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Story highlights

"I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem," Trump said

Transcript was obtained by the Intercept, The Washington Post and The New York Times

(CNN) —  

US President Donald Trump told his Philippines’ counterpart that he was doing a good job fighting an illegal drug epidemic in his country, an effort that has led to thousands of deaths and drawn international condemnation from human rights groups.

“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump said in the April 29 phone call, according to a leaked transcript of the conversation with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte published by the Intercept and also obtained by The Washington Post and The New York Times.”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.”

A senior US official briefed on the call independently verified the basics of the conversation to CNN, but said Trump was merely acknowledging the US is combating its own drug problem, not condoning violence and human rights violations.

A statement from the White House released shortly after the call described the conversation as “very friendly.”

The comments were reportedly part of a Philippine government transcript.

A senior Trump administration official said Wednesday: “We do not confirm or deny the veracity of leaked purported documents, especially not those that allege to have come from a foreign source.”

Though Duterte is extremely popular domestically, observers worry that the government has effectively sanctioned extrajudicial killings in the name of combating the drug problem.

“Any assertion by any world leader, including, US President Donald Trump, that Duterte is doing ‘an unbelievable job’ by cheerleading a murderous campaign that has killed more than 7,000 Filipinos is not only a gross insult to those victims and their family members, but sends a signal to Duterte and his willing executioners that their lawless killing spree can continue with a vengeance without fear of international criticism and repercussions,” said Phelim Kline of Human Rights Watch.

Philippines police said in December nearly 6,000 had been killed in the war on drug trafficking, but earlier this month authorities released a much lower death toll and accused the international media of exaggerating the figure.

Current estimates are as high as 8,000, based on figures released by the police and independent counts by human rights groups and media.

Duterte claims there are 3 to 4 million drug users in the country, but statistics from the Philippines Dangerous Drugs Board puts the figure at 1.8 million. About 100 million people live in the Philippines.

The Philippines Foreign Affairs Ministry had no comment when asked about the transcript, but noted that there are criminal and civil liabilities for the unauthorized disclosure of confidential government documents.

“While we value the need for transparency and the people’s right to information, (the) release of certain pieces of information, whether accurate or inaccurate, can affect national security and regional peace and stability,” the ministry said in a statement.

A friendly relationship

Since his inauguration Trump and Duterte, who was elected last summer, have established what seems as a publicly friendly rapport.

Duterte told reporters in December that Trump, then President-elect, told him over the phone he was handling the fight against drugs “the right way.”

01:21 - Source: CNN
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The White House announced shortly after the April phone call that Trump had invited Duterte to the White House to discuss the North Korea threat. Some questioned whether it was prudent for the President to host Duterte due to accusations about human rights violations in the drug war.

A senior administration official said after the April 29 call that Trump “is interested in human rights issues, but he’s not going to allow that interest and concern keep him from defending the national security interests of the United States.”

Duterte has responded to critics of the drug war with strong rhetoric. When former US President Barack Obama’s administration said Obama would raise the issue during a meeting between the two, Duterte called his former US counterpart a “son of a bitch.” He also referred to the US ambassador to the Philippines at the time using the same epithet.

CNN’s Zahra Ullah, Nicole Gaouette and journalist Buena Bernal in Manila contributed to this report