MANILA — A spokesman for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday that President Trump offered to return a fugitive who had fled to the United States and did not bring up human rights issues at all during their bilateral meeting a day earlier.
Spokesman Harry Roque’s account of the meeting in an interview with The Washington Post appears to contradict White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said “human rights briefly came up” as the two leaders discussed the Philippines’ bloody fight against illicit drugs.
Roque suggested he was surprised that Sanders had told American reporters here that the issue had come up. “It was not Trump who raised it. Trump never raised it, honestly,” Roque said. Sanders did not reply to an email seeking comment.
In the course of the discussion, Duterte emphasized that relations between the two allied nations had traditionally been strong but had deteriorated over one “sour point,” Roque said, a reference to criticism from President Barack Obama.
Duterte believed Obama was “oblivious to the actual threat presented by drugs in the Philippines,” the spokesman declared. During the meeting, Trump agreed the Philippines has one of the worst drug problems in the world. Later, Trump asked if it was as bad as in Latin America. Roque said Duterte believes that it is.
At one point, Trump offered to extradite a Philippine fugitive in the United States. “Do you want him back?” Trump asked, according to Roque. The U.S. president added: “I will send him back because I know you follow the rule of law.”
In the United States, extraditions are not actually the province of the president, but rather requests are reviewed and forwarded to the relevant U.S. attorney’s office. Then a judge ultimately makes the decision whether the person is sent back.
Before boarding Air Force One en route back to Washington on Tuesday, Trump spoke briefly with reporters. He said the Obama administration had “a lot of problems” in terms of its relationship with the Philippines, calling it “horrible.”
“It is very important that we get along with the Philippines, and we do,” he said, calling it a “strategic location.”
Roque, in the interview, said he believes Sanders was interested in making it appear that Trump had raised human rights in a bid to placate Trump’s “domestic constituency.” He said he decided not to challenge Sanders’s statement immediately after it was distributed to reporters in an email as a way of compromising with her. He said a charitable reading of the meeting would be that Duterte was alluding to human rights issues when he said the drug war was important as an issue of “human development.”
“It’s not as if we are trigger happy,” Duterte apparently told Trump. “It’s not as if we kill people who are kneeling down and shooting them in the head.”
Trump told reporters during his two days here that he has a “great relationship” with Duterte. In a phone conversation in April, Trump praised the Philippine leader for doing “an incredible job” in the drug war.