“As you know, we were having a lot of problems with the Philippines. The relationship with the past administration was horrible, to use a nice word. I would say ‘horrible’ is putting it mildly. You know what happened. Many of you were there, and you never got to land. The plane came close but it didn’t land.”
— President Trump, remarks to reporters after East Asian Summit in Manila, Nov. 14, 2017

“We then go to the Philippines, which was a rough trip the last time. That was a rough presidential trip, but this won’t be.”
— Trump, remarks to reporters en route to Hanoi, Nov. 11

“You remember the Philippines — the last trip made by a president that turned out to be not so good. Never quite got to land.”
— Trump, remarks at a Cabinet meeting in Washington, Nov. 1

Well, this is a mystery. Why does President Trump believe that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte refuse to let Barack Obama land his plane in Manila? Trump has said it not once, not twice, but three times. On Nov. 14, he even made a sweeping motion with his hand to indicate a landing plane. (See video above.)

Here’s what really happened.

The Facts

During his presidency, Obama made two trips to the Philippines — in 2014 and 2015. He was the first president to visit the country in 11 years, according to State Department records.

The Philippine leader at the time was Benigno S. Aquino III, and both trips were uneventful. Air Force One landed, and Obama engaged in the sort of diplomacy one would expect with a longtime U.S. ally (and former colony).

The Washington Post print headline on the 2014 trip was: “Obama lauds Philippine partnership with U.S.” The two countries signed a new defense agreement and the United States touted a “Partnership for Growth,” billed as “a high-level initiative focused on economic growth in countries committed to good governance.” Obama was feted with a state dinner.

The 2015 trip was tied to an Asian-Pacific summit meeting. “Obama toured a former Coast Guard frigate, now used by the Philippine navy, and announced that the U.S. military would donate two more ships to the Philippines,” The Post reported. “The gesture was the latest by his administration to reassure allies that they could rely on the United States to maintain a close strategic partnership.”

Duterte became president in June 2016.

The White House did not respond to a request for an explanation of Trump’s remarks. But Trump appears to be referring to Obama’s decision that year to cancel a planned meeting during a conference of leaders in Asia in September 2016 after Duterte said he would call Obama a “son of a bitch” if Obama questioned extrajudicial killings by Philippine authorities in a sweeping crackdown on drug trafficking ordered by Duterte.

“I do not have any master except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody,” Duterte had told reporters. “You must be respectful. Do not just throw questions. ‘Putang ina’ I will swear at you in that forum.” That is the Tagalog phrase for “son of a bitch” or “son of a whore.”

Obama initially shrugged off the comments, noting that Duterte was “a colorful guy” but he wanted to be sure “if I’m having a meeting, it’s productive and we’re getting something done.” Apparently, he did not get that satisfaction, as the White House announced Obama had replaced the planned meeting with Duterte with one with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

At the time, more than 2,400 people had been killed since Duterte took office, and Obama made it clear he planned to raise his concerns. “We will always assert the need to have due process and engage the fight against drugs in a way that is consistent with basic international norms,” he said. “Undoubtedly, if and when we have a meeting, this is going to be something that’s brought up.”

After the cancellation, Duterte scrambled to make amends. His office expressed regret that his comments “came across as a personal attack” on the U.S. president. Duterte’s press service then said he would be seated next to Obama at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gala dinner in Laos the next day, but that did not happen.

Obama later told reporters the two men has shaken hands at the Laos forum.

“I don’t take the kinds of comments personally,” Obama said. He noted that Duterte had used the same phrase when talking about other world leaders, including the pope. It seems to be “a habit, a way of speaking for him.”

The number of people killed in the crackdown has now risen to more than 7,000, according to Human Rights Watch. During Trump’s recent trip to the Philippines, Trump appears to have barely raised the issue, if at all.

The Pinocchio Test

Clearly, Trump has gotten this story completely mixed up. Obama’s visits to the Philippines were uneventful. When Duterte threatened to insult Obama, it was in another Asian country — and it was Obama who canceled the meeting. In any case, there was no circling Air Force One that “never got to land.”

Trump obviously earns Four Pinocchios. But the bigger question is: Doesn’t the president have staff who can point out to him that he keeps making a very foolish mistake?

Four Pinocchios

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"We were having a lot of problems with the Philippines. …You know what happened. Many of you were there, and you never got to land. The plane came close but it didn’t land.”
in remarks to reporters, Manila, Philippines
Tuesday, November 14, 2017