WASHINGTON, United States - A top aide on Sunday defended President Donald Trump's invitation to his Philippines counterpart to visit Washington, saying the need to rally Asian allies over North Korea overshadowed concerns about President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal war on drugs.
On Saturday, the White House said Trump had invited Duterte in a "friendly" call in which the leaders discussed the Filipino president's fight against drugs and the two countries' alliance.
The statement touched only lightly on Duterte's brutal crackdown on crime, which has claimed thousands of lives and drawn international condemnation.
But when White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was asked Sunday why Trump was "honoring" Duterte with the White House invitation, he told ABC, "I'm not so sure it's a matter of honoring this president."
"The issues facing us, developing out of North Korea, are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get," he said.
That way, Priebus added, "if something does happen in North Korea, we have everyone in line backing up a plan of action that may need to be put together with our partners in the area."
Duterte had in the past regularly hit out at the United States, Philippines' one-time colonial ruler, for perceived hypocrisy over human rights. Last year he branded then US president Barack Obama a "son of a whore" for criticizing the drug war.
Duterte spoke of loosening the long-standing alliance with the US as he looked to court China, whose push to control most of the disputed South China Sea has alarmed neighbors.
But the White House said Saturday that the two leaders, both elected to office last year, had helped orient the US-Philippine relationship "in a very positive direction."
‘Happy to slaughter them’
The White House said Trump "enjoyed the conversation" with Duterte, and looked forward to attending the key US-ASEAN and East Asia summits in the Philippines in November.
Duterte's spokesman Ernesto Abella confirmed Trump's invitation, although he gave no indication of when the visit would take place.
Duterte has not been shy about his brutal campaign against drugs, saying of his country's addicts, "I'd be happy to slaughter them" the way Hitler killed millions of Jews.
Philippines police have reported killing 2,724 people as part of the anti-drug campaign, although authorities insist the shootings have been in self-defense.
Many thousands of others have been killed by shadowy vigilantes, according to rights groups.
A Philippine lawyer last week filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court accusing Duterte of mass murder, alleging his war on drugs had led to about 8,000 deaths.
When Priebus was asked whether Trump had raised that record with Duterte, he said he had not personally sat in on the entire phone call. But the purpose of the call, he added, was "all about North Korea."
‘Nothing... more important’
"There is nothing facing the country and the region more important than what's going on in North Korea," he added.
In the Philippines, Duterte's pledge to stop the country turning into a narco-state has proved wildly popular with millions of Filipinos looking for a quick solution to crime and corruption.
Duterte is the latest in a series of authoritarian leaders with whom Trump has established friendly relations, including Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And he often spoke warmly of President Vladimir Putin of Russia -- until differences over Syria erupted. — Agence France-Presse