Stories in the Denver Post, two Denver television stations, and many other news outlets via the AP about Sen. Cory Gardner’s unannounced trip to Manila to visit with notorious Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte added up to one of the worst news cycles for Colorado’s junior Senator in recent memory. As Denver7’s Blair Miller reported last night:
What exactly is Sen. Cory Gardner doing in the Philippines shaking hands with under-fire president Rodrigo Duterte?
That was the question many in Colorado asked Thursday when Filipino president’s press office put out photos of the two shaking hands in a meeting that happened Wednesday.
“Sen. Cory Gardner owes the people of Colorado an explanation for why he can’t meet with us, but has time to visit with murderous Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte,” read an email blast from ProgressNow Colorado executive director Ian Silverii.
Colorado politico social media blew up from there, as those on the left and right traded barbs over Gardner’s meeting and his lack of in-person town hall meetings in his home state.
One of the reasons this story rapidly turned disastrous for Sen. Gardner was the lack of any advance word of his intention to visit with President Duterte, whose alleged widespread human rights violations in less than a year in office have rendered him perhaps America’s most controversial foreign ally. As we discussed yesterday, Duterte is accused in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of his own citizens as part of a crackdown on drug use and trafficking in the Philippines. Duterte has reportedly boasted about personally killing drug traffickers, and recently joked that his troops could commit a certain number of rapes before being punished.
Gardner could have easily avoided being lumped in with Duterte if he had made this trip public before going, and stating clearly in advance that he was going to call Duterte out. But he didn’t do that, and after the story blew up on social media and local news outlets, Gardner responded to the Denver Post with a belated statement about his supposed intentions of criticizing Duterte for his widely-reported human rights violations.
We’ll never really know what Gardner said to Duterte, mostly because the local Filipino news reports of the meeting contain no details–and the video released by the government of the Philippines of their meeting curiously included no audio. What we can say is there were two very different audiences from Gardner’s visit. Gardner says now to American media he engaged Duterte on the subject of human rights abuses in the Philippines. But in Filipino media, we haven’t found a single reference to any criticism of Duterte–only that Sen. Gardner paid a “courtesy call.”
“I am determined to put an end to the illicit drug trade,” Duterte’s script says. “Illegal drug trade money is helping fund instability in my country. It will be dealt with accordingly, with the full force of the law employed to destroy the illegal drug trade apparatus.”
“We appreciate the US’ support for the Philippines’ comprehensive war against the illegal drugs trade,” he continues. “I hope we can continue to find ways to work together to completely dismantle and destroy the apparatus of the illegal drug trade.” [Pols emphasis]
Toward the end of yesterday’s bad press for Sen. Gardner, 9NEWS’ Kyle Clark got Gardner on the phone to ask whether he agrees with President Donald Trump’s effusive praise for Duterte’s tactics. In response, Gardner gave an answer that started out alright, but swiftly deteriorated into waffling:
CLARK: Duterte’s brutal anti-drug campaign has killed drug addicts in the streets, but President Trump has praised Duterte’s tactics in a leaked transcript of their first conversation.
CLARK (on phone): Do you share the President’s positive view of that campaign?
GARDNER: We must follow the rule of law, and that’s what I expressed. That’s why I said to the President that we have to have rule of law, we have to have transparency, we have to have investigations of any, uh, type of extrajudicial killing–well, excuse me, we have to have investigations of any killings to assure that it’s not, uh, extrajudicial killing. [Pols emphasis]
Folks, there is no question that extrajudicial killings in the Philippines are taking place. Duterte has personally boasted about committing extrajudicial killings. Gardner’s self-correction to allow for the possibility that there are not extrajudicial killings taking place in the Philippines under Duterte severely undermines Gardner’s contention that he went to Manila to call Duterte out in any way.
That, and the smiling video clips sans audio, and the long on-camera handshakes! Whatever Gardner thought he was accomplishing with this furtive trip to Manila, his cozying up to Duterte is all the Filipino people will ever see. At the end of the day, what Gardner was to Duterte was a prop. Gardner’s visit served to validate Duterte domestically, not to chasten him.
And that is the only thing that matters.