Trump invites controversial Philippine leader Duterte to the White House

Philippines ASEAN Summit Duterte
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte heaped scorn on President Trump's predecessor. His relationship with the U.S. could be shifting.

Signaling what's perhaps a warming relationship between their two countries, President Trump invited the controversial leader of the Philippines to the White House in a phone call Saturday.

The two leaders had "a very friendly conversation" in which they talked about the North Korea threat, according to the White House's readout of the call. The two men, who have drawn comparisons for their tough rhetoric, also discussed the Philippine government's fight against drugs.

What remained unmentioned, however, are the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users as part of the government's drug war. Thousands have been killed by police and vigilantes since Duterte took office and vowed to eradicate his country's massive drug problem. The rising death toll has drawn criticism from international human-rights groups, one of which, Human Rights Watch, has urged a criminal investigation of the Duterte administration.

The relationship between the United States and the Philippines soured under President Barack Obama, who criticized Duterte's bloody war on drugs. Not one to take criticism lightly, Duterte snapped at Obama on a few occasions, telling him to "go to hell" and, at one point, referring to him with the Tagalog phrase for "son of a bitch." In September, Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte.

With Trump at the helm, the relationship between the two countries seems to be shifting. In a brief phone call in December about the drug war, then-President-elect Trump told Duterte that he was doing it the "right way," according to the Philippine president's account of the conversation.

The White House said that the nations' relationship "is now heading in a very positive direction" and that Trump is looking forward to visiting the Philippines in November during the East Asia and U.S.-Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, summits.

The Philippines hosted the 30th ASEAN Summit on Saturday. The nuclear threat posed by North Korea - and how the Trump administration will deal with the secretive country - was brought up in a discussion with leaders, according to a statement.

In a news conference before the call Saturday, Duterte said he would urge Trump to ensure that war is avoided. Otherwise, "my region will suffer immensely," according to the Associated Press.

Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, defended Trump's praise of Duterte on Sunday, saying the president's top priority is addressing the threat of North Korea and partnering with Southeast Asia nations.

"The issue on the table is North Korea, and there is nothing right now facing this country and facing the region that is a bigger threat than what's happening in North Korea," Priebus said on ABC News' This Week. "And if we don't have all of our folks together, whether they're good folks, bad folks, people that we wish would do better in their country, doesn't matter, we've got to be on the same page."

Trump's invitation to Duterte immediately attracted criticisms from the Human Rights Watch.

"Speaking glowingly of a man who boasts killing of his own citizens, inviting him to the White House, and saying nothing of his terrifying human rights record, sends a terrifying message," John Sifton, the organization's Asia advocacy director, said in a statement.

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