A war of words escalated between the Philippines’ top two officials Wednesday, with Vice President Leni Robredo daring President Rodrigo Duterte to fire her as co-head of a national counter-narcotics body, after he told a late-night news conference that he couldn’t trust her.
Robredo, a leader of the opposition and vocal critic of the Duterte administration’s deadly war on narcotics, was reacting to his announcement on Tuesday evening that he had not given Robredo a cabinet rank when he appointed her a few weeks ago to a lead role on the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs.
He added that information on police operations regarding the drug war would only be given to the vice president on a “need to know basis.”
“He should tell it to me straight. If he doesn’t want me anymore, if he realized that he made a mistake in appointing me and wants to retract it, he should just say it. But for now, I will do my job,” Robredo told reporters on Wednesday.
“It is always worth working for something we believe in. For me, I believe I can contribute a lot. I don’t choose any designation. If he says I will work on this, I will work on that. I will do everything to do the work that was given to me,” said Robredo.
Early on in her new job, the vice president promised to work to put an end to killings of drug suspects in a three-year-old nationwide crackdown, which has claimed at least 6,000 lives so far, according to official figures from police.
On Tuesday, Duterte slammed Robredo for allegedly talking too much and for supposedly inviting an unknown human rights defender into the country to investigate the conduct of his administration’s drug war.
“The problem is I cannot trust her, not only because she is with the opposition. I do not trust her because I do not know her,” Duterte told reporters.
On Wednesday, former president Benigno Aquino III, Duterte’s predecessor, defended Robredo.
If Duterte did not trust his vice president in the first place, he shouldn’t have selected her as co-chair of the inter-agency committee, Aquino said.
“You appointed her and then you said you don’t trust her? That’s confusing. Normally, you would appoint persons you trust,” said the former president, who had also criticized the drug war but refrained from speaking out against Duterte in the past.
Independent Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a retired police general, said it was clear that Duterte wanted Robredo to leave her post on the inter-agency body without having to fire her.
“He is leaving it up to her to take the initiative and tender her resignation. I think her position has become untenable. Responsibility without commensurate authority is a guaranteed formula for failure,” the senator said in a statement.
Days after her appointment, Robredo met in Manila with officials from various American law enforcement agencies, and later said that she had sought their assistance in fixing what she described as deficiencies in the Philippine counter-narcotics campaign.
“First, I don’t understand why they are not happy with my meetings because, before I was appointed co-chair, the U.N. and the different agencies of the U.S. Embassy were working with other government agencies. Our meetings were just briefings on what they were helping with,” Robredo said Wednesday.
Basilio Sepe contributed to this report from Manila.