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Jeremy Scahill on Trump’s Embrace of Duterte’s Deadly War on Drugs in the Philippines

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In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has suggested he might impose martial law across the country, after declaring it this week in his native island of Mindanao. This comes as a transcript of the call of Trump praising Duterte for his controversial drug war was leaked and published by The Intercept. According to the leaked transcript, Trump said, “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. 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.” Duterte’s bloody war on drugs has led to the deaths of nearly 9,000 people, most of whom are poor. Human rights groups have blasted Duterte for the way he’s waged his anti-drug campaign, defined by extrajudicial killings of thousands of suspected drug dealers and users. For more on Trump and Duterte, we speak to Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept and host of the new weekly podcast, “Intercepted.” Scahill recently co-wrote a three-part series on the leaked call for The Intercept.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show looking at the Philippines, where Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has been overseeing a bloody war on drugs. Since last June, more than 7,000 people have been extrajudicially killed by police or vigilantes. Duterte has also suggested he might impose martial law across the country, after first declaring it this week in his native island of Mindanao. While human rights groups have condemned Duterte, he has received backing from President Trump, who recently invited him to visit the White House. Human Rights Watch slammed the invitation, saying, quote, “By effectively endorsing Duterte’s murderous 'war on drugs,' Trump has made himself morally complicit in future killings.”

Well, earlier this week, a transcript of the call of Trump inviting Duterte to the White House was leaked and published by The Intercept. According to the leaked transcript, Trump said, quote, “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. 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.”

Duterte responded, quote, “Thank you, Mr. President. This is the scourge of my nation now, and I have to do something to preserve the Filipino nation.”

Trump then responded, quote, “I understand that and fully understand that, and I think we had a previous president who did not understand that, but I understand that, and we have spoken about this before.”

On May 1, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about Trump’s decision to invite Duterte to the White House.

JOHN ROBERTS: Chris Coons said that the president is giving his stamp of approval to human rights abuses. Governor John Sununu, on the other hand, said this is part of the unpleasant things that presidents have to do. What’s the White House’s perspective on Duterte and him coming here?

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: I think it is an opportunity for us to work with countries in that region that can help play a role in diplomatically and economically isolating North Korea. And frankly, the national interests of the United States, the safety of our people and the safety of people in the region are the number one priorities of the president.

AMY GOODMAN: The leaked transcript of the Trump-Duterte call does confirm North Korea came up, but only after Trump praised the Filipino president on waging his war on drugs. During the call, Trump said, quote, “We have a lot of firepower over there. We have two submarines—the best in the world—we have two nuclear submarines—not that we want to use them at all.” Trump went on to say, “I’ve never seen anything like they are, but we don’t have to use this, but he could be crazy, so we will see what happens,” unquote.

Well, to talk more about Presidents Trump and Duterte, we’re joined by Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept, host of the new weekly podcast, Intercepted. Jeremy recently co-wrote a three-part article on the leaked call for The Intercept.

Jeremy, it’s great to have you with us here at the SkyDome, where the Blue Jays play, in Toronto, Canada, where we all participated in a forum on journalism last night. But talk about this really explosive exposé that you did for The Intercept around Trump’s phone call with Duterte.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, first of all, just to, you know, establish what this is that we published, this was a transcript from a phone call that took place on April 29th between Trump and Duterte. And Trump initiated the call. What we published was a Philippine government document, a classified Philippine government document. So this was the transcript that Duterte’s people made of his call with Trump.

The reason I emphasize that is because after we published this, Matt Drudge put it at the top of Drudge Report, and so we had an enormous surge in traffic from many people who are supporters of Donald Trump. And we got bombarded, and Drudge got bombarded with a boycott campaign from Trump supporters, who were saying, “Whoever leaked this should be prosecuted for treason. And the journalists who published this should be put in prison,” which echoes what we know Trump has sort of suggested in meetings, most recently to James Comey right before he fired him, the idea that journalists should be arrested. This was not a U.S. government document. Also, people were saying, “Oh, this is proof that Obama left the White House bugged.” You know, it’s like they don’t understand the basic fact of when two foreign leaders are speaking, you know, there’s two sides of this conversation. So there we have it. We have the phone conversation between these two. So—

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get it?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, we’re not going to talk about sources or methods, as the U.S. government likes to talk about. All we’ll say is that we obtained it, and both the White House and the Philippines government—well, the Philippines government validated that it is a legitimate document. The White House said that the transcript was accurate.

Now, what does that leave us with? Well, it leaves us with the fact that Donald Trump begins a phone call with Rodrigo Duterte, who is one of the most unrepentant, murderous heads of state in the world today, openly brags about how he’ll give a pardon or immunity to people who extrajudicially kill anyone involved with the drug war. And the dominant perception and the way that this is portrayed by Duterte’s people is that they’re just going after narcotraffickers. In reality, many drug users have been assassinated as part of this campaign. Duterte actually enjoys a pretty wide base of support in the Philippines, and he kind of mixes in anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist rhetoric with these very harsh policies. He also is one of the few heads of state in the world who will—you know, he regularly swears. I mean, he called Barack Obama things that I can’t even say on this program, “the son of a”—and then referenced his—as though Obama’s mother had been a sex worker. I mean, he’s, you know, calling the president of the United States and saying, “I’m going to divorce the United States and orient myself toward China and Russia.” And he said that under Obama because Obama’s administration criticized the tactics that Duterte was using, the kind of paramilitary gangster tactics that they were using.

And, you know, I think the most—not astonishing, but the most relevant part of this is that Trump knows all of that and, in fact, views that as a positive thing. So he calls Duterte and says to him, you know, “Rodrigo, I just want to congratulate you for the amazing job that you’re doing.” And the reason that we know it’s not just kind of generic platitudes is because Trump himself references in this call the fact that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had said the obvious, which is, you know, this is not right, the way that this is being handled. And, you know, the Obama administration had a very hypocritical record on human rights, but, as Allan Nairn has pointed out before, hypocrisy has some virtue, in the sense that at least they—you’re able to call them out on it, because they say one thing but mean another. So the bottom line is, Trump calls Duterte and says, “Great job. Amazing job. Obama didn’t—you know, he didn’t get it. I get it. You have our full support. You’re a good man.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jeremy, I wanted to ask you—almost as shocking as the call and the congratulations from Trump was the other part of the discussion about North Korea and Trump revealing to Duterte and, obviously, to lots of folks in the Philippine government about nuclear submarines of the U.S. that are off the coast of North Korea.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, well, first of all, we know that, you know, Trump still continues to use an insecure cellphone, that he tweets from, and has brought that cellphone to the table on classified discussions about North Korea. He did it when Shinzo Abe was at Mar-a-Lago with him, the Japanese leader. There were photos of Trump’s cellphone. His specific phone that he uses has been—already, that phone, for years, it’s been known to have been compromised by Chinese hackers. So Trump is bringing this insecure phone to meetings about North Korea. Then he’s on the phone with Duterte last month, and he says, “You know, we’ve got these two nuclear subs near North Korea.” And he’s saying this to Duterte, who was most certainly under surveillance by both the North Koreans and the Chinese. So anyone who says, “Oh, well, you guys revealed this information,” the most damaging revelation of classified information happened when Donald Trump told Duterte this. And Duterte also is a clever operator when it comes to China. And he has called Vladimir Putin his hero.

But the most newsworthy aspect of that is that—and I felt bad for you, Amy, having to read those quotes from Trump, because when you actually read his words and you’re not Trump, it sounds like the garbled mess that it actually is, because you don’t have the inflection, and you’re not, you know, sniffling and all these things. But Trump tells Duterte about these submarines off the coast, and he says, you know, “We’ve got so much more firepower than North Korea. At least 20 times more.” Twenty times? The United States is known to have more than 6,000 nuclear warheads. North Korea is believed to have around 10. So Trump’s math was way off in that equation.

And some people were saying, “Oh, well, Trump keeps saying, 'We don't want to use it. We don’t want to use it.’” That’s not what’s significant. What’s significant is that Trump says, “This is a madman. We don’t know what he’s going to do. We’d prefer not to go to war. But who knows?” That’s really frightening to hear from someone who is in command of the most lethal and powerful military in the world. He also—and this is sort of sad, on one level, but also frightening—he says, “Rodrigo, let’s talk about Kim Jong-un. Is he stable or unstable?” Huh? I mean, why is the president of the United States asking Duterte about if Kim Jong-un is unstable?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A man whose own stability is in question, Duterte.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, right, of course. I mean, this is three madmen that are in this equation: Trump, Duterte and Kim Jong-un. And I really don’t know which of these three people is the sort of greater threat to civilization. I mean, it’s probably Trump, but it’s—you know, tough call.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to some of the clips of Duterte in his own words. Last September, the Philippines president likened himself to Hitler.

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is 3 million—what is it? Three million drug addicts, there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know, my victims, I would like to be all criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: Last fall, Duterte called then-President Obama “son of a whore” and warned him not to ask about his so-called drug war.

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: I am a president of a sovereign state, and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. [translated] Son of a whore, I will swear at you in that forum.

AMY GOODMAN: Before he was elected, Duterte admitted he was linked to a death squad in Davao. He spoke on a local TV show in a mix of English and Visayan.

MAYOR RODRIGO DUTERTE: [translated] Me. They are saying I’m part of a death squad.

HOST: So, how do you react to that?

MAYOR RODRIGO DUTERTE: [translated] True. That’s true. You know, when I become president, I warn you—I don’t covet the position, but if I become president, the 1,000 will become 50,000. [in English] I will kill all of you who make the lives of Filipinos miserable. [translated] I will really kill you. I won because of the breakdown in law and order.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, in December, Duterte boasted about having personally killed criminal suspects when he was mayor of Davao City. The Manila Times reported he told a group of business leaders in the Philippines capital, quote, “In Davao, I used to do it personally—just to show to the guys that if I can do it, why can’t you? And I’d go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble also. I was really looking for a confrontation, so I could kill.” Jeremy—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: These comments from a president of the Philippines.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, I mean, you know, those, of course, are of a more serious nature than the kinds of things that come out of Donald Trump’s mouth, but they do have that in common, where, you know, they’ll just sort of say what they’re thinking. And in a way, it’s refreshing, I guess, because most world leaders try to cover up the uncouth actions that they’re taking in their countries.

What I think is really significant for people to understand is that in the Hitler quote, where Duterte is saying Germany had Hitler, and, you know, he underestimates the number of people that Hitler killed—you know, he says 3 million—but he doesn’t say, “We have 3 million narcotraffickers that I want to kill.” He says, “We have 3 million addicts.” And that is—that’s the point here, is that they are not going after the kind of, you know, “Chapo” of the Philippines. Many of the people that have been killed are rank-and-file victims of a drug culture. And that’s who’s paying the heaviest price for all of this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about something else in those transcripts: the short discussion between Trump and Duterte toward the end about China and Xi Jinping, the president of China, that Trump said, “Oh, I met with him at Mar-a-Lago. He’s a really good guy.”


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You know, this is after months and months of Trump’s China bashing here during the political campaign. All of a sudden he seems to indicate that he needs to rely on China, China is the critical country in being able to keep North Korea at bay.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, and, you know, that has sort of—you know, under Obama, they called the policy on North Korea “strategic patience.” And I think that all serious observers of Korea politics and the history of Korea know that the North Korean regime is largely dependent on China for basically its survival, in many ways, in addition to the smuggling and organized crime that the North Korean regime is involved with. But on a tactical level, Trump spends, you know, a couple of days with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, and then he’s saying to Duterte, “Oh, we’ve got to get the Chinese to solve the problem.” And Duterte’s like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll give him a call.” It really shows how out of his depth Trump is, as though he just heard, oh, maybe China could do something about this. I mean, it’s frightening when you’re talking about the presence of nuclear weapons. China plays the United States like a fiddle all the time in international relations.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds before we go to break, and then we’ll also be joined by Glenn Greenwald, but—so, Duterte is coming to the White House? Is that clear?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Donald Trump says to him, you know, “Anytime you’re in Washington, come by. I would love to have you in the White House.” After we published this, Senator Lindsey Graham said that he may join with Democrats who are calling for Trump to postpone that trip, so that they can discuss these issues.

And, I mean, I do think that what’s interesting, he just declared martial law in the south of the country, Duterte did, and he’s doing it in the name of fighting terrorism. That part of what Duterte is doing has long been aided by the United States, the Joint Special Operations Command, the CIA, military intelligence. The U.S. has poured resources into the Philippines in the name of fighting Islamist rebels. Duterte is now adopting that rhetoric, just like Bush and Trump—you know, Obama had different terms for it—are talking about this fight. In a way, it seems as though Duterte is outsmarting Trump in terms of how this is all playing.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill is going to stay with us, co-founder of The Intercept, host of the new weekly podcast, Intercepted. His most recent piece, we’ll link to, “Trump Called Rodrigo Duterte to Congratulate Him on His Murderous Drug War: 'You Are Doing an Amazing Job.'” Jeremy’s books include Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, more recently, The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program. This is Democracy Now! Back with Jeremy and Glenn Greenwald in a moment.

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