White House defends Trump invitation to Duterte despite human rights criticism

WASHINGTON, April 30 (Reuters) - The White House on Sunday defended President Donald Trump's decision to invite Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to Washington, saying his cooperation was needed to counter North Korea, even as the administration faced human rights criticism for its overture to Manila.

Trump issued the invitation on Saturday night in what the White House said was a "very friendly" phone conversation with Duterte, who is accused by international human rights groups of supporting a campaign of extrajudicial killings of drug suspects in the Philippines.

"There is nothing right now facing this country and facing the region that is a bigger threat than what's happening in North Korea," White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told ABC's "This Week" during a weekend in which Trump sought to firm up support in Southeast Asia to help rein in North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

See Also: Trump on North Korea's Kim Jong Un: 'He's a pretty smart cookie'

Priebus insisted the outreach to Duterte "doesn't mean that human rights don't matter, but what it does mean is that 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 to make sure we have our ducks in a row."

The invitation for Duterte to the visit White House at an unspecified date appeared to be the latest example of the affinity Trump has shown for some foreign leaders with shaky human rights or autocratic reputations.

For instance, he expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 presidential campaign, hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the White House and has had warm words for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who Trump is pressing to do more to rein in its ally and neighbor North Korea.

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Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte
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Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (C) clenches fist with members of the Philippine Army during his visit at the army headquarters in Taguig city, metro Manila, Philippines October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers a speech to the members of the Philippine Army during a visit at the army headquarters in Taguig city, metro Manila, Philippines October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers a speech to the members of the Philippine Army during a visit at the army headquarters in Taguig city, metro Manila, Philippines October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte shows a brochure of the new Glock pistols to be issued to members of the Philippine Army during a visit at the army headquarters in Taguig city, metro Manila, Philippines October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a news conference in Davao city, southern Philippines August 21, 2016. REUTERS/Lean Daval Jr/File Photo
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (C) clenches fist with members of the Philippine Army during his visit at the army headquarters in Taguig city, metro Manila, Philippines October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while delivering a speech before female police officers during a gathering in Davao city, Philippines, September 30, 2016. Picture taken September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Lean Daval Jr TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte (L) speaks during his meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi, September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Hoang Dinh Nam/Pool
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte leaves the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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On Sunday, Trump also extended a White House invitation to Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who heads a military government that took power in a 2014 coup. Prayuth's administration had strained relations with Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama.

"Celebrating a man who boasts of killing his own citizens and inviting him to the White House, while remaining silent on his disgusting human rights record, sends a terrifying message," said John Sifton, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

"By effectively endorsing Duterte's murderous 'war on drugs', Trump has made himself morally complicit in future killings," he said.

A Trump administration official insisted, however, that the invitation was not a reward to Duterte or an endorsement of his policies but a decision that engagement with the Philippines, an important longtime U.S. ally, was better than withdrawal which could "intensify bad behavior" by Duterte.

See Also: White House: Trump invites Philippines' Duterte to Washington

"It's not a 'thank you'," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's a meeting."

The official denied a New York Times report citing administration officials saying the State Department and the National Security Council were caught off-guard by the invitation to Duterte and were expected to object internally. "We were not surprised. The guys who prepared for the call were unified on this," the official said.

'ON THE SAME PAGE' ON NORTH KOREA

Priebus made clear that North Korea was the top priority.

"If we don't have all of our folks together — whether they're good folks, bad folks, people we wish would do better in their country, doesn't matter, we've got to be on the same page" on North Korea, Priebus said.

See Also: Trump hints that the US may be sabotaging North Korea's nuclear program

But taking a swipe at Trump for his invitation to Duterte, Democratic U.S. Senator Chris Murphy tweeted: "We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash."

Thousands of Filipinos have been killed since Duterte unleashed his fierce anti-drugs campaign nearly 10 months ago. Police say they have killed only in self-defense, and the deaths of other drug dealers and users was down to vigilantes or narcotics gangs silencing potential witnesses.

Human rights groups say official accounts are implausible and accuse Duterte of backing campaign of systematic extrajudicial killings by police. The government denies that.

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Inside North Korea's secretive missile program
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Inside North Korea's secretive missile program
A missile is carried by a military vehicle during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Engineers check the base of Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
A North Korean scientist looks at a monitor showing the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control centre of the Korean Committee of Space Technology on the outskirts of Pyongyang April 11, 2012. North Korea said on Wednesday it was injecting fuel into a long-range rocket ahead of a launch condemned by its neighbours and the West. The launch is set to take place between Thursday and next Monday and has prompted neighbours such as the Philippines to re-route their air traffic. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
North Korean soldiers salute in a military vehicle carrying a missile during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Ko Yun-hwa (L), Administrator of Korea Meteorological Administration, points at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing at Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A sales assistant watches TV sets broadcasting a news report on North Korea's nuclear test, in Seoul, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Workers construct a new nuclear reactor in the North Korean village of Kumho in this file photo taken August 7, 2002. The United States urged North Korea December 21, 2002 not to restart a nuclear reactor suspected of being used to make weapons-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that North Korea had disabled surveillance devices the agency had placed at the five-megawatt Nyongbyong reactor. REUTERS/Lee Jae-won/File Photo LJW/RCS/AA
A passenger walks past a television report on North Korea's nuclear test at a railway station in Seoul February 12, 2013. North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday, South Korea's defence ministry said, after seismic activity measuring 4.9 magnitude was registered by the U.S. Geological Survey. The epicentre of the seismic activity, which was only one km below the Earth's surface, was close to the North's known nuclear test site. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A scientist stands beside the Kwangmyongsong-3 application satellite, to be put onto the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
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Duterte was infuriated by the Obama administration's expressions of concern about extrajudicial killings after he took office last year and threatened to sever the long-standing U.S. defense alliance.

Duterte spoke positively about Trump, a fellow populist, after the U.S. presidential election in November, and the new administration has sought ways to mend the alliance.

In a summary of Saturday's phone call between the two leaders, the White House said the two discussed "the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world." The White House statement included no criticism of Duterte's methods.

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