MANILA— Two months into his ascent as the country’s most powerful man, President Rodrigo Duterte took on superpower America with public rhetoric never before seen and heard from any Philippine chief executive.
In a speech in September 2016, Duterte, the first city mayor who shot straight to the presidency by popular mandate, called then President Barack Obama a “son of a w****,” as he rejected US criticism of his bloody drug war.
"[W]e have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people,” Duterte said in a speech, demanding respect from the Americans in a line he would repeat many times throughout his presidency, confronting the long-time ally for its occupation of the Philippines decades ago.
But by December, the fiery-tongued Filipino leader had softened his tone.
He made a phone call to Obama’s successor, then US President-elect Donald Trump, to congratulate him for his election victory. It was a gesture he has not extended to the incoming American leader Joe Biden, who will take his oath as the 46th US President on Wednesday, defeating one-termer Trump.
That call was the beginning of 4 years of cordial exchanges between the two leaders— a relationship some analysts called a “bromance.”
To Trump, Duterte appeared warmer, despite avowals of deviating from the country’s traditional relationship with the US, cozying up instead to the latter’s perceived rivals, Russia and China, notwithstanding a maritime dispute over the South China Sea.
“Ayaw kong makipag-away kasi nandyan na si Trump (I don’t want to pick a fight anymore because Trump is there). I would like to congratulate President Trump. Mabuhay ka!” Duterte said in a speech before the Filipino community in Malaysia in December 2016, days before his phone call to congratulate Trump.
“Pareho tayo nagmumura. Konting rason lang, mura kaagad. Medyo pare-pareho kami,” he said of the reality TV star and businessman who won the 2016 US presidential race in a shock upset of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton won in the popular vote but lost in the electoral count.
(We both curse. Just a bit of reasoning, we resort to curses. We are a bit similar.)
THE FIRST PHONE CALL
When they spoke for the first time by phone on Dec. 3, 2016, it was “very engaging, animated,” said Duterte’s then aide and now Sen. Christopher Go. In the 7-minute call, Trump invited Duterte to visit the White House when the US was to host a meeting with the ASEAN.
Months later, Duterte said he had no plans of going to “lousy” America. He later rejected Trump’s invitation.
“So what makes that guy think that I’m going to America?” Duterte told reporters in a chance interview in Davao City in July 2017.
“There will never be a time during my admin[istration] that I’ll be going to America or thereafter. Ako, tapos na ako diyan. I’ve seen America and it’s lousy,” he said.
The two leaders had another phone call in April 2017, but details about the call were scant. The conversation came just as Duterte expressed concern over developments at the time in the Korean Peninsula, where Washington had raised alarm over the north’s nuclear tests.
THE FIRST MEETING
In November 2017, or nearly a year since their first phone call, Duterte and Trump met for the first time at a regional summit in Vietnam. It was just a few days before Trump was to fly to Manila to participate in the ASEAN Summit.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque described that sideline encounter as "short but warm and cordial.”
"It shows that I think that the two leaders were genuinely pleased to have finally met each other in person," Roque told reporters.
In the same month, he said the two leaders were “very much alike,” and that Duterte and Trump were not expected to clash over human rights issues.
Republican Trump, indeed, never called out the Philippine leader over the controversial drug war, which US Democrats heavily criticized over alleged abuses.
On the contrary, Trump even praised Duterte’s campaign in May 2017, complimenting the latter for an "unbelievable job on the drug problem” in their second phone call on April 29.
When Trump finally traveled to the Philippines on an official trip, Duterte obliged to a serenade.
During the gala dinner of the 31st ASEAN Summit on Nov. 12, 2017, Duterte sang OPM classic “Ikaw” with legendary Philippine singer Pilita Corrales, saying it was "upon the orders of the commander-in-chief of the United States."
In a video shot by then Public Works Undersecretary and lawyer Karen Jimeno, Trump and Duterte, who were seated next to each other, could be seen sharing a brief chat after the Philippine President’s impromptu song number.
In its story on Trump’s Manila visit, UK’s The Guardian cited how Duterte was often being described as the “Donald Trump of Asia,” while Reuters reported how the two leaders got the chance to “bond” at their first formal meeting, with the US leader saying he has a “great relationship” with the Philippine President.
Malacañang said the two leaders “really hit it off” at their Manila meeting.
BALANGIGA BELLS, VFA
Amid cordial ties between the two leaders, there were still tense moments between the Philippines and the United States throughout Trump’s stay at the White House, with Duterte asserting Philippine sovereignty in several instances.
In July 2017, when he delivered his second State of the Nation Address, Duterte directly addressed America and demanded: “Give us back those Balangiga bells.”
He dropped the line in the presence of then US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim at the joint congressional session. Duterte was referring to three church bells--seen as a symbol of Filipino resistance to foreign invaders--that American soldiers took as war booty from Balangiga town in Eastern Samar in 1901.
A year and a half later, in December 2018, the bells were back on Philippine soil. Two had been kept at an air base in Wyoming, and one in South Korea.
"It has been a very long road home. Many Filipinos and Americans worked tirelessly for decades to make today possible. I’m so glad many of them are here today," the US envoy said during a handover ceremony.
In December 2019, Trump signed the US budget law that has a provision barring US entry to the jailers of Duterte’s staunch critic Sen. Leila de Lima. The lawmaker has been detained at the national police headquarters since February 2017 over drug charges, which she has several times denied and branded as political persecution.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, who at the time was Duterte’s spokesman, said of the ban: “...[W]e’re not bothered by it.”
The following month, in January 2020, Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa, a close Duterte ally who was chief enforcer of his drug war at the start of his administration, confirmed his US visa had been canceled.
He said the cancelation may be linked to his role in the drug war, which several US officials have criticized for police abuses and alleged extrajudicial killings. The government has many times defended the campaign, saying suspects slain in drug raids had resisted arrest.
A few days later, Duterte--who had Dela Rosa as his police chief when he was Davao City mayor--said he would cancel the Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) if the US does not address the senator’s visa problem.
“I am warning you, kapag hindi ninyo ginawa ang correction diyan (if you don’t issue a correction) I will terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement,” the President said in a speech in San Isidro, Leyte on Jan. 23, 2020.
“Tapusin ko iyan p*t*ng*n* iyan (I will end that). I am giving notice and they begin to count. I am giving government and the American government one month from now,” he added.
By February 11 of the same year, the Philippines sent notice to the US of its intent to terminate the treaty, which governs the conduct of visiting American soldiers in the country.
It was Trump who was unbothered, saying of the Philippine decision: “If they would like to do that, that's fine, we'll save a lot of money.”
Again, he cited his "very good relationship" with Duterte.
In June 2020, the Philippine government walked back on its intent, putting on hold the abrogation of the VFA “in light of political and other developments in the region.”
Three months later, in September, Duterte granted absolute pardon to US Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, who was convicted of killing Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude in 2014.
Unlike other convicts imprisoned in correctional facilities, the US soldier was held at a separate custodial facility inside Camp Aguinaldo, the military headquarters, per provisions of the VFA, until the pardon grant.
The pardon followed a court’s ruling that Pemberton was eligible for early release, citing his good conduct.
Duterte said the US soldier was treated unfairly, noting his good conduct while held: "You have not treated Pemberton fairly. So, i-release ko. Pardon. Eh ang pardon, walang mga question 'yan (there are no questions there).”
The soldier was flown back to the US on Sept. 13. In a statement, the US Embassy in Manila said Pemberton had “fulfilled his sentence as ordered by Philippine courts.”
As the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, Duterte and Trump had another phone call on April 19, 2020, speaking for about 18 minutes in a “cordial conversation” that the White House initiated.
It was roughly a month into the global health crisis, which has affected the US the worst. There are currently 24 million cases in the United States, with 399,000 deaths.
Details of the call were not released. The conversation between the two leaders came about two months after Duterte said Trump, who was then about to wage a reelection bid, deserved to win a second term.
Incidentally, Trump would get infected by the coronavirus, too, along with his wife Melania. The US leader, who earlier in the crisis had shunned protocols such as wearing a mask, confirmed his COVID-19 diagnosis in October last year, just weeks before the US elections.
Several other White House officials also got infected.
Duterte wished Trump and the US First Lady speedy recovery just days after the US leader's COVID-19 announcement.
"He wishes President Trump and his wife, First Lady Melania, a full and speedy recovery," his spokesman Roque said in a press briefing on Oct. 5, 2020.
Trump eventually won his battle against the virus, but lost his reelection bid. Bitterly.
He alleged electoral fraud without evidence, goading his supporters to “walk down” to the US Capitol on Jan. 6, the day the US Congress was to certify Biden’s victory.
He was impeached the second time last week for the deadly siege on the Capitol, which has been described as an unprecedented assault on democracy.
Biden will be sworn in on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) as the new US President. Trump has said he won't attend the inauguration.