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Trump keeps praising international strongmen, alarming human rights advocates

President Trump’s praise for totalitarian leaders alarms human rights activists, but advisors say it is part of a strategy.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — It’s no longer just Vladimir Putin.

As he settles into office, President Trump’s affections for totalitarian leaders have grown beyond Russia’s president to include strongmen around the globe.

On Monday, Trump opened the door to a future meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, offering unusual praise for the globally ostracized leader at a time of surging nuclear tensions.

Although the White House played down near-term prospects for such a meeting, Trump’s conciliatory comments marked a departure from his more unforgiving tone toward the North in recent days.

‘‘If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,’’ Trump told Bloomberg News.


Clearly aware of the power of his declaration, he added: ‘‘We have breaking news.’’

In an undeniable shift in American foreign policy, Trump is cultivating authoritarian leaders, one after another, in an effort to reset relations following an era of ostracism and public shaming by Obama and his predecessors.

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi has had his opponents gunned down, but Trump praised him for doing ‘‘a fantastic job.’’ Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is a junta chief whose military jailed dissidents after taking power in a coup, yet Trump offered to meet with him at the White House. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has eroded basic freedoms, but after a recent political victory, he got a congratulatory call from Trump.

Then there’s the case of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. He is accused of the extrajudicial killing of hundreds of drug users, and he maligned President Barack Obama as a ‘‘son of a whore’’ at an international summit last year.

Yet on Sunday, in what the White House characterized as a ‘‘very friendly conversation,’’ Trump invited Duterte to Washington for an official visit. Duterte said he might not accept, because he was “tied up” with a busy schedule.


And it has become an almost daily occurrence for Trump to gush about Chinese President Xi Jinping since their Mar-a-Lago summit last month. Trump has called Xi ‘‘a very good man,’’ ‘‘highly respected,’’ and a ‘‘gentleman’’ as he tries to persuade Xi to convince North Korea to scale back or give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Every American president since at least the 1970s has used his office at least occasionally to champion human rights and democratic values around the world. Yet, so far at least, Trump has willingly turned a blind eye to dictators’ records of brutality and oppression in hopes that those leaders might become his partners in isolating North Korea or fighting terrorism.

Indeed, in his first 102 days in office, Trump has neither delivered substantive remarks nor taken action supporting democracy movements or condemning human rights abuses, other than the missile strike he authorized on Syria after President Bashar Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against his own citizens.

‘‘He doesn’t even pretend to utter the words,’’ said Michael McFaul, a US ambassador to Russia under Obama. ‘‘Small-d democrats all over the world are incredibly despondent right now about Donald Trump — and that’s true in China, in Iran, in Egypt, in Russia. They feel like the leader of the free world is absent.’’

A tipping point for many Trump critics was his invitation to Duterte. Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was ‘‘deeply disturbed’’ by Trump’s ‘‘cavalier invitation.’’


‘‘This is a man who has boasted publicly about killing his own citizens,’’ Cardin said of Duterte in a statement. “Ignoring human rights will not advance US interests in the Philippines or any place else. Just the opposite.’’

Yet Trump’s advisers said the president’s silence on human rights matters is purposeful, part of a grand strategy to rebuild alliances or create new ones. Trump’s outreach is designed to isolate North Korea in the Asia-Pacific region and to build coalitions to defeat the Islamic State in the Middle East and North Africa, senior administration officials said.

Inside the Trump White House, the thinking goes that if mending bridges with a country like the Philippines — historically a treaty ally whose relationship with the United States deteriorated as Duterte gravitated toward China — means covering up or even ignoring concerns like human rights, then so be it.

‘‘The United States has a limited ability to direct things,’’ said Michael Anton, the National Security Council’s director of strategic communications. “If you walk away from relationships, you can’t make any progress.’’

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, described the Trump strategy as establishing commonality with offending nations before publicly chastising them for offenses.

White House officials cite the release last month of Aya Hijazi — an Egyptian-American charity worker who had been imprisoned in Cairo for three years amid el-Sissi’s brutal crackdown on civil society — as evidence that their strategy is paying dividends.


The Obama administration had pressed unsuccessfully for her release, but once Trump moved to reset US relations with Egypt by embracing el-Sissi at the White House, Egypt’s posture changed.

Human rights activists are concerned that Trump is condoning the actions of dictators when he is warm to them or extends invitations to visit.

‘‘Inviting these men to the White House in effect places the United States’ seal of approval on their heinous actions,’’ said Rob Berschinski, senior vice president at Human Rights First.

Asked at the daily White House press briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer suggested Trump was cultivating such leaders with the explicit aim of weakening North Korea.

‘‘The president clearly, as I said, understands the threat that North Korea poses,’’ Spicer said. ‘‘Having someone with the potential nuclear capability to strike another country — and potentially our country — at some point in the future is something that the president takes very seriously.’’

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.