WASHINGTON — When President Trump called President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines on Saturday, the American leader’s national security aides saw it as part of a routine diplomatic outreach to Southeast Asian leaders. Mr. Trump, characteristically, had his own ideas.
During their “very friendly conversation,” the administration said in a late-night statement, Mr. Trump invited Mr. Duterte, an authoritarian leader accused of ordering extrajudicial killings of drug suspects in the Philippines, to visit him at the White House.
Now, administration officials are bracing for an avalanche of criticism from human rights groups. Two senior officials said they expected the State Department and the National Security Council, both of which were caught off guard by the invitation, to raise objections internally.
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The White House disclosed the news on a day when Mr. Trump fired up his supporters at a campaign-style rally in Harrisburg, Pa. The timing of the announcement — after a speech that was an angry, grievance-filled jeremiad — encapsulated this president after 100 days in office: still ready to say and do things that leave people, even on his staff, slack-jawed.
“By essentially endorsing Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings,” said John Sifton, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Although the traits of his personality likely make it impossible, Trump should be ashamed of himself.”
Administration officials said the call to Mr. Duterte was one of several to Southeast Asian leaders that the White House arranged after picking up signs that they felt neglected because of Mr. Trump’s intense focus on China, Japan and tensions over North Korea. On Sunday, Mr. Trump spoke to the prime ministers of Singapore and Thailand; both got White House invitations.
Mr. Duterte’s toxic reputation had already given pause to some in the White House. The Philippines is to host a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in November, and officials said there was a brief debate about whether Mr. Trump should attend.
It is not even clear, given the accusations of human rights abuses against him, that Mr. Duterte would be granted a visa to the United States were he not a head of state, according to human rights advocates.
Still, Mr. Trump’s affinity for Mr. Duterte — and other strongmen as well — is firmly established. Both presidents are populist insurgent leaders, with a penchant for making inflammatory statements. Both ran for office calling for a wholesale crackdown on Islamist militancy and the drug trade. And both display impatience with the courts.
After Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Duterte called to congratulate him. Later, the Philippine leader issued a statement saying that the president-elect had wished him well in his antidrug campaign, which has resulted in the deaths of several thousand people suspected of using or selling narcotics, as well as others who may have had no involvement with drugs.
Mr. Trump’s cultivation of Mr. Duterte has a strategic rationale, officials said. Mr. Duterte had pivoted away from the United States, a longtime treaty ally, and toward China. The alienation deepened after he referred to President Barack Obama as a “son of a whore” when he was asked how he would react if Mr. Obama raised human rights concerns with him.
In October, Mr. Duterte called for a “separation” between the Philippines and the United States. “America has lost now,” he told an audience of business executives in Beijing. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” He later threatened to rip up an agreement that allows American troops to visit the Philippines.