For pro–human rights lawmakers and activists in the Philippines, President Donald Trump's newly revealed praise of the country's bloody crackdown on drug users is, to put it mildly, a major setback.
The conversation over US support for the drug war, which has killed more than 8,000 people in the southeast Asian country since it began last summer, reignited this week after several publications published excerpts of a leaked transcript of a phone call between Trump and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
The campaign, carried out by police and cheered on by Duterte, has mostly killed drug users and small-time sellers, and critics say it has disproportionately targeted poor people.
"The Trump call actually legitimizes Duterte's war on the poor, the people who are suffering the most," said Laurindo Garcia, a Manila-based activist and entrepreneur who campaigns for more humane treatment of drug users.
According to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs transcript, first published in full by The Intercept, Trump said, seemingly unprompted, at the beginning of the call that Duterte was doing an "unbelievable job on the drug problem."
"Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that," Trump reportedly told Duterte.
A US official who had previously seen a version of the transcript confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the published version appeared accurate.
Duterte's drug war remains popular domestically despite heavy international criticism, and there's no signal that it will end anytime soon. But even before the call's contents were reported, Trump faced criticism from human rights advocates in the Philippines. In April, he invited Duterte to the White House in a move seen then as a tacit endorsement of the drug war. (Duterte has been noncommittal about the offered visit.)
"It is rubbing salt in the wound," said Philippines Senator Risa Hontiveros in a statement after the invite was extended. "This is not a simple invitation. It is a virtual endorsement of the climate of killing and impunity in the Philippines."
"It also exposes the foreign-policy priorities of the Trump government in the region. It is willing to ignore the deteriorating human rights situation in one of its oldest allies in the region for superpower games," she added.
The US is a major provider of aid and investment to the Philippines, and US diplomatic support is key for Duterte in case he faces sanction by the International Criminal Court over his human rights abuses, said Richard Heydarian, an assistant professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University in Manila. A Filipino lawyer brought a case against Duterte to the court in late April, accusing him of crimes against humanity, though the case is unlikely to be successful.
"America is still a superpower, and still the paragon of liberal democracy," Heydarian said. "If the commander in chief of the US adopts such a sympathetic position for Duterte's war on drugs, it's a huge propaganda boost for Duterte."
Duterte can withstand potential economic or political blowback from the European Union as long as he has China, Japan, and the US on his side, Heydarian added.
But in the Philippines, there was also widespread criticism of the Rappler, a local newspaper that worked with The Intercept to publish the transcript. A Facebook post by the paper linking to the story was immediately slammed with dozens of comments saying the report had compromised national security in the Philippines because it contained revelations that the US has two nuclear submarines in waters near North Korea, according to Trump.
Nancy Youssef contributed to this report from Washington.