In many ways, Donald Trump’s hand in Asia had been forced by his predecessor. Reconstructing working relationships with America’s allies abroad, however unsavory some of them may be, is a geopolitical necessity. In pursuing that crucial objective, however, President Trump is sacrificing the ideals of the United States, abandoning America’s advocacy for liberty abroad, and squandering American moral authority. There are many examples worthy of parsing, but the latest is the most disgraceful. If Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte crosses the threshold of the White House at Trump’s invitation, it will forever taint Trump’s presidency.

It is hardly out of character for Trump to take a shine to the man the Western press dubbed the “Donald Trump of the Philippines.” When he was mayor of the Mindanao city, Davao, Duterte developed a reputation as a crass, tough-talking, no-nonsense political leader. Fortunately for Americans, those are where the similarities between the crude would-be autocrat in Manila and the American president end. In his short time in office, Duterte has presided over grotesque bloodshed in the name of law and order.

“Hitler massacred three million Jews,” Duterte declared last September. “Now there is three million, what is it, three million drug addicts there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” In comparing himself favorably to Hitler and diminishing the deaths of those killed in the territories the Nazis controlled by likening them all to “criminals,” the Philippine president made his bloody intentions clear.

It is impossible to know the true number of people who have been killed at the hands of police or extra-judicial militias as a result of Duterte’s literal “war on drugs”—a crusade he inaugurated as soon as he took office in June of 2016. As of January, the Philippine president’s campaign of violence against both narcotics dealers and users alike has yielded more than 2,200 deaths, 44,000 arrests, and more than 1 million people surrendering to authorities. Those are the official statistics. Human rights watchdog groups like Amnesty International estimate that more than 7,000 people have died, most of whom were killed by vigilante death squads of the kind Duterte personally sanctioned. “Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun, you have my support,” Duterte told his enthusiasts last year.

The images emerging from out of Duterte’s Philippines defy description. Bodies lying bloody in the streets or thrown unceremoniously onto piles of garbage; people abducted by paramilitaries in broad daylight and in crowded fora; morgues in which the dead are stacked on top of one another like cordwood; inhumanely crowded prisons in which men are forced to sleep on top of one another, or where they occupy a single stair in a teaming stairwell.

“Throw them in the ocean or the quarry. Make it clean. Make sure there are no traces of the bodies.” That is allegedly what Duterte told a self-professed member of one of the president’s earliest death squads in sworn testimony before the country’s Senate. The confessed killer implicated both the Philippine president and his son in the deaths of suspected criminals without trial, but the informant has probably failed to embarrass the shameless Duterte. After all, the Philippine president confessed to murdering the people he deemed drug criminals in a press conference. “I killed about three of them because there were three of them,” he said in English. “It happened. I cannot lie about it.”

Nor is Duterte a friend to the United States. He ran for the presidency promising to end joint participation in military drills with the United States and to reorient the Philippines away from Washington and toward Beijing. He has actively sought to procure Chinese armaments, insisted that the U.S. is seeking his ouster, and called America’s ambassador to the Philippines a “gay son of a bitch.”

Bracing for criticism, the Trump administration defended the overture to the thug in the Philippines by contending that Manila’s support for diplomatic pressure on North Korea’s regime was pivotal. Duterte was just one of several Southeast Asian leaders invited to the White House as part of that outreach effort, they said. In the bloodless conduct of realpolitik, that’s a defensible position. It is not in America’s interest to allow the Philippines to drift into China’s sphere of influence, for reasons I detailed last September. This is, however, a flimsy premise on which to seek exculpation for inviting a self-confessed murderer and wannabe despot into the White House. For that, there is no excuse.

The heartening and near-universal outrage that accompanied this invitation did seem to take the White House by surprise. Administration sources told the New York Times that the State Department and the National Security Council object to the invitation, too. Amid this backlash, Duterte suddenly told reporters on Monday that he was “tied up” and would find it hard to make his way to Washington at the invitation of the President of the United States. Let’s hope his schedule doesn’t suddenly clear up. This fortunate development does not let the White House off the hook. Its lapse in judgment is extremely disturbing.

When the administration wasn’t defending its embrace of a murderer this weekend, it was defending the possibility of expanding libel laws to make it easier to prosecute Trump’s critics in the press. Of course, restrictions on the federal prosecution of libel are based not on law but on interpretations of the Constitution in the courts—a fact which this administration seemed not to understand. The president himself took the time to criticize the “anarchic” rules that dictate how legislation is passed in an interview with Fox News Channel, insisting such measures may have to be changed because they are “a really bad thing for the country.” Never mind the separation of powers or the privileges of a co-equal branch; Trump appears unaware of those, too.

The American president seems inclined to conflate strong leadership with the extra-legal or even inhumane conduct of state affairs. This is an unsettling pattern that we ignore at our own peril. Duterte’s invitation to the White House was an abhorrent disgrace. That invitation’s apparent rejection, while welcome, has not absolved this president. It is one thing to sacrifice American values upon the altar of “realism,” but expressing admiration for and rehabilitating butchers like Duterte is indefensible.

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