Trump’s interactions with Duterte are colored by the fact that he has business interests in the Philippines—namely, Trump Tower Manila, which is currently nearing completion after about five years of construction. The property is one of many around the world that license the Trump name and are owned and operated by a third-party company—in this case, the Manila-based real-estate developer Century Properties Group. Nevertheless, Trump has a vested financial stake in the building’s success, as such deals often involve the licensor taking a cut of the annual revenues.
The ties go beyond a mere branding deal, though. In October, Duterte named Century’s chairman Jose Antonio as a special envoy to Washington for trade, investment, and economic affairs, prompting speculation that Duterte may have been preparing for a possible Trump presidency by placing one of Trump’s Filipino business partners in D.C. The situation creates the exact type of conflict of interest about which critics have been warning since before Trump took office: Trump’s property—along with the people with whom it places him in partnership, whether they are actual associates or leaders of countries in which he has business interests—greatly complicates his incentives when it comes to negotiating with a foreign power.
That said, one part of the response ultimately proved hyperbolic. An image shared widely on social media showed what appeared to be a blatant use of the presidency to promote the family’s business interests: a billboard featuring the president’s daughter Ivanka. The Trump Organization later clarified that the picture was several years old, and that the ad has since been taken down.
Still, as was the case with the president’s phone call to Erdogan in April, Trump’s conflict of interest in the Philippines plays into his praise for Duterte. While there’s no evidence to suggest a direct trade—i.e., tacitly legitimizing Duterte’s oppressive regime in return for financial favors for Trump’s business—there is plenty of psychological research demonstrating that even minor financial ties can create a lasting impression and engender feelings of reciprocity. It’s possible that that predisposition is already baked into Trump’s bizarrely positive attitude toward a world leader who has admitted to personally killing at least three suspected criminals and once argued that journalists “are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
Arguably, pointing to Trump’s financial interests is actually one of the more charitable ways to explain Trump’s fondness for notorious autocrats. The other, more alarming possibility is that he actually admires them. He’s praised Duterte’s war on drugs, calling it the “right way” to pursue the problem, and seemed to shrug off the controversy over the invitation to the White House by pointing out Duterte’s “very high approval rating in the Philippines”; Trump has similarly cited Vladimir Putin’s poll numbers to justify his admiration toward the Russian president. He’s also invited Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister of Thailand who came to power in a 2014 coup, to the White House. During the campaign, Trump spoke favorably of Saddam Hussein’s handling of terrorism—“He killed terrorists. He did that so good,” the then-candidate said—characterized the Tiananmen Square massacre as an example of the Chinese government’s “strength,” and lauded Erdogan for “turning it around” by cracking down on civil liberties after a failed coup attempt.