In a phone call from the White House late last month, U.S. President Donald Trump heaped praise on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, one of the world’s most murderous heads of state, for doing what Trump called an “unbelievable job” in his war on drugs. Trump offered an unqualified endorsement of Duterte’s bloody extermination campaign against suspected drug dealers and users, which has included open calls for extrajudicial murders and promises of pardons and immunity for the killers.
“You are a good man,” Trump told Duterte, according to an official transcript of the April 29 call produced by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and obtained by The Intercept. “Keep up the good work,” Trump told Duterte. “You are doing an amazing job.”
Trump began the call by telling Duterte, “You don’t sleep much, you’re just like me,” before quickly pivoting to the strongman’s drug war.
“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump told Duterte at the beginning of their call, according to the document. “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.”
“Thank you Mr. President,” replied Duterte. “This is the scourge of my nation now and I have to do something to preserve the Filipino nation.”
The transcript, which contains numerous typographical errors, was authenticated by well-placed sources in the Palace and the Department of Foreign Affairs by reporters at the Manila-based news outlet Rappler, which collaborated with The Intercept on this story.
Since Duterte took office in June, Philippine national police and vigilante death squads have embarked on a campaign to slaughter drug users as well as drug dealers. “Hitler massacred three million Jews [sic], now, there’s three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he said in September. Last month, he told a group of jobless Filipinos that they should “kill all the drug addicts.” Police have killed over 7,000 people, devastated poor areas of Manila and other cities, and used the drug war as a pretext to murder government officials and community leaders.
The new details of Trump’s call with Duterte come on the heels of the Philippine president’s announcement that he is imposing martial law on the autonomous island of Mindanao, where government forces are battling Islamist rebels. “If I had to kill thousands of people just to keep Philippines a thousand times safer, I will not have doubts doing it,” Duterte said.
On the April 29 call, Trump pointed out to Duterte that his predecessor in the White House had been critical of the rising body count under Duterte’s reign in the Philippines, but that Trump himself gets it. “I understand that, and fully understand that, and I think we had a previous president who did not understand that,” Trump said, “but I understand that and we have spoken about this before.”
When the Obama administration offered some tempered criticism of Duterte’s killing spree, Duterte called the U.S. president the “son of a whore” and an “idiot” who “can go to hell.” Speaking in Beijing in October, Duterte said, “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
However, in the wake of Trump’s election, Duterte said, “I don’t want to quarrel anymore, because Trump has won.” On the April call, Trump addressed Duterte warmly by his first name, Rodrigo, and Duterte thanked Trump for his sentiments on Obama.
This week, Duterte was slated to be in Russia for a five-day trip, including a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, whom he has called his “favorite hero.” On Tuesday, Duterte announced from Moscow that he was cutting the trip short in light of his declaration of martial law and fighting between rebels and the government in Mindanao.
Following the call last month, the White House publicly described a “very friendly conversation” that culminated with an invitation for an Oval Office meeting. “To endorse Duterte is to endorse a man who advocates mass murder and who has admitted to killing people himself,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, reacting to the transcript. “Endorsing his methods is a celebration of the death of the poor and vulnerable.”
Duterte’s police killings are widely recognized by the international community as an ongoing atrocity. The “war on drugs” has drawn condemnation from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, and last month a Philippine lawyer filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Duterte of mass murder and crimes against humanity. The State Department’s annual human rights report acknowledges thousands of “extrajudicial killings” with impunity and calls them the country’s “chief human rights concern.”
Killing is nothing new for Duterte. His bloody record started in 1988, when he became the mayor of Davao City, a coastal city in the southern Philippines. During his tenure, he earned the nickname “the Death Squad Mayor” — a title he embraces. According to one former hitman, Duterte formed an organization called the “Davao Death Squad” — a mafia-like organization of plainclothes assassins that would kill suspected criminals, journalists, and opposition politicians, often from the backs of motorcycles. Multiple former members of the group have come forward and said that they killed people on Duterte’s direct orders.
Duterte has even bragged that he personally killed criminals from the back of a motorcycle. “In Davao I used to do it personally,” he told a group of business leaders in Manila. “Just to show to the guys [police officers] that if I can do it, why can’t you.”
In 2016, Duterte campaigned on a policy of mass extermination for anyone involved in the drug trade. “I’d be happy to slaughter them. If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have me,” Duterte said after his inauguration in September.
Despite human rights concerns, the U.S. has long considered the Philippines a military ally, and under Obama the U.S. gave the country’s military tens of millions of dollars in weapons and resources per year. The U.S. government does not provide lethal weapons directly to the Philippine National Police, which has a decadeslong history of extrajudicial killings. But it does allow U.S. weapons manufacturers to sell to them directly. In 2015 the State Department authorized more than $250 million in arms sales from U.S. defense contractors to security forces in the Philippines.
After Duterte’s election, Obama’s State Department halted one sale of assault rifles to the Philippines, largely due to the objections of Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Philippines became a colony of the United States in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. A long insurgency followed, and the country didn’t win full independence until 1946.
This article was published in partnership with Rappler, an independent news organization based in the Philippines.
Disclosure: Omidyar Network is an investor in Rappler. The Intercept’s publisher, First Look Media, was founded by Pierre Omidyar.