Presidents Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte have both been accused of criminal behavior, the former for allegedly obstructing justice and colluding with a foreign arch enemy, and the latter for allegedly enriching himself in office. But how each one has handled the accusations provides insights into the way justice is dispensed in the United States and in the Philippines.
In the US, following the questionable firing by Trump of FBI Director James Comey, Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General (Philippine equivalent of Secretary of Justice) recused himself due to his involvement in the Trump presidential campaign, which was being investigated by the Comey for possible Russian tampering and possibly implicated Trump. This enabled Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein to assume responsibility for appointing a special counsel to look into the allegations. This was former FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Mueller has since mounted what appears to be a thorough and wide-ranging investigation that has resulted in the indictment of several Trump associates and has begun to close in on members of Trump’s family and on Trump himself.
Trump’s response has been to send out tweets and speak out at rallies accusing Mueller of conducting a witchhunt and declaring, again and again like a mantra, that there has been “no collusion” between him and the Russians. Recently, to that lame defense has been added the argument that, “even if there was collusion, that is not a crime.”
Trump has also declared that the Attorney General “should” end the Mueller probe because it is an evil plot of the Democrats and it has only resulted in divisiveness and in “tainting” the reputation of the US. But White House surrogates have very quickly clarified that Trump was “just expressing an opinion and was not ordering” the termination of the investigation. According to them, Trump said “should” instead of “must” and was, therefore, “not giving an order.”
At any rate, all these have shown the president of the United States to be a lame duck in the face of possible legal problems, including impeachment. While Trump has come close to firing Rosenstein and Mueller, he has been warned against it by the Republican-controlled Senate and House because of serious consequences.
So Trump just goes on a tweeting rampage and his usual rants before his base of fanatical voters (some of whom have begun to wear t-shirts reading, “We’d rather be Russians than Democrats!”).
Trump could still become desperate enough to risk firing Rosenstein and Mueller, and let the devil take the rest. But so far, he has restrained himself.
He must be envious of his Philippine counterpart, Duterte.
In the Philippines, when you accuse the president of breaking the law, you get fired. Period. To hell with the Constitution. Such has been the fate of Overall Deputy Ombudsman Arturo Carandang.
Duterte arch critic Senator Antonio Trillanes IV has repeatedly accused Duterte of amassing billions while still mayor of Davao and during his brief tenure as president. Trillanes has presented documents that appear to confirm millions in bank deposits in the name of Duterte and members of his family.
According to media reports, Carandang, having been asked by Trillanes, to investigate his allegations, reportedly “asked the AMLC (Anti-Money Laundering Counsel) in August to do a bank inquiry and submit its final report on the alleged Duterte accounts.” The news report continued: “The Ombudsman now has a copy of bank records from the AMLC which, according to Carandang, ‘more or less’ look like the documents submitted by Trillanes.
“Bank transactions of President Rodrigo Duterte and his family through the years amount to a total of more than P1 billion, said the Office of the Ombudsman as it continues its investigation into the complaint of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV against the President.”
If this looks like an open-and-shut case or a slam dunk, it is both, but Philippine style. Duterte has slam dunked Carandang, ordering his dismissal, and the AMLC, the Department of Justice and the Legislature (which eagerly probes every possible publicity and promotional opportunity including the sex lives of prominent individuals) have not been eager to open an inquiry into the Trillanes accusations and, in fact, have quickly shut down any such attempt.
Meanwhile, questions about the “Constitutionality” of the dismissal of Carandang have been treated like the proverbial hot potato by the newly appointed Ombudsman, Samuel Martires.
Martires has danced around the question of whether Malacañang has the authority to dismiss the Deputy Ombudsman. According to him, he has “no choice” but to dismiss Carandang should Duterte’s order be final.
Of course, said Martires, Carandang “is entitled” to file a motion for reconsideration with Duterte but when that motion is denied, Martires will have no choice but to dismiss his deputy.
That’s like saying that one can ask for a reconsideration of a death certificate but if this is denied, one has no choice but to be buried alive. In other words, Carandang’s fate is sealed.
Said Martires, Carandang could turn to the Court of Appeals but then “he knows that immediately he has to leave the office….Carandang, as a lawyer, knows what are the consequences of going to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.”
Yeah, come to think of it. Every Filipino knows that. When the President decides to bury you alive, no one in the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals will dare contest that, unless that foolhardy justice wants to be buried alive too.
Look what happened to Chief Justice Renato Corona and, more recently, to Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno — and, mind you, they were accused of merely fudging their statements of assets and liabilities and not depositing billions in unexplained wealth.
Asked by the media about a 2014 Supreme Court decision that said that a provision of law that gave the President the authority to discipline the deputy ombudsman was “unconstitutional,” Martires gave a reply that one can only expect from a street corner kanto boy: “No comment. Huwag niyo akong ipitin diyan.” (Don’t get me in trouble).
Yeah, of course. Duterte could also dismiss Martires — and the fellow hasn’t even warmed his seat in the Office of the Ombudsman.
The difference between the way justice is dispensed in the US and in the Philippines is clear enough, but there are similarities, too. Notice how the Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives have been muted in their commentaries on the allegations against Trump. If the target had been Barack Obama, or a Democrat, the Republicans would have been frothing in the mouth with righteous rage.
And what about the Philippine Senate and House? To paraphrase Martires: “Huwag mo kaming ipitin diyan!”
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.