White House defends Trump invitation to Duterte despite human rights criticism

Trump issued the invitation on Saturday night in what the White House said was a “very friendly” phone conversation with Duterte, who is accused by international human rights groups of supporting a campaign of extrajudicial killings of drug suspects in the Philippines.

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“There is nothing right now facing this country and facing the region that is a bigger threat than what’s happening in North Korea,” White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told ABC’s “This Week” during a weekend in which Trump sought to firm up support in Southeast Asia to help rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Priebus insisted the outreach to Duterte “doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter, but what it does mean is that the issues facing us developing out of North Korea are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get to make sure we have our ducks in a row.”

WATCH: Trump calls North Korean leader a “smart cookie” 

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The invitation for Duterte to the visit White House at an unspecified date appeared to be the latest example of the affinity Trump has shown for some foreign leaders with shaky human rights or autocratic reputations.

For instance, he expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 presidential campaign, hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the White House and has had warm words for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who Trump is pressing to do more to rein in its ally and neighbor North Korea.

WATCH: Duterte to Trump: ‘Everybody is worried’ about North Korea 

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On Sunday, Trump also extended a White House invitation to Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who heads a military government that took power in a 2014 coup. Prayuth’s administration had strained relations with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

“Celebrating a man who boasts of killing his own citizens and inviting him to the White House, while remaining silent on his disgusting human rights record, sends a terrifying message,” said John Sifton, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“By effectively endorsing Duterte’s murderous ‘war on drugs’, Trump has made himself morally complicit in future killings,” he said.

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A Trump administration official insisted, however, that the invitation was not a reward to Duterte or an endorsement of his policies but a decision that engagement with the Philippines, an important longtime U.S. ally, was better than withdrawal which could “intensify bad behavior” by Duterte.

“It’s not a ‘thank you’,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s a meeting.”

The official denied a New York Times report citing administration officials saying the State Department and the National Security Council were caught off-guard by the invitation to Duterte and were expected to object internally. “We were not surprised. The guys who prepared for the call were unified on this,” the official said.

‘On the same page’ on North Korea

Priebus made clear that North Korea was the top priority.

“If we don’t have all of our folks together — whether they’re good folks, bad folks, people we wish would do better in their country, doesn’t matter, we’ve got to be on the same page” on North Korea, Priebus said.

But taking a swipe at Trump for his invitation to Duterte, Democratic U.S. Senator Chris Murphy tweeted: “We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash.”

Thousands of Filipinos have been killed since Duterte unleashed his fierce anti-drugs campaign nearly 10 months ago. Police say they have killed only in self-defense, and the deaths of other drug dealers and users was down to vigilantes or narcotics gangs silencing potential witnesses.

Human rights groups say official accounts are implausible and accuse Duterte of backing campaign of systematic extrajudicial killings by police. The government denies that.

Duterte was infuriated by the Obama administration’s expressions of concern about extrajudicial killings after he took office last year and threatened to sever the long-standing U.S. defense alliance.

Duterte spoke positively about Trump, a fellow populist, after the U.S. presidential election in November, and the new administration has sought ways to mend the alliance.

In a summary of Saturday’s phone call between the two leaders, the White House said the two discussed “the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world.” The White House statement included no criticism of Duterte’s methods.

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Macron a tactical choice for jaded France?

A poll published last week showed that 41 percent of the voters who backed him in the April 23 first round did so out of tactical considerations rather than real conviction, believing he has the best chance of defeating 48-year-old Le Pen in Sunday’s run-off.

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But the boyish-looking ex-banker also attracts true followers, who see his youth, pragmatism and optimism as the best remedy for a country mired in economic decline and crippling self-doubt.

“A strong turnaround, that’s what I’m hoping for from Macron,” said Isabelle Babin, a 55-year-old executive who joined dozens of campaigners from the candidate’s “En Marche” (On The Move) movement for a symbolic march on Saturday in the city of Lyon.

The former banker aiming to become France’s youngest ever president may be “smooth, preppy and a little bit of a teacher’s pet”, she admits.

But for Babin, his private sector experience is a breath of fresh air in a jaded political system, whose two main parties crashed out of the election in the first round.

“They cannot understand society because they are outside of it,” she said of his rivals.

‘Only one choice’

Macron’s meteoric rise from presidential advisor in 2012 to economy minister in Francois Hollande’s Socialist government from 2014 to 2016 to presidential frontrunner has been attributed to a mix of talent, opportunism and sheer good luck.

His top spot in the first round triggered rejoicing among members of his year-old “En Marche” movement, which he has positioned as “neither of the left nor the right.”

And yet while he still enjoys a double-digit lead over Le Pen in second-round polls, the gap is narrowing, forcing his troops to re-mobilise.

On Saturday, around 300 En Marche campaigners fanned out along the banks of the River Saone in Lyon to try to woo voters tempted to abstain in the run-off.

“There is only one choice, that of the republic and Emmanuel Macron,” France’s deputy sports minister Thierry Braillard said as he led the supporters.

In the first round, Macron polled 30.31 percent in the bourgeois southeastern city — six points above his national average.

Related reading’Trust younger generation’

Campaigners there are confident of victory over the anti-immigration, anti-EU Le Pen, who has cast her rival as a puppet of the “oligarchy”.

But they admit that their champion’s mix of pro-business reforms and measures to boost take-home pay and integrate minorities has failed to garner much enthusiasm.

“He’s too capitalist for people on the left and too tainted by Hollande’s presidency for people on the right,” said Emmanuelle Vignaud, a 43-year-old employee of a multi-national company.

Vignaud admitted that Macron had “messed up” the start of his second-round campaign, appearing “quite arrogant at a time when, given he is facing Le Pen, he needs to show gravitas.”

“But he will be a very good president,” she said, praising the intellect of the high-flying former philosophy student who attended France’s top school for public servants.

Jean Visconte, a 64-year-old salesman, said he was seduced by Macron’s youth.

“If we don’t trust the younger generation, we’re old fools who are beyond redemption!” he declared.

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Others praised his attempt to transcend France’s entrenched left-right divide, which has seen some accuse him of trying to be all things to all voters.

“Macron chose the only possible alternative in taking the best of both sides,” said Alain Jacquard, a 75-year-old doctor, accusing the Socialists and right-wing Republicans whose candidates were eliminated in the first round of “spending their time demolishing what the other side did.”

“Macron is a politician who believes in redistributing wealth on condition that we can generate the wealth,” he said, summarising the candidate’s programme.

That pragmatism has proven a hard sell among the 19.6 percent of voters who backed hard left radical Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round, many of whom have announced plans to “go fishing” – French slang for abstentionism – on Sunday.

But on the centre-left, it has found fertile ground.

For Pierre, a 26-year-old civil servant and Socialist Party member who was among the campaigners in Lyon, Macron is the choice of the “realistic left”.

“He can unite society,” said the farmer’s son.

WATCH: Macron warns politicians to unite against Le Pen

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Suns to wear red against Port in China

Gold Coast have come out on top in the bitter jumper spat with Port Adelaide after the AFL ruled the Suns can wear their home guernsey in China.

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The clubs were at loggerheads over Gold Coast’s intention to wear their home jumper – that matches the red and yellow of the Chinese flag – when they meet in Shanghai in round eight.

The Power paid $500,000 for the rights to the Suns’ home game so they could host the historic clash for premiership points.

But in an oversight, that agreement doesn’t cover who wears what jumper, with the Power concerned the locals will throw their support behind the team that wears their national colours.

Port are hoping the game will be the start of a lucrative push into the Chinese market and outspoken president David Koch accused the Suns on Adelaide radio fiveAA of playing silly buggers over the issue.

Koch previously threatened to exclude Gold Coast from future matches in China and called on the AFL to make a ruling.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan held out hope the clubs would sort it out between themselves when he addressed the issue in March, but ultimately the league sided with the Suns.

The Power put a brave face on the setback on Monday.

“It’s not ideal but this is only a one-year agreement with the Gold Coast,” Port chief executive Keith Thomas said.

“We thought within the spirit of the commercial arrangement we had a strong case for the Gold Coast to wear their white clash guernsey but we accept the AFL’s decision and move on.

“The guernsey issue is a just a small component of a far bigger picture for Port Adelaide. This historic game is sold out, Jiangwan Stadium is going to be packed with our supporters wearing black, white and teal and we are at the forefront of the AFL in taking our game to China.

“This is going to be a truly great day in the history of the Port Adelaide Football Club and this decision on the Gold Coast guernsey will not change that.”

Port Adelaide will wear their predominantly black home jumper with white number panel.

Federal budget to push generic drugs

A push for Australians to use generic pharmaceuticals is among budget measures that will reportedly save the federal government $1.

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8 billion over five years.

Under the plan, prescribing software will be altered so scripts name the active ingredient of the drugs rather than the brand name, the ABC’s 7.30 program reported on Monday evening.

The aim is to lift Australia’s generic drug use to American and British levels.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was committed to allowing doctors to retain “100 per cent” control over their prescriptions.

“Our commitment is give patients the best access and the lowest cost,” he told the program.

“Generics are one way of doing that, but it has to be – as it always has been – under the control of the doctors.”

Mr Hunt said savings through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) would be reinvested.

“This means more drugs at lower costs – better healthcare for all Australians.”

The Australian Medical Association voiced concern over the changes, saying it holds independent clinical decision-making close to its heart.

“It certainly interferes with our autotomy and independence when it comes to choosing what’s best for the patients,” vice president Tony Barton told the ABC.

“It is about understanding our patients and making a decision that’s in the patient’s best interests, as well as one that’s guided by years of clinical expertise and experience.”

Savings will reportedly be achieved through a deal with Medicines Australia to progressively cut the price of PBS medicines still on patent every five years, before a further 25 per cent reduction when they go off patent.

Japan sends warship to escort US supply vessel in Pacific

The helicopter carrier Izumo will leave the mother port of Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, on Monday and join the US supply ship to escort it further into the western Pacific, the leading Asahi Shimbun daily and Jiji Press reported citing unnamed government sources.

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It will be the first deployment — outside of troop exercises –to protect the US fleet after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expanded the country’s military capabilities in 2015, though they remain restricted under Japan’s pacifist constitution.

The US supply ship is expected to support America’s naval fleet in the Pacific, possibly including the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which remains on high alert over North Korea’s ballistic missile firings, the reports said.

Japanese naval officials declined to comment on the reports.

Earlier this week, the US carrier had joint drills with Japan’s naval forces.

North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 28, 2017

The Carl Vinson arrived in the Sea of Japan and kicked off a joint drill with the South Korean navy on Saturday, hours after North Korea launched a ballistic missile in apparent defiance of the US.

North Korea’s state media has said the North’s military is capable of sinking the US aircraft carrier with a single strike.

The latest missile launch, which South Korea said was a failure, ratchets up tensions on the Korean peninsula, with Washington and Pyongyang locked in an ever-tighter spiral of threat, counter-threat and escalating military preparedness.

US President Donald Trump, who has warned of a “major conflict” with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s regime, said the latest test was a pointed snub to China — the North’s main ally and economic lifeline.

“North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!” Trump tweeted.

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