President Trump just seems to have a thing for strongmen.
He invited the brutal Philippine leader, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House during a "very friendly" phone call Sunday. On Tuesday, Trump has another call — this one with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump's invitation came despite Duterte's violent crackdown on drugs, that has left more than 7,000 of his countrymen dead since he took power less than a year ago. The White House defended Trump's decision, saying the Philippines is a key partner in dealing with North Korea, but experts say that's a stretch.
The United States and Western allies have long turned a blind eye to totalitarian regimes guilty of a long list of human-rights violations. Often, it was in the name of stability and at the expense of people suffering in those countries. But American leaders have mostly been mindful to choose their words carefully to maintain some semblance of a moral higher ground. What Trump is doing is different — past American leaders would almost never express admiration for bad actors. Trump, in many cases, has been doing exactly that.
Duterte is hardly the only autocrat Trump has had kind words for. From Saddam Hussein's efficient killing of terrorists to the "smart cookie" in North Korea, Trump has praised strongmen around the world when others wouldn't. The following list reads like a who's who of totalitarian leaders with dicey human-rights records. And in all of the countries, the American president and real-estate magnate has a raft of potential conflicts of interest, too:
Rodrigo Duterte, Philippines
Nickname: "The Punisher" a.k.a. "Duterte Harry"
What he's accused of: More than 7,000 Filipinos killed under his rule in his anti-drug crusade. In a warped comparison, he praised Hitler this way: "Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there is three million drug addicts. I'd be happy to slaughter them." He added that he wants to "finish the problem of my country and save the next generation." (Fact check: it was six million European Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.) ... He has undermined the judiciary ... Called experts "stupid" ... Threatened to "whack" mayors who stood in the way of his tactics ... Upset about traffic, he called the Pope a "son of a whore" ... "Joked" about a woman who was raped. ...
Justified the killing of journalists. "Just because you're a journalist," he said, "you are not exempted from assassination, if you're a son of a bitch." The Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists to work — 78 journalists have been killed there since 1992, the third most of any country behind Iraq and Syria. (Somalia is behind the Philippines at No. 4.) Though Duterte's praised Trump, he's also said: "He is a bigot and I am not."
Quotable: "Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I'd kill you. I'll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there."
What Trump has said about him (emphasis ours): The White House issued a readout of their phone call from April 29:
"It was a very friendly conversation, in which the two leaders discussed the concerns of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding regional security, including the threat posed by North Korea. They also discussed the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world. President Trump enjoyed the conversation and said that he is looking forward to visiting the Philippines in November to participate in the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit. President Trump also invited President Duterte to the White House to discuss the importance of the United States-Philippines alliance, which is now heading in a very positive direction."
Duterte now might not even come. "I am tied up," Duterte said Monday. "I cannot make any definite promise. I am supposed to go to Russia, I am supposed to go to Israel."
Potential Trump conflict: His name is on a 57-story, $150 million building in Manila. Duterte named the head of the corporation that developed it as an envoy to the United States.
Vladimir Putin, Russia
What he's accused of: Invaded a sovereign country (Ukraine) and annexed part of it (Crimea). ... Aiding Syrian President Bashar Assad militarily. Assad is accused by the West of using chemical weapons against his own people. ... Meddled in elections, including in the U.S. ... Allowed hackings of Western bank accounts without prosecution ... Some 100 men suspected of being gay have been swept up in Chechnya, including three who were killed last month. ... People with disabilities face discrimination, including not studying in mainstream schools ...
Cracked down on freedom of information, including shutting down websites ... Persecuted critics, political opponents and journalists who have been jailed and killed. (It's the seventh-most dangerous country for journalists to work in.) ... Some human-rights NGOs have been labeled "foreign agents" and "undesirable foreign organizations." They've been banned and a new law means they could face up to six years in prison. ... Russian Olympians have been accused of doping through a government program. ... Russia won the rights to host the 2018 soccer World Cup, but there are questions as to how. Former FIFA head Sepp Blatter was ousted in 2015 and banned for eight years after soccer's world governing body was found to be rife with corruption and kickbacks. Still, Putin said Blatter "deserves a Nobel Peace Prize."
Quotable: "Hitler also failed when, with his hateful ideas, he was going to destroy Russia, throw us back behind the Urals. Everyone should remember how it ended."
What Trump has said about him: "If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him. I've already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, oh, isn't that a terrible thing — the man has very strong control over a country. Now, it's a very different system, and I don't happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he's been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader. ... he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters...." (Sept. 7, 2016, NBC Commander-in-Chief Forum)
Potential Trump conflict: Trump put on the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and has tried for a long time to gain a foothold in the Russian market. In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. said: "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." (The Washington Post and Time have more on Trump's Russia connections.)
Xi Jinping, China
Nickname: "Xi Dada" a.k.a. "Xi Big Big" a.k.a "Big Daddy Xi"
What he's accused of: Extra-judicial detention, where detainees are tortured and mistreated, including as a tactic against political opponents and activists ... Leading the world in executions ... "Enforced disappearance of critics" ... Using strong-arm tactics to maintain Communist Party power. For example, launching an "anti-corruption campaign" against political opponents and shutting down groups seen as a threat – even ones as seemingly benign as advocating for women's legal counsel against domestic abuse. ...
Identified as "the world's worst jailer of journalists" in 2014 and 2015. China was holding 49 journalists in 2015; that number was down to 38 last year and eclipsed only by Turkey (81), as Erdogan moved to consolidate power and repress opposition. China is ranked near the bottom (176 out of 180) in the World Press Freedom Index, beat out only by Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea. ... Clamping down on access to the Internet and censoring it. Google left the country last year despite the huge potential market because of it ... Lack of religious freedom. Uighur Muslims, for example, are labeled extremists and terrorists; families of Tibetan self-immolators have been punished; 1,500 crosses have been torn down from church steeples; a small Chinese Jewish community has been harassed and prevented from worshiping together. China only has five "licensed" religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism.
Quotable: "There are a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country. China does not export revolution, hunger, poverty nor does China cause you any headaches. Just what else do you want?"
What Trump has said about him: "He certainly doesn't want to see turmoil and death. He doesn't want to see it. He is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well." (April 28, Reuters interview)
Potential Trump conflict: Trump has strong business ties to China. He has tried to get into the Chinese market since 2008. He signed onto two multi-million-dollar deals that fell apart, including one with State Grid, the state-owned power company. In October, the Trump Organization announced new plans for 20 to 30 new hotels in cities all over China. Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. is a tenant in Trump Tower. Bank of China, also state-owned, is a debt holder for at least part of a $950 million loan for a building in New York in which Trump is part-owner.
Trump and his daughter Ivanka were granted hard-to-come-by trademarks in China earlier this year. Ivanka's husband, Jared Kushner, a key (maybe top) adviser to the president owns a skyscraper in New York and was set to get a $400 million investment from a Chinese firm in the tower. But that deal was killed because of conflict-of-interest concerns.
Kim Jong Un, North Korea
What he's accused of: Human Rights Watch notes: "A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry found that abuses in North Korea were without parallel in the contemporary world. They include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. North Korea operates secretive prison camps where perceived opponents of the government are sent to face torture and abuse, starvation rations, and forced labor. Fear of collective punishment is used to silence dissent. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom." ...
It is ranked at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index. ... Kim has worked with China to crack down on border crossings to prevent escapees. In some cases, North Korea has tracked down citizens and returned them to the country. China is complicit as well, labeling those who escape as illegal and returning them. People returned to the country are sent to forced-labor prison camps, known as "kwanliso," which literally means management centers. ... Kim does not allow unauthorized outside movies, news, etc., into the country. ... There is no religious freedom or allowed political opposition. ... The country has a "songbun" class system in which people are grouped into three categories ranking their loyalty — 1. Loyal, 2. Wavering, 3. Hostile.
Quotable: "If the American imperialists provoke us a bit, we will not hesitate to slap them with a pre-emptive nuclear strike. The United States must choose! It's up to you whether the nation called the United States exists on this planet or not."
What Trump has said about him: "At a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I'm sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he's a pretty smart cookie." (April 30, CBS)
"If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it. If it's under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that. ... Most political people would never say that, but I'm telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him. We have breaking news." (May 1, Bloomberg)
Potential Trump conflict: See China.
Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt
What he's accused of: A long-time general in the country's military, he rose to power in a bloody coup. Some 800 protesters were killed in a single day ... Public criticism of the government is squashed ... Anti-government protests are banned ... Scores of people have been arrested ... Privacy rights are routinely violated ... Some independent human-rights organizations have been banned; NGO workers could face up to 25 years in prison if they are believed to be working against Egypt's national interest ... Charges were brought against the country's top anti-corruption official ... Forced disappearances ... Detainees tortured ... Thousands of trials with flimsy evidence ... Overcrowding in prisons that have seen forced feedings and isolation ... Freedom of speech is repressed — the head of the Press Syndicate was charged with "publishing false news, which threatens public peace." ...
Religious freedom is almost nonexistent — Christians are routinely discriminated against; churches are limited and speaking out against Islam, even ISIS, can land you in prison. Four Christian children, in fact, were sentenced to five years in prison for putting up a video that mocked ISIS. ... The government has undertaken some perfunctory steps to curb violence against women, but Human Rights Watch says, "Sexual harassment and violence against women remained endemic." The new Interior Minister, a woman, has put the onus on women, telling them to avoid speaking loudly and to be cautious about how they dress. Women are also routinely discriminated against in family law cases. ...
Sexually repressive society that criminalizes sex outside marriage ... Tracks down and prosecutes alleged gays, who are often sodomized by police. ... Egypt is one of the worst countries for journalists, ranked 161 of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. Ten journalists have been killed since 2011; some have faced years in detention without charges, others have seen long prison terms, as the Sissi government undergoes a "Sisification" of the media.
Quotable: "Please, don't listen to anyone but me. I am dead serious. Be careful, no one should abuse my patience and good manners to bring down the state. I swear by God that anyone who comes near it, I will remove him from the face of the Earth. I am telling you this as the whole of Egypt is listening. What do you think you're doing? Who are you?"
What Trump has said about him (emphasis ours): "I will tell you, President al-Sisi has been somebody that's been very close to me from the first time I met him. I met during the campaign, and at that point there were two of us, and we both met. And hopefully you like me a lot more. But it was very long. It was supposed to be just a quick brief meeting, and we were with each other for a long period of time. We agreed on so many things. I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sisi. He's done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt. And the United States has, believe me, backing, and we have strong backing. ... And I just want to say to you, Mr. President, that you have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me." (Bilateral meeting with Egypt's president, April 3)
Potential Trump conflict: Trump lists two companies in Egpyt on his financial disclosure — Trump Marks Egypt and Trump Marks Egypt LLC. There is not a lot of information about the companies. They do not appear in the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt's database. Both are, however, registered in Delaware. They are both registered with "National Registered Agents, Inc." out of Dover, Del. and were formed in 2007. (Many companies incorporate in Delaware, because there is no state income tax.)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey
What he's accused of: Attempting to consolidate power in the face of political opposition. A referendum last month "gives him the green light to create a muscular presidency, with powers to personally appoint or dismiss ministers, select judges and rule by decree if he deems it necessary," BBC notes. ... He has jailed opponents and critics, including a 16-year-old, who insulted him and a Miss Turkey who shared a poem criticizing him. ... More than 50,000 people have been detained since a thwarted coup. ...
Accused protesters of being "arm in arm" with terrorists ... Turkey has the most jailed journalists of any country in the world. Fourteen were imprisoned in 2015, but that number jumped to 81 in 2016, more than double the number of journalists behind bars in China (No. 2 on the list). ... Some 120,000 public servants have been fired. ... Repressing religious freedom and women's rights. ... Attempted to criminalize adultery and create "alcohol-free zones."
Quotable: "You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. It is against nature. They were created differently. Their nature is different. ... Our religion has defined a position for women: motherhood. ... Some people can understand this, while others can't. You cannot explain this to feminists, because they don't accept the concept of motherhood."
What Trump has said about him (emphasis ours): The White House issued a readout of Trump calling Erdogan after he won a referendum that expanded his power:
"President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to congratulate him on his recent referendum victory and to discuss the United States' action in response to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons on April 4th. President Trump thanked President Erdogan for supporting this action by the United States, and the leaders agreed on the importance of holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable. President Trump and President Erdogan also discussed the counter-ISIS campaign and the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends."
Potential Trump conflict: Trump licenses his name to two buildings in Istanbul. He got $5 million from the licenses in 2016, according to his financial disclosure. Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn worked as a foreign agent for Turkey in the fall, while a campaign adviser to Trump, pulling in $500,000. It was something he only reported in March. He resigned his White House post three weeks earlier.