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White House Defends Trump's Decision To Reach Out To Philippines' President

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The White House is defending President Trump's decision to reach out to controversial Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Trump called Duterte over the weekend in what the White House called a very friendly phone call and invited him to the White House. Duterte has prosecuted a vicious war on drugs that allows police to execute people who use or sell drugs. It's resulted in the deaths of at least 8,000 people.

To talk more about this, we're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who's at the White House. And Mara, how is the White House explaining the president's outreach to Duterte?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: White House officials say that the National Security Council and the State Department knew that the president was going to extend this invitation to Duterte. They were not blindsided. And today Sean Spicer said that the president was briefed in advance and was aware of all the human rights issues with the Duterte government. But he said there is a bigger concern here, and that is North Korea. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SEAN SPICER: Obviously there's a human rights component that goes into all of this. And so it's a balance. We want to make sure that our country, our people are protected. This isn't a simple yes or no kind of situation.

LIASSON: So Spicer said don't assume that because the president doesn't talk about human rights in public, though, he doesn't talk about them in private. But clearly human rights are not a priority. National security is. And Spicer went on to say that when you have a country like North Korea that possesses a nuclear weapon, looking for a delivery system to bring it to the United States...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...He wants all the countries in Asia to be part of the coalition to isolate North Korea.

SIEGEL: But explain this connection a bit further here. What kind of leverage does the Philippines have when it comes to North Korea?

LIASSON: Well, that is a very good question that Spicer really couldn't answer. The Philippines does not have the kind of economic leverage over North Korea that China has, for instance. But there are other strategic incentives to repair relations with the Philippines. For instance, Duterte had been tilting to China recently, and the U.S. wants the Philippines to be part of a coalition in Asia that could push back against Chinese expansionism in the region. So maybe it's not just about North Korea.

SIEGEL: Now, President Trump also told Bloomberg News today that he'd be willing to meet with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. What's that all about?

LIASSON: This isn't completely new. Trump did say during the campaign that he would talk to Kim. He said he wouldn't bring him for a state dinner, but he would offer him a hamburger. And the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, told NPR's Steve Inskeep recently that if conditions were right, the U.S. would be willing to have direct talks. Spicer said today those conditions are not there now, and a lot would have to change. In other words, North Korea would have to signal a willingness to give up their nuclear weapons. So it doesn't look like there'll be any talks anytime soon.

But the president did say something in that Bloomberg interview that really jumped out at people. He said he would be honored to talk to Kim Jong Un. He's also called him a smart cookie and talked about how impressed he was at the way that Kim consolidated power in North Korea when he was only 27 years old.

SIEGEL: Yeah. There seems to be a pattern here, Mara. This is not by any means the first time President Trump has had favorable, positive things to say about autocratic or controversial leaders.

LIASSON: No. There's a long list of these. With the exception of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Trump has said nice things about an awful lot of authoritarian leaders. He congratulated the Turkish leader Erdogan after a disputed referendum that consolidated Erdogan's powers, chipped away at Turkish democracy. We know about all the nice things he's said about Putin and now North Korea and the Philippines. The big question here is, is there a diplomatic strategy behind this flattery, or is it just sincere admiration for autocratic, anti-democratic leaders. Maybe it's a little bit of both.

SIEGEL: OK, that's NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thanks, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.