Trump defends inviting Philippines president to White House
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President Trump on Monday defended his decision to invite Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House in defiance of criticism of Duterte's violent crackdown on drugs and crime.

“The Philippines is very important to me strategically and militarily,” Trump told Bloomberg News. “I look forward to meeting him. If he comes to the White House that’s fine."

Trump’s invitation to Duterte during a Saturday phone call drew quick criticism from lawmakers and human rights groups.

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Duterte has been accused of ordering extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers. More than 8,000 people have been killed since he began his drug crackdown eight months ago, according to Reuters.

But the president suggested the Philippines leader’s standing among his own people outweighed those concerns.  

“You know he’s very popular in the Philippines,” Trump said. “He has a very high approval rating in the Philippines.”

Democrats in Congress demanded that Trump rescind the invitation. 

“This is a man who has boasted publicly about killing his own citizens,”  said Sen. Ben CardinBen CardinOil concerns hold up Russia sanctions push Compounds’ fate raised after Trump-Putin talk Administration briefs Senate on progress against ISIS MORE (Md.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Ignoring human rights will not advance U.S. interests in the Philippines or any place else."

The White House has said that Trump phoned Duterte to repair damaged ties between the two countries and to discuss issues of mutual concern, including Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Since taking office last summer, Duterte has distanced himself from Washington in favor of pursuing closer ties with Beijing.

White House officials have also argued that cooperation with the Philippines is necessary to counter North Korea. 
 
Press secretary Sean Spicer said the visit is in “the national interest of the United States” because of the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang. 
 
The U.S. and Philippines have a longstanding defense alliance but it’s not clear how the country would help deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions; it is not typically a major player in the north Pacific.

Trump also accepted an invitation to visit the Philippines in November for a regional summit.

But it’s unclear whether Duterte will reciprocate; he said Monday he might not travel to the White House because he is “tied up” with other matters.

“I cannot make any definite promise,” he told reporters in Manila, according to The New York Times. “I’m supposed to go to Russia, I’m also supposed to go to Israel.”

Duterte’s blunt style has earned comparisons to Trump. He once referred to former President Obama as a “son of a whore” and has claimed he personally killed criminals as mayor of his hometown of Davao.

Obama scrapped a meeting with Duterte last September following those comments. Duterte on Monday suggested Obama was a primary reason for the strains between the U.S. and Philippines.

“It was not a distancing, but it was rather a rift between me, maybe, and the State Department and Mr. Obama, who spoke openly against me,” he said.

Trump’s overtures to Duterte have also raised concerns about potential conflicts of interests with his business empire. He has licensed his name to a $150 million skyscraper project in Manila. The project’s developer, Jose E. B. Antonio, was named a special government envoy to the U.S. last fall.

Before taking office in January, Trump announced a plan to place his business holdings in a trust overseen by his two adult sons. But he has resisted calls to sell off his assets and place them in a blind trust, a move ethics experts say is the only way insulate himself from conflicts.

Spicer said the president and his children “have done everything in compliance" with their trust agreement, but referred specific questions to the Trump Organization. 

- Updated at 2:53 p.m.