An audio transcript leaked on Tuesday revealed that President Donald Trump praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for the "unbelievable job" his government was doing in cracking down on the country's drug problem. Trump's statements are cause for concern for human-rights groups given the slaughter of thousands of dealers and addicts through extrajudicial killings carried out under the Duterte regime's brutal anti-drug crackdown.
"I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem," Trump told Duterte during the April 29th phone call, according to a transcript obtained by the Washington Post. "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," Duterte replied. "This is the scourge of my nation now and I have to do something to preserve the Filipino nation."
Duterte's drug crusade has raised international alarm. A recent Human Rights Watch report found that police "routinely kill drug suspects in cold blood and then cover up their crime by planting drugs and guns at the scene." In September, Duterte publicly declared that "Hitler massacred three million Jews [sic], now, there's three million drug addicts. I'd be happy to slaughter them," as as recently as April he has encouraged unemployed taxpayers to "kill all the drug addicts."
In December, Duterte claimed that Trump had "endorsed" his anti-drug crackdown, according to the New York Times, telling Duterte that he was fighting drug abuse "the right way."
It's hard to tell how much of Trump's call was diplomacy and how much was genuine kowtowing. After all, President Barack Obama in 2016 brushed off an explicit broadside from Duterte as the behavior of a "colorful guy," adding that he "always want[s] to make sure if I'm having a meeting that it's productive."
Time will tell. Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable [drug] offense[s]," including those with mandatory minimum sentences that, in the past, have put thousands of non-violent drug offenders behind bars for years.
America may not be on the road to police-sanctioned massacres, but one thing is clear: Like Duterte, Trump feels an affinity for force and action—and that may prove problematic when it comes to addressing complicated drug issues like America's opioid crisis.