A former CNN investigative reporter has hired a lobbying juggernaut to take on Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, one of Donald Trump’s most loyal allies in the region.
Lobbying disclosure reports show that Maria Ressa, who founded news website Rappler Inc. in the Philippines, has tapped two partners out of Covington & Burling to help her with a foreign relations campaign against Duterte.
The filing shows that Peter Lichtenbaum and Kurt Wimmer are working with Ressa to “build awareness and concern about the unfounded charges brought against Rappler and its CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa in the Philippines.” The Covington leaders were registered to lobby for Ressa effective Friday.
Ressa was arrested in the Philippines for a second time in March after her media publication was critical of Duterte’s government. Philippine officials charged her and Rappler with breaking laws as it pertained to foreign ownership of the company. Ressa has also been accused of libel, and that trial is currently ongoing.
A separate filing shows Rappler has also brought on Wimmer and Lichtenbaum for assistance.
After publication, Wimmer explained in an email that they anticipate providing legal counsel for Ressa and Rappler, as well as briefing U.S. policymakers.
“We anticipate that in addition to providing U.S. legal counsel, our role will include briefing U.S. policymakers who are concerned with freedom of expression and the rule of law so that they understand all of the facts surrounding the Philippine government’s treatment of Ms. Ressa and Rappler,” Wimmer said.
Ressa and Lichtenbaum did not respond to requests for comment.
Although the documents do not show who they will be reaching out to in Washington with this new campaign, any attempt to work directly with Trump’s administration might prove to be futile due to the president’s good relationship with Duterte.
Duterte has repeatedly called Trump his friend. Trump met with the Philippines leader in November 2017. Months after Trump was sworn into office, he called Duterte to praise him on the crackdown of drug cartels since he became the country’s leader, according to a transcript of the conversation first reported by The Intercept.
“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump told Duterte, the transcript read.
Duterte’s war on drugs has led to thousands of deaths in the Philippines, data from a recent study by Human Rights Watch shows. Citing the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, the nonprofit organization says more than 4,900 suspected drug users and dealers died between 2016 and 2018 during police operations. Since Duterte’s crackdown started, nearly 23,000 other deaths are being classified as homicides under investigation, the group says, citing the Philippine National Police.
Trump’s relationship with Duterte isn’t well received in Washington, even among allies of the White House. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a staunch Trump supporter, has publicly cautioned the president against getting too familiar with Duterte. “This is not a guy we want to empower,” he said in an interview in 2017.
Lichtenbaum, one of the lobbyists, has also had run-ins with Trump’s administration.
During Trump’s campaign for president in 2016, the Covington partner signed a public letter that declared he would not be voting for the Republican nominee. Lichtenbaum, a former assistant secretary in the Commerce Department under President George W. Bush, was one of dozens of previous national security officials who signed the “Never Trump” declaration.
Lichtenbaum was being considered for a post within Trump’s administration before it was discovered that he had signed the letter. Wilbur Ross’ Commerce Department eventually pulled its consideration, Reuters reported at the time.