It’s no longer just Vladimir Putin.
As he settles into office, President Trump’s affection for totalitarian leaders has grown beyond Russia’s president to include strongmen around the globe.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-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.
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.
For instance, 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 that it should scale back or give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Trump’s praise is not limited to potential U.S. allies. Even as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ratchets up his provocations, Trump called Kim “a smart cookie” in a CBS News interview over the weekend. On Monday, Trump told Bloomberg News he would be “honored” to personally meet with Kim “under the right circumstances.”
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 al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against his own citizens.
“He doesn’t even pretend to utter the words,” said Michael McFaul, a U.S. 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 to visit the White House. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was “deeply disturbed” by Trump’s “cavalier invitation” and called on him to rescind it.
“This is a man who has boasted publicly about killing his own citizens,” Cardin said of Duterte in a statement. “The United States is unique in the world because our values — respect for human rights, respect for the rule of law — are our interests. Ignoring human rights will not advance U.S. 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. “We can’t force these countries to behave certain ways. We can apply pressure, but if the alternative is not talking, how effective would it be if we had no relationships? If you walk away from relationships, you can’t make any progress.”
Anton explained that Trump is trying to “balance” interests. He said the decision to invite Duterte to the White House — a symbolic gesture that gives credibility to the autocrat’s rule — was agreed to by most of Trump’s advisers.
“It’s not binary,” he said. “It’s not that you care about human rights so you can’t have a relationship with the Philippines, or if you have a relationship with the Philippines you don’t care about human rights.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) described the Trump strategy as establishing commonality with offending nations before publicly chastising them for offenses.
“Their approach is to obviously continue to hold up the values that we have here in America,” Corker said in a recent interview. “But their approach is to build some commonality — never let go of that as an American cause, but to work on it in ways where they achieve a result, and to not go in on the front end.”
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 Sissi’s brutal crackdown on civil society — as evidence that their strategy is paying dividends.
Trump and his aides worked for several weeks with Sissi and his government to secure Hijazi’s freedom. The Obama administration had pressed unsuccessfully for her release, but once Trump moved to reset U.S. relations with Egypt by embracing Sissi at the White House, Egypt’s posture changed.
Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for human rights and democracy under Obama, said Trump appears to be living up to his campaign promise.
“The whole idea of ‘America First’ is that we’re not trying to make the world better,” Malinowski said. “We’re trying to protect the homeland and the domestic economy, and the rest is all cutting deals with whoever is willing to cut deals with us. There’s not much room in that equation for standing up for the rights, freedoms and well-being of other people.”
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. He went on to say, “Nothing excuses President Trump’s clear inclination to reward mass murderers and torturers with undeserved honors.”
Asked at the daily White House press briefing whether Trump had “a thing” for totalitarian leaders, press secretary Sean Spicer suggested he 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.”
But McFaul posited that the Trump administration may be naive in calculating that personal outreach and warm praise will convince authoritarian leaders to support U.S. interests.
“The converse of that is that these leaders are taking him for a ride,” McFaul said. “He tends to over-personalize relationships between states. He says China’s ‘raping’ us, then he meets President Xi and suddenly he’s this wise man with whom he has a good chemistry. I hope this will produce outcomes that are good for us, but right now it’s producing outcomes that are good for China.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.