Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and US President-elect Donald Trump have been compared to each other many times in recent months.
Many argued there are similarities in their bluster and their at-times ambivalence toward the rule of law or human rights.
But advisers to both leaders have made clear another area of overlap: their rhetoric, and why the world shouldn’t take it so seriously.
Trump met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week in New York.
Abe was reportedly eager to sit down with the president-elect after Trump spent months on the campaign trail suggesting he may dramatically alter the US’s role in Asia, leaving Japan and other allies there to deal with regional matters on their own.
Trump’s transition team, however, tried to sooth concerns in Tokyo by downplaying Trump’s comments, telling an Abe aide that Japan shouldn’t regard Trump’s campaign statements as literal.
“All the people shared the same opinion — that we don’t need to be nervous about every single word and phrase said during Mr. Trump’s campaign,” Katsuyuki Kawai, a high-level aid to the Japanese prime minister, told a Japanese broadcaster.
Duterte, who has been in office in Manila since this summer, has issued similarly controversial pronouncements, and like Trump’s aides, Duterte’s advisers have advised the public and other leaders to not read so much into them.
“If we follow his style, let us not put a period at the end of his statements,” Duterte spokesman Ernesto Abella told reporters in October, adding that the media should come to “understand” the Philippine president rather than “taking him literally.”
A September 21 statement from the Philippine presidential palace said “official statements … on significant national and international issues” should only be issued by the presidential spokesman, and Abella, in his remarks on October 5, echoed that announcement, saying Duterte’s comments could only be considered policy statements when they were followed by “an official action.”
Duterte has attracted extra scrutiny from the world because of his violent war on drugs and the way he has extorted police and citizens to pursue it.
“Do your duty, and if in the process you kill one thousand persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you,” Duterte told police in July, just a few days after taking office. “And if they try to impeach me, I will hurry the process and we will go out of the service together.”
“Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun — you have my support,” Duterte told citizens about dealing with drug dealers in early June.
“You can kill him … Shoot him and I’ll give you a medal,” he added.
He doubled down in August, telling a press conference: “My order is shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights, you better believe me.”
The growing body count and continued extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, both tied to the crackdown on drugs, have led many to say the president has stoked the bloodshed with those comments and enabled police and vigilante killers to act with impunity.
But, when questioned about what Duterte had said, Philippine National Police chief Ronald Dela Rosa told Vice News, “You should take the president’s words as rhetorics. You don’t have to take it word for word.”
The insistence by Trump’s and Duterte’s advisers that there is gulf between what they say and what they mean has injected uncertainty into expectations about what policies their administrations will pursue.
Doubts created by Duterte about his attitude toward ties with the US seem to be dispelled, as the Philippine president reacted warmly to Trump’s election. But Duterte has vacillated on issues like the rule of law, invoking and discounting the possibility that he could suspend the right to trial for arrestees or go so far as to impose martial law.
Trump, too, has wavered on some of his positions throughout the campaign, appearing to back away from some of the stances he took while on the campaign trail.
Regarding US relations with Asia, the issue that caused Abe’s visit, some experts have suggested Trump’s comments there may have been bluster as well.
Now that Trump has been elected, the cavalcade of candidates named for his cabinet jobs and other positions within his administration further cloud what exactly his presidency will eventually look like.
Most politicians craft their statements to allow some leeway in what policies they actually pursue, but — especially for Trump and Duterte, governing during times of economic and social uncertainty — too sharp a divide between words and deeds can led to future problems for governments and their people.
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