trump “is not the human rights commission” and he did not expect any criticism from Trump. He added that “saying ‘I will destroy you, I kill you'” is not criminal support for homicide because it is “rage in my heart for [those who treat] the Filipino like shit.”
Duterte regularly tells enemies, whether drug criminals or jihadis, that he will kill them in speeches. He has specifically threatened to “eat” Islamic radicals.
The two heads of state held a more extended private meeting on Sunday in Manila, where Trump was attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference. Duterte is currently the president of ASEAN.
“We’ve had a great relationship,” Trump told reporters in a joint press opportunity after their talk. “This has been very successful. We have many meetings today with many other leaders. And the ASEAN conference has been handled beautifully by the President in the Philippines and your representatives. And I’ve really enjoyed being here.”
While the two did not take questions from reporters—Duterte dismissed the reporters present as “spies” not to be trusted with the contents of their meeting—White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asserted that the two discussed the fight against the Islamic State, which recently attempted to establish a “caliphate” in Marawi, southern Philippines, as well as limiting illegal drug trafficking. “Human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs,” she added.
Roque, Duterte’s spokesman, told reporters, “There was no mention of human rights, there was no mention of extralegal killings.”
“My understanding is [Duterte] explained at length his Philippine domestic policy on the war against drugs and from the body language of the U.S. president, he seemed to be in agreement,” Roque explained. “The U.S. president did not comment on the war against drugs. There were instances when he was nodding his head as the Philippine president was explaining his war on drugs but I leave to American authorities to comment.”
Communications Secretary Martin Andanar told reporters that Trump and Duterte “really hit it off.”
Prior to meeting with Trump, Duterte told reporters that he would tell Trump to “lay off” any criticism of his war on drugs if it arose, as “that is not your business.” He nonetheless emphasized that he would treat the president of the United States “in the most righteous way” while in the Philippines.