President Trump slipped something cryptic into his remarks to reporters on Wednesday: It was about his upcoming trip to the Philippines.
“You remember the Philippines — the last trip made by a president that turned out to be not so good,” Trump said. “Never quite got to land.”
It was, in fact, the second day in a row that Trump mentioned the last administration’s failure to “land” in the Philippines. On Tuesday, he said, “We’re going to the Philippines, which is a strategically important location where the previous administration was not exactly welcome, as you probably remember.”
Trump is no stranger to attacking former president Barack Obama. But these asides — in which he seems to be bragging about his ability to woo Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a way Obama didn’t — are exceedingly strange.
The first reason is that Obama actually called off his meeting with Duterte — not the Philippines. So it’s unclear what Trump means when he says the Obama administration “was not exactly welcome.”
And Obama had some pretty good reasons for not meeting with Duterte. Chief among them is that police in the Philippines, with Duterte’s apparent blessing, have killed thousands of people without due process during Duterte’s drug war. After Obama criticized those killings, Duterte called him a “son of a whore.” That’s what led to Obama canceling a planned meeting with Duterte at the ASEAN conference in Laos. Obama said it wasn’t personal, but his State Department said that it didn’t think such insults were conducive to constructive dialogue.
In contrast, Trump has sought much friendlier relations with Duterte, declining to criticize his drug war and the human rights abuses that go along with it. A senior administration official said this week that the two had a “warm rapport.” This has led to all kinds of chatter about how Trump might actually admire Duterte’s authoritarianism.
There is, of course, another explanation, and that is that the Philippines is strategically important, especially for its location. The United States has had a military agreement with the Philippines for more than six decades — an agreement in which the United States gets strategic positioning in the region, and the Philippines gets a huge ally for its defense. Duterte threatened to end that agreement after clashing with Obama last year but never did.
If that’s what Trump had in mind, he is effectively bragging about being less tough on Duterte than Obama was.
But in meeting with Duterte, Trump will also be ignoring an insult Duterte lodged at the United States during Trump’s administration. Back in July, Duterte said he would never visit the United States because he had “seen America, and it’s lousy.”
To sum up: Obama criticized Duterte for human rights abuses. Duterte attacked Obama, and Obama called off their meeting. Then Duterte attacked the United States, and Trump kept his meeting.
It turns out authoritarian leaders like you better when you don’t call them out.