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Reporter to Sean Spicer: 'Does the president have a thing' for totalitarian leaders?

New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush asked Sean Spicer on Monday whether President Donald Trump “has a thing” for “totalitarian leaders” amid the president’s recent outreach to leaders with authoritarian reputations, like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

Trump’s willingness to engage with some of the world’s most notorious strongmen was on full display last weekend, when he extended two invitations to Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Both the Philippines and Thailand enjoy treaties with the US, but their leaders’ brutal crackdowns on drugs and dissent have marred their relationships with the West.

Duterte’s merciless anti-drug campaign has left more than 7,000 people dead since he took office in late June 2016, according to the Filipino news site Rappler. Nearly 3,000 have died at the hands of police. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, operates secretive prison camps where suspected dissidents are tortured, starved, and forced into hard labour. North Korea has repeatedly threatened to attack its neighbours — and, ultimately, the US — with nuclear weapons.

Last month, Trump called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom many in the West view as a creeping authoritarian, to congratulate him on winning a referendum that looks to dramatically expand his presidential power. And on Monday, Trump said he would be “honored” to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over his country’s nuclear weapons program if the circumstances were right.

“Does the president have a thing with these totalitarian leaders?” Thrush asked during a press conference. “Does he admire something about the way these guys conduct themselves?”

Spicer replied that Trump “understands the threat North Korea poses” but that Kim Jong Un is “still a head of state, so there is a diplomatic” consideration there. Spicer said later that Trump is trying to “balance” appropriate criticism of these countries’ human rights practices with his desire to “get real results” by working with them.

“There is a lot that this president talks to these leaders in private about,” Spicer said, adding that “building a relationship” with those leaders in private is often “better for achieving results” overall.

“It is a mistake to assume that because we don’t put out statements publicly chastising leaders at every call” that the president doesn’t care about these issues, Spicer said. “The president understands the type of negotiating, the type of deal-making, the type of results that get real results.”

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