It’s not entirely shocking that many of President Donald Trump’s first official calls and visitors since his inauguration are with authoritarian strongmen. What is disturbing, however, is his expressed support for a tyrannical leader’s extrajudicial killings. In early April, Trump prompted outrage when he called Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. The specifics of their call weren’t revealed until May 24, when The Intercept published the transcript in its entirety. The New York Times also confirmed the transcript’s veracity from an unnamed White House official.
Trump makes a number of troubling comments on the call, including praising Duterte’s “war on drugs.” Duterte, who once likened himself to the Hitler of eradicating drug addicts, has been accused of leading “death squads” across the country to slaughter drug users and dealers. Human Rights Watch estimates that police have killed more than 7,000 people (without a trial) since Duterte took office in June 2016.
During their conversation, Trump applauded Duterte’s policy. “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump said. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”
Trump also appeared to criticize Obama’s denouncement of Duterte’s drug war, explaining that he “understands” Duterte’s necessary force. “I understand that, and fully understand that,” Trump said on the call. “I think we had a previous president who did not understand that, but I understand that and we have spoken about this before.”
Duterte was grateful for the president’s support, and his response invoked the kind of unbridled nationalism that is beginning to permeate the United States. “This is the scourge of my nation now and I have to do something to preserve the Filipino nation,” Duterte said, referring to the nation’s drug epidemic.
America is currently dealing with its own opiate crisis that is exacerbated by a lack of adequate mental health care and a pharmaceutical industry committed to flooding rural cities with pills. While Trump has not yet proposed a solution, his administration is unlikely to treat addiction as a disease nor sentence offenders lightly.
In the call, Trump also signaled the possibility of “a major, major conflict” with North Korea while speaking to Duterte. Referring to the ever-heightening tension between North Korea and its neighbors, Trump suggested that the United States could use its “firepower over there” at any moment. “We have two submarines – the best in the world,” Trump told Duterte. “We have two nuclear submarines, not that we want to use them at all.”
Trump’s comments are a bit disturbing but not unlike him. It’s worth noting that while North Korea has successfully tested missiles, its weapons are generally known to be inaccurate and unable to traverse long distances.