President Trump labeled North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un a “madman with nuclear weapons” during a private phone conversation with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte last month, just days before stating publicly that he would be “honored” to meet with Kim.
In the April 29 call, Trump sought Duterte’s input on whether Kim is “stable or not stable” and expressed some satisfaction in North Korea’s recent failed missile tests, noting that “all his rockets are crashing. That’s the good news,” according to a transcript of the conversation made by the Philippines government on May 2 and obtained Tuesday by The Washington Post.
Duterte responded that Kim is “playing with his bombs, his toys” and offered that “his mind is not working well and he just might go crazy one moment.” That prompted Trump to point out that the United States has “a lot of firepower over there,” including “two nuclear submarines” sent by the Pentagon to the region last month.
Later in the call, Trump raised the stakes of the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula when he observed: “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.”
The focus between Trump and Duterte on North Korea comports with a brief public readout of the call from the White House on the day it took place. But the details of their conversation, first reported here, offer a deeper view of the urgency with which Trump is attempting to enlist foreign leaders to ramp up pressure on Pyongyang to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
A senior Trump administration official acknowledged that the transcript is accurate but declined to speak on the record about “a leaked document from a foreign government.” The Post obtained the document from a person who asked not to be identified because the transcript, labeled by the Philippines government as “confidential,” is not intended for public release.
Trump is “rallying as much support as he can on North Korea,” the administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Regional support is extremely meaningful. This is how he’s trying to proactively manage a very difficult situation.”
Trump’s call with Duterte, during which he extended an invitation to visit him at the White House, was met with skepticism from some foreign policy analysts and human rights groups. Since taking office in June, Duterte has moved to hedge on the Philippines’ long-standing defense alliance with the United States by establishing closer relations with China. And his administration has overseen a brutal extrajudicial campaign that has resulted in the killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers.
Trump has not spoken out against that strategy, and in their call he praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
“Many countries have the problem, we have the problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that,” Trump said, according to the transcript.
After Duterte replied that drugs are the “scourge of my nation now and I have to do something to preserve the Filipino nation,” Trump appeared to take a swipe at his predecessor, Barack Obama, who had canceled a bilateral meeting with Duterte after the Philippines leader insulted him.
“I understand that and fully understand that and I think we had a previous president who did not understand that,” Trump said.
On his first foreign trip this week, Trump said during a speech in Saudi Arabia that his administration will not “lecture” foreign governments on human rights as the United States pursues partnerships to fight terrorism.
The senior Trump administration official said that the president was not condoning Duterte’s “individual tactics” for cracking down on illicit drugs. Rather, this was Trump’s “way of expressing solidarity over a common scourge,” the official said.
Most of his conversation with Duterte focused on how to deal with North Korea and whether China can exert more leverage on Kim’s regime. Trump acknowledged after meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in mid-April that “it’s not so easy” for Beijing to alter Pyongyang’s behavior.
But when he asked Duterte whether China has “power over” Kim, the Philippines president responded: “Yes, at the end of the day, the last card, the ace, has to be with China. It’s only China.”
In an interview with Bloomberg News three days after his call with Duterte, Trump said he would be “honored” to meet Kim “under the right circumstances,” opening the possibility of bilateral or multilateral talks. No sitting U.S. president has met with a North Korean leader. In another interview that week with CBS News, Trump called Kim “a pretty smart cookie” and expressed admiration for the North Korean leader having assumed power “at a very young age” after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
Trump told Duterte he hopes “China solves the problem … But if China doesn’t do it, we will do it.” Duterte then offered to call Xi and emphasize the importance of altering Pyongyang’s behavior.
“You can tell him I am counting on him,” Trump replied. “I have a very good relationship with him. I had him in Florida for two days and got to know him well. He is a good guy.”
On May 3, the Chinese state media reported that Xi and Duterte spoke about North Korea, among other topics.
Toward the end of the call, Trump switched topics to invite Duterte to the White House, calling him a “good man.”
“I will love to have you in the Oval Office,” Trump said. “Any time you want to come … Seriously, if you want to come over, just let us know. Just take care of yourself, and we will take care of North Korea.”