MANILA — President Trump said Monday that he had a “great relationship” with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, making little mention of human rights at his first face-to-face meeting with a leader accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings in his nation’s war on drugs.
In a stark break from past practice by American presidents, who have pressed foreign leaders publicly and privately about allegations of human rights abuses, Trump instead pursued his own transactional style of diplomacy, dwelling mostly on areas of common ground during his meeting with Duterte.
On the sideline of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, Trump focused on combating the Islamic State and illegal drugs as well as on trade issues, the White House said.
“Human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
But Duterte’s spokesman denied that the subject of rights was ever broached, even as the Philippine president spoke about the “drug menace” in his country.
Trump “appeared sympathetic and did not have any official position on the matter and was merely nodding his head, indicating that he understood the domestic problem that we faced on drugs,” said Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesman. “The issue of human rights did not arise.’’
The meeting also highlighted the potential conflicts of interest inherent in Trump’s position as both a president and a global real estate developer.
Among those at the private session was Jose E.B. Antonio, a developer who is Trump’s partner on a $150 million, 57-story luxury tower in Manila’s financial district and also serves as Duterte’s trade envoy to the United States.
The two presidents declined to answer questions during brief remarks to reporters at the start of the meeting. As they sat side by side, Trump and Duterte projected a friendly dynamic, ribbing members of the news media as they prepared to speak privately.
“We’ve had a great relationship,” Trump said, heaping praise on Duterte’s stewardship of the summit, including an elaborate gala dinner Sunday and a set of cultural performances Monday. “This has been very successful.”
As journalists shouted questions about whether Trump would press Duterte on human rights, the Philippine president quickly silenced them.
Roque later said Trump focused during the session on concerns about tariffs being imposed on American vehicles but not Japanese cars. Duterte thanked the United States for its help in dealing with the conflict in Marawi, where Philippine forces clashed with militants trying to seize territory.
In a separate development, The Washington Post reported Monday that Trump personally asked his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to help resolve the case of three UCLA men’s basketball players who were arrested for shoplifting while in Hangzhou for a tournament last week.
Trump raised the arrests during a two-day state visit to Beijing, arriving a day after the three freshmen players had been accused of stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store next to the team’s hotel, according to people familiar with the matter.
Guard LiAngelo Ball, brother of Los Angeles Lakers rookie guard Lonzo Ball, and forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill did not play in the team’s victory over Georgia Tech on Saturday in Shanghai. They did not fly home with the team, and ESPN reported that the players could be required to remain in Hangzhou for a week or two.
Xi has promised to look into the case and ensure that the American players would be treated fairly and expeditiously, The Post quoted an unidentified US official as saying.
On the streets of Manila on Monday, a phalanx of about 100 riot police officers with shields and truncheons clashed with about 300 protesters as they marched near the US Embassy.
The protesters carried anti-American signs and a likeness of Trump with a Hitler mustache. They were later pushed back with water cannons.
Trump raised eyebrows in April by inviting Duterte to the White House during a phone call in which he praised the Philippine leader’s efforts to rid his country of drugs.
Duterte has been accused of ordering thousands of extrajudicial killings of drug suspects. Human rights groups have said the campaign has targeted many who may have nothing to do with narcotics.