In Multipolarity

By Jeremy Scahill, Alex Emmons and Ryan Grim, The Intercept, May 23, 2017

It was enormously controversial that Trump placed a friendly call to Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte in April 2017. Now, we can read what they said.

(The following article is part one of a series on The Intercept titled ‘A call with a killer’. It is published in partnership with Rappler, a Manila-based Asia-Pacific news project.)

Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump (AFP photos)

In a phone call from the White House late last month, U.S. President Donald Trump heaped praise on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, one of the world’s most murderous heads of state, for doing what Trump called an “unbelievable job” in his war on drugs. Trump offered an unqualified endorsement of Duterte’s bloody extermination campaign against suspected drug dealers and users, which has included open calls for extrajudicial murders and promises of pardons and immunity for the killers.

“You are a good man,” Trump told Duterte, according to an official transcript of the April 29 call produced by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and obtained by The Intercept. “Keep up the good work,” Trump told Duterte. “You are doing an amazing job.”

Trump began the call by telling Duterte, “You don’t sleep much, you’re just like me,” before quickly pivoting to the strongman’s drug war.

“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump told Duterte at the beginning of their call, according to the document. “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.”

“Thank you Mr. President,” replied Duterte. “This is the scourge of my nation now and I have to do something to preserve the Filipino nation.”

The transcript, which contains numerous typographical errors, was authenticated by well-placed sources in the Palace and the Department of Foreign Affairs by reporters at the Manila-based news outlet Rappler, which collaborated with The Intercept on this story.

Since Duterte took office in June 2016, Philippine national police and vigilante death squads have embarked on a campaign to slaughter drug users as well as drug dealers. “Hitler massacred three million Jews [sic], now, there’s three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” Duterte said in September. Last month, he told a group of jobless Filipinos that they should “kill all the drug addicts.”

Police have killed over 7,000 people, devastated poor areas of Manila and other cities, and used the drug war as a pretext to murder government officials and community leaders.

The new details of Trump’s call with Duterte come on the heels of the Philippine president’s announcement that he is imposing martial law on the autonomous island of Mindanao, where government forces are battling Islamist rebels. “If I had to kill thousands of people just to keep Philippines a thousand times safer, I will not have doubts doing it,” Duterte said.

On the April 29 call, Trump pointed out to Duterte that his predecessor in the White House had been critical of the rising body count under Duterte’s reign in the Philippines, but that Trump himself gets it. “I understand that, and fully understand that, and I think we had a previous president who did not understand that,” Trump said, “but I understand that and we have spoken about this before.”

When the Obama administration offered some tempered criticism of Duterte’s killing spree, Duterte called the U.S. president the “son of a whore” and an “idiot” who “can go to hell.” Speaking in Beijing in October 2016, Duterte said, “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

However, in the wake of Trump’s election, Duterte said, “I don’t want to quarrel anymore, because Trump has won.” On the April call, Trump addressed Duterte warmly by his first name, Rodrigo, and Duterte thanked Trump for his sentiments on Obama.

This week, Duterte was slated to be in Russia for a five-day trip, including a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, whom he has called his “favorite hero.” On Tuesday [May 23], Duterte announced from Moscow that he was cutting the trip short in light of his declaration of martial law and fighting between rebels and the government in Mindanao.

Following the call last month, the White House publicly described a “very friendly conversation” that culminated with an invitation for an Oval Office meeting. “To endorse Duterte is to endorse a man who advocates mass murder and who has admitted to killing people himself,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, reacting to the transcript. “Endorsing his methods is a celebration of the death of the poor and vulnerable.”

Duterte’s police killings are widely recognized by the international community as an ongoing atrocity. The “war on drugs” has drawn condemnation from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, and last month a Philippine lawyer filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Duterte of mass murder and crimes against humanity. The State Department’s annual human rights report acknowledges thousands of “extrajudicial killings” with impunity and calls them the country’s “chief human rights concern.”

Killing is nothing new for Duterte. His bloody record started in 1988, when he became the mayor of Davao City, a coastal city in the southern Philippines. During his tenure, he earned the nickname “the Death Squad Mayor” — a title he embraces. According to one former hitman, Duterte formed an organization called the “Davao Death Squad” — a mafia-like organization of plainclothes assassins that would kill suspected criminals, journalists, and opposition politicians, often from the backs of motorcycles. Multiple former members of the group have come forward and said that they killed people on Duterte’s direct orders.

Duterte has even bragged that he personally killed criminals from the back of a motorcycle. “In Davao I used to do it personally,” he told a group of business leaders in Manila. “Just to show to the guys [police officers] that if I can do it, why can’t you.”

In 2016, Duterte campaigned on a policy of mass extermination for anyone involved in the drug trade. “I’d be happy to slaughter them. If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have me,” Duterte said after his inauguration in September.

Despite human rights concerns, the U.S. has long considered the Philippines a military ally, and under Obama the U.S. gave the country’s military tens of millions of dollars in weapons and resources per year. The U.S. government does not provide lethal weapons directly to the Philippine National Police, which has a decadeslonghistory of extrajudicial killings. But it does allow U.S. weapons manufacturers to sell to them directly. In 2015 the State Department authorized more than $250 million in arms sales from U.S. defense contractors to security forces in the Philippines.

After Duterte’s election, Obama’s State Department halted one sale of assault rifles to the Philippines, largely due to the objections of Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Philippines became a colony of the United States in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. A long insurgency followed, and the country didn’t win full independence until 1946.

DisclosureOmidyar Network is an investor in Rappler, an independent news organization based in the Philippines. The Intercept’s publisher, First Look Media, was founded by Pierre Omidyar.


What Trump and Duterte said privately about the North Korean nuclear threat

By Jeremy Scahill, Alex Emmons and Ryan Grim, The Intercept, May 23, 2017. In partnership with Rappler.

It was enormously controversial that Trump placed a friendly call to Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte in April. Now, we can read what they said.

(The following article is part two of a series on The Intercept titled ‘A call with a killer’. It is published in partnership with Rappler, a Manila-based Asia-Pacific news project.)

President Donald Trump repeatedly addressed the possibility of a U.S. nuclear attack on North Korea in a private call last month with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, according to a transcript of the call obtained by The Intercept.

“We can’t let a madman with nuclear weapons let on the loose like that. We have a lot of firepower, more than he has times 20, but we don’t want to use it,” Trump told Duterte. (In fact, the U.S. has 6,800 nuclear warheads and North Korea is thought to have about 10.) “You will be in good shape,” he added.

“We have a lot of firepower over there. We have two submarines — the best in the world — we have two nuclear submarines — not that we want to use them at all,” Trump said. “I’ve never seen anything like they are, but we don’t have to use this, but he could be crazy so we will see what happens.”

The call took place on April 29. The transcript, an official Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs document, contains numerous typographical errors. Multiple government sources contacted by the Philippine news outlet Rappler, which collaborated with The Intercept on this story, confirmed its authenticity.

During the call, Trump echoed his publicly stated position that he wants China to take the lead in addressing potential threats from North Korea. “I hope China solves the problem. They really have the means because a great degree of their stuff come [sic] through China,” Trump said. “But if China doesn’t do it, we will do it.”

Duterte then volunteered to call Chinese President Xi Jinping, adding, “The other option is a nuclear blast which is not good for everybody.” Both leaders expressed a preference for avoiding a nuclear confrontation, but nonetheless, Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and a leading expert on nuclear weapons, was alarmed by the exchange.

“Trump has a disturbing tendency to talk very cavalierly about nuclear weapons — as if he is an impulse away from using them,” Cirincione said. “He doesn’t seem to understand the vast destructive nature of these weapons and the line he would be crossing by using them.”

During the Obama administration, Duterte made clear his disdain for the U.S. president, who he repeatedly called the “son of a whore.” The Obama administration’s measured criticism of Duterte’s murderous war on drugs enraged the Philippine leader. At one point, Duterte threatened to “say goodbye” to a U.S.-oriented foreign policy in favor of a closer alliance with China. Beijing has offered to train Philippine anti-drug forces tasked with carrying out what human rights advocates characterize as an extrajudicial killing campaign.

Duterte welcomed Trump’s election victory. Recently, he has publicly counseled restraint and the de-escalation of tensions with North Korea, even to the point of criticizing the U.S. for its bellicosity. “There seems to be two countries playing with their toys and those toys are not really to entertain,” he said at an April news conference in Manila.

During the call with Trump, however, Duterte had a different message, emphasizing that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was a “madman.” “He is playing with his bombs, his toys and from the looks of it, his mind is not working well and he might just go crazy one moment,” he told Trump. The two leaders praised each other, and Duterte encouraged Trump to “keep the pressure on” Kim Jong-un while offering to aid Trump in pressing China to bring its influence to bear on North Korea.

Duterte’s public comments, rather than his private ones, are more in line with regional attitudes toward North Korea. North Korea has been saber-rattling for so long that its neighbors have largely decided that ignoring the provocations is the best path forward, a strategy that has been abandoned by Trump.

Earlier this month, amid escalating tensions with North Korea, South Korean voters went to the polls in their presidential election and elected Moon Jae-In — a former human rights lawyer in favor of dialogue and joint economic projects with North Korea.

In his conversation with Duterte, Trump asked for information about the region. “What do you think about China? Does China have power over him?” Trump asked. “What’s your opinion of [Kim Jong-un], Rodrigo? Are we dealing with someone who [is] stable or not stable?”

“He is not stable,” Duterte answered.

The Intercept also obtained a briefing document from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs dated several days after the call with Trump, which contains talking points for an upcoming call between Duterte and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. The document lists as a talking point that Duterte should “call on all parties to exercise restraint and level-headedness to avoid making the situation worse.”

The talking points do not mention Trump.

Part three of the series:
Full transcript of Donald’s Trump’s phone call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, published on The Intercept, May 23, 2017

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