Last week, Colorado’s Republican U.S. Senator, Cory Gardner, met with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila.
The news came as a surprise to political observers in Colorado, in part because of how the news broke. Gardner did not publicly announce his visit— instead his meeting emerged from leaked documents and Duterte’s own press shop.
A U.S. senator meeting with a foreign president typically might not be so controversial, particularly a senator who chairs the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity.
But for anyone following current international news, Duterte’s name comes with some grizzly baggage. For several months, human rights groups have accused him of overseeing a bloodbath of late-night murders in the streets and homes of his country as the president cracks down on drugs. The body count is in the thousands.
Who is Rodrigo Duterte?
A once provincial island mayor who rose to run the country around this time last year, he has admitted he personally killed three people when he ran the city of Davao. He said “for as long as there are drug lords this campaign will go on until the last day of my term and until all of them are killed.” He is prone to crass comments and an impolitic demeanor.
Consider this from The New Yorker in November:
He told reporters, “Don’t fuck with me.” He called political figures “gay.” When a reporter asked about his health, he replied, “How is your wife’s vagina? Is it smelly? Or not smelly? Give me a report.” In an overwhelmingly Catholic country, he swore at the Pope. At first, he defended his language as a gesture of radical populism. “I am testing the élite in this country,” he said.
But it is not the Filipino’s manner that has attracted global scrutiny since he took power last year. It is whether or not the authoritarian leader is supporting an extrajudicial massacre of suspected drug users and pushers in the country’s cities.
“Duterte has been accused of mass murder before the International Criminal Court, and from the time he took office at the end of June, his war on drugs has resulted in the slaughter of somewhere near 8,000 people,” reported VICE. “The number of deaths is not questioned, though whether these people were killed in compliance with Duterte’s mandate to rid the country of drug users and pushers sometimes is.”
Still, his popularity in the Philippines is high. President Donald Trump has praised him— and has invited him to the White House. In a phone call with Duterte, Trump said the Filipino leader was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” according to a transcript obtained by The New York Times.
In October, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said: “I am deeply concerned about these alleged killings and the fact that public statements of high officials of the republic of the Philippines seem to condone such killings.”
How do we know Cory Gardner met with Duterte?
That’s the interesting part.
We know because word leaked out from the Philippines— not because Gardner’s office publicly announced it. The news broke on a website called CyberScoop that Gardner was involved in a “courtesy call” with Duterte. The site published what looks like a 10-page briefing for the meeting. “Senator Gardner intends to have a quiet visit to engage our leadership, as he is very interested in the security and intelligence angle of Philippines-US relations,” reads part of it. “He is very eager to develop relations with the Philippines and comes from a ‘pro-engagement’ strategy.”
The site stated a Gardner staffer declined to talk about it at the time.
Media in the Philippines later released a video of Gardner meeting with Duterte, though it contained no audio.
The Presidential Communications Operations Office in the Philippines released a series of photographs of Gardner meeting with Duterte. There’s Gardner at a white-tablecloth dinner, and a smiling Gardner chatting and shaking hands with Duterte. There is no mention on Gardner’s own website or Facebook page about his meeting, trip to the Philippines, or what he discussed.
After news broke of the visit, Gardner’s office released a statement to media confirming the senator met with Duterte and why. A Gardner spokesman didn’t respond to an email request to talk more about this issue.
“Instead of engaging in press release diplomacy, Senator Gardner wanted to discuss face to face with President Duterte the importance to adhering to the rule of law,” the statement from Gardner’s office read. “They also discussed joint efforts to defeat ISIS-linked groups, as they continue to gain a stronger presence in the country.”
Once back in the United States, Gardner gave a phone interview to The Denver Post. He said he spoke to Duterte about human rights abuses in his country. “I am very concerned about the direction that things are heading in the Philippines,” Gardner told the paper. “I’m very concerned about the extrajudicial killings and I’m very concerned about the rule of law, and if it is being followed when it comes to human rights. … I’m very concerned about human rights abuses and that’s why I brought it up face to face.”
Gardner’s detractors are outraged
Since Gardner won a remarkable defeat against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in 2014, he has been a top target for Democrats and progressives who loath his teflon ability to deflect criticism.
They pounced when news broke and photos emerged of a smiling Gardner shaking hands with such a questionable character. It’s bound to dog him on the road to his next election, which isn’t until 2020. So far coverage of the event has been contained to Colorado media.
— James Owens (@JamesDakinOwens) June 2, 2017
Ian Silverii, the head of ProgressNow, a state-based progressive group, lit into Gardner and called for a full accounting of what he discussed on the trip. He called on the senator to “apologize to the victims of Duterte’s campaign of terror against his own people.”
In an interview with The Denver Post, Gardner responded to criticism by saying liberal groups didn’t go after Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet when he visited Cuba in February. Colorado Republicans echoed the the line on social media.
Bennet’s office said he went to the Communist country to “discuss future opportunities for U.S.-Cuban cooperation on a range of topics, including foreign trade.”
So is it a big deal that Gardner met with this guy?
One high-profile national organization that works on human rights issues wishes it had gone down differently.
Phelim Kine, deputy director of the Asia division at the international nonprofit Human Rights Watch, a group that has been at the forefront of documenting the killings in the Philippines, said he was concerned to first hear about Gardner’s trip from The Colorado Independent days after it happened.
Kine worries thousands of Filipinos affected by what he calls a “murderous anti-drug campaign” will see an image of Duterte’s photo op with a national U.S. policymaker in a way that might normalize the situation going on there.
“President Duterte has an extremely effective PR machine, so you can be sure that these images were widely distributed throughout the Philippine media as a way of positive branding (of) the president in terms of being an international statesman,” he says.
Human Rights Watch has a key message it gives to policymakers, public officials and politicians of any stripe from any country that has a friendly relationship with the Philippines, Kine says. That message: “This is absolutely not the time to pursue business as usual with the Philippines because Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has unleashed nothing less than an absolute human rights calamity on his country, which, with very conservative estimates, has killed at least 7,000 people over the last 11 months.”
Every time a public figure goes there and has a smiling photo op, Kine says, they are consciously or not “endorsing and normalizing” someone who is implicated in mass murders and potential crimes against humanity.
Kine said bringing up human rights abuses, while laudable, shouldn’t be just one on a list a traveling dignitary touches on. “I’m glad that Cory Gardner mentioned the issue of rule of law because President Duterte has trashed the concept of rule of law,” he said. Gardner has every right to meet with any head of state he wishes, Kine said, and Human Rights Watch doesn’t oppose him meeting with Duterte. “But we would only have said here are three simple messages to give him,” he said. One: Stop the killings. Two: Allow an international UN-led investigation into those killings. And three three: Stop encouraging and cheerleading those killings as a form of effective quote-unquote crime control that has killed thousands of your citizens.
Speaking to 9News anchor Kyle Clark, Gardner said he believes there should be transparency and investigations into the killings. “That’s the kind of conversations I had,” he said, and defended his face-to-face with Duterte as something more than just press release diplomacy.
That’s not enough for Kine, who says Gardner owes the U.S. and Filipino public a much more detailed breakdown of what he said and what he and Duterte discussed.
“I think just a few sentences in a media story really doesn’t suffice given the gravity, severity, and the sheer volume of human rights abuses that are happening in the Philippines right now,” he says.
While in the Philippines, Gardner also met with the head of the country’s Human Rights Commission, who has been outspoken against extrajudicial killings, according to The Associated Press.
Oliver Kaplan, a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies who specializes in human rights and did field work in the Philippines, said he was a bit surprised when he heard about Gardner’s meeting with Duterte.
“Ideally the United States should be strongly pressing Duterte on human rights issues,” he says. “So to the extent that Gardner did that it’s a good thing. But to the extent that it’s not really verifiable and that it wasn’t done more publicly, it’s not clear why a senator is going over there alone doing that.”
What about Trump in all this?
The Philippines are a strong American ally. But last year Duterte threatened to “break up with America” and told then-Democratic president Barack Obama to “go to hell.” He was responding to official U.S. criticism of the bloody wave of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. The White House spokesman at the time said the U.S would “not hesitate” to raise concerns about such killings. “We won’t be silent in raising our significant concerns about these reports,” then-spokesman Josh Earnest said. Later, Duterte called Obama a “son of a whore,” as U.S. criticism ramped up, and then said he regretted saying it.
Current GOP President Donald Trump has been warmer to Duterte. In Late April, Trump called Duterte and the two had a “very friendly conversation,” according to the administration. Trump even invited the Filipino president to the White House, which The New York Times reported caught the State Department and the National Security Council off guard. Trump also told Duterte he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” according to the Times.
Connecticut Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had this reaction:
We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash. https://t.co/VgVflWoMUf
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) April 30, 2017
More from The New York Times:
Mr. Trump has a commercial connection to the Philippines: His name is stamped on a $150 million, 57-floor tower in Manila, a licensing deal that netted his company millions of dollars. Mr. Duterte appointed the chairman of the company developing the tower, Jose E. B. Antonio, as an envoy to Washington for trade, investment and economic affairs.
Gardner’s relationship with Trump has run hot and cold. Since the election he has voted with Trump’s agenda 96.7 percent of the time, according to data by FiveThirtyEight, where reporters are tracking members of Congress in the era of Donald Trump, tallying up how often they vote with the new president..
But Gardner has distanced himself from some of Trump’s more volatile moves.
He said Trump’s travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries went “ too far” and that the new president should fix what Gardner called an “overly broad executive order” when Trump implemented his travel ban. He has also pushed Trump to take a “firm line” with Russia as well as keeping sanctions— and imposing new ones— on the country. He urged the Trump administration to be forthcoming about Trump’s meeting with Russian officials in the White House in which he is reported to have disclosed sensitive information about combating the Islamic State.
This week, Trump invited Gardner for a Tuesday dinner to discuss foreign policy with a handful of other members of Congress.
From The Denver Post:
“The dinner also could provide a platform for Gardner to talk about his own overseas travels, including a controversial meeting with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte that Gardner said last week included a discussion of Duterte’s brutal crackdown on drug dealers and users that’s left thousands dead. Trump has praised that bloody approach and has invited Duterte to the White House in the future.
A Gardner spokesman told the paper the senator looked forward to “sharing the details of his trip.”
Is the Colorado senator taking on a lead role in international relations?
For good or worse, Gardner’s latest trip overseas has elevated his status on the foreign policy front.
While his meeting with Duterte in the Philippines made the headlines, it was part of a broader trip to East Asia where he also met with senior South Korean officials and the president of Taiwan.
In April, Gardner was appointed to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. He was also the first member of Congress to meet with a special envoy from South Korea after the delegation met with Trump. In mid-May he signed a letter urging the UN to impose additional sanctions on North Korea after the country conducted missile tests.
And then there’s this: Last month, Gardner drew a bizarre attack from non other than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after blasting him on TV as a “crazed maniac” and a “whack job.”
A Pyongyang’s foreign ministry spokesman responded in kind.
“On May 3, some [expletive] by the name of Cory Gardner, who sits on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, perpetrated wicked blasphemy against our supreme dignity during an interview with NBC,” read the statement as translated by United Press International. “For a psychopath like the [expletive] Gardner, to hurl evil accusations at our highest dignity, is a serious provocation … That a man mixed in with human dirt like Gardner, who has lost basic judgment and body hair, could only spell misfortune for the United States.”
Gardner shrugged it off, calling Kim Jong Un a madman.
Photo provided by The Presidential Communications Operations Office in the Philippines