Keeping up with Duterte: A year inside the Cabinet

MANILA, Philippines – On the first Monday of every month, a few hours after lunch, Malacañang’s Aguinaldo State Dining Room begins to fill up with the country’s highest-ranking officials.

Over 30 Cabinet secretaries, heads of government agencies, take their places along a heavy wood dining table. Around the table, the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) wait with documents in hand. Undersecretaries and assistant secretaries wait outside or discuss last-minute concerns with their bosses.  

But all activity and chit-chat stops when President Rodrigo Duterte walks in, followed closely behind by Special Assistant to the President Bong Go. Duterte walks around the room, shaking each secretary’s hand, making small talk before moving on to the next official.

After a while, the assigned secretary begins the meeting with an opening prayer. The room’s occupants buckle themselves down to discussions for another long evening.

This is how Cabinet meetings under the Duterte administration typically start. In his first year, the country’s 16th president has presided over 16 such meetings, which translates to 1.3 meetings a month.

This number does not include his first meeting with his Cabinet appointees back in Davao’s “Malacañang of the South” a month before his oath-taking in May 2016.  

Late that night, media gathered under a white tent outside the Presidential Guesthouse as Duterte’s appointees were introduced one by one. For many reporters, it was the first time they laid eyes on the soon-to-be officials, several plucked from anonymity to lead national agencies.

The appointees, some obviously fighting sleep, listened silently to Duterte as they sat on cream monobloc chairs, little expecting what the next 12 months would bring.

Groups in the Cabinet

Duterte has called on a variety of personalities to form his Cabinet, ranging from the foreign-educated economics professor Ernesto Pernia to militant activist Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano. 

There are the ex-generals, like National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, and new Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu.

There are the neoliberal economists, like Sonny Dominguez and Ramon Lopez, and the Leftists like Judy Taguiwalo and Leoncio Evasco Jr.

He’s mixed up officials who are no strangers to leading national government agencies (Ben Diokno, Jess Dureza, Leonor Briones, Dominguez) with those new to the role (Evasco, Mariano, Gina Lopez).

Some Cabinet officials can be grouped according to their connections to Duterte. The “Davao group” is composed of longtime friends and associates from his hometown. Duterte’s San Beda school mates are also well-represented. 

These groups, some looser than others, overlap. Dominguez gets his influence mainly from his long friendship with Duterte (they started out as neighbors and high school mates) but also from his background in business and economics, issues that are Duterte’s Achilles’ heel. 

Evasco, Duterte’s longtime trusted adviser and former chief of staff, is an ex-communist rebel yet so far does not associate himself with the other Cabinet Leftists when they vocalize their views about issues like the Marcos burial and peace talks.

Among Cabinet officials, 3 work closest with the President on a day-to-day basis: Special Assistant Go, Cabinet Secretary Evasco, and Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea.

Evasco’s spokesman, Assistant Secretary Jonas Soriano, explains their different roles this way: “Someone has to make sure the President eats, sleeps, goes to meetings on time. I think that’s the role of Secretary Bong Go. Someone has to make sure all the laws, procedures, EOs (executive orders) are followed, and that’s Secretary Medialdea. Someone has to make sure that the agenda is okay, that this can be discussed in Cabinet meetings. That’s Secretary Jun Evasco.”

All 3 enjoy strong ties to Duterte. Go and Evasco were once executive aides during his mayorship. Medialdea is a childhood friend whose father, former Associate Justice Leo Medialdea, also worked with Duterte’s father Vicente when the latter was Davao governor. 

Duterte has gone to lengths to expand the powers of Go and Evasco. In fact, he used his very first executive order to do just that. 

For Go, he created the first ever “Special Assistant to the President” position and the Office of the President - Events Management Cluster.

This office allows Go to supervise the PMS, Presidential Security Group, Office of the Chief of Presidential Protocol, Media Accreditation and Relations Office, and Radio TV Malacañang (RTVM).

Evasco, whom Duterte has publicly praised for his good organizing skills and understanding of his priorities as President, was given supervisory powers over 12 anti-poverty agencies.

No Little President?

Soriano and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo insist there is no “Little President.”

Both admit, however, that, of the 3 Palace secretaries, Go has the most access to Duterte. The President hardly attends events without Go by his side. Go has the other distinction of being the only way to contact Duterte, who supposedly has no cellular phone of his own.

As Panelo puts it, Go “anticipates what the President needs.”

“With Bong, it’s more of, [Duterte] needs him. Because he knows his style, he knows who he wants to talk to,” said Panelo.

GATEWAY TO DUTERTE. Special Assistant to the President Bong Go helps President Duterte during his phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Presidential photo

GATEWAY TO DUTERTE. Special Assistant to the President Bong Go helps President Duterte during his phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Presidential photo

Duterte depends on Go for even the smallest of things, from remembering dates of a particular event to calling up security officials to end a ceasefire. Duterte, to a crowd of overseas Filipino workers, once introduced Go as his “tagabugaw” (pimp) because it's Go who decides who he meets everyday.

“That’s why he needs to be beside him all the time. What’s good with Bong, he has a photographic memory. He remembers incidents, events, places, people. So when the President asks, 'Sino na nga 'yun, anong taon 'yun?' (Who was that person? What year was that?), he answers,” said Panelo.

Go hardly speaks up during Cabinet meetings and doesn’t give policy recommendations. The only times he would interject is to correct the President on a particular detail or to tell him an important person is on the line.

Opportunity to convince Duterte

Cabinet meetings are Duterte’s primary means of governance. It’s a time when he can coordinate with Cabinet members, get a handle on different issues hounding his administration, and announce policy decisions.

During these meetings, which only recently were trimmed down to 4 to 5 hours, Duterte would first listen to presentations by Cabinet officials before giving comments.

Depending on his knowledge of the topic, Duterte could give lengthy reactions. He might interject in the middle of a presentation, often to point out bottlenecks he expects the plan to face based on his experience as a local executive.

While his predecessor Benigno Aquino III preferred to drop by cluster meetings and call fewer full Cabinet meetings, Duterte is the opposite. He likes to call full Cabinet meetings but rarely attends Cabinet cluster meetings.

Cabinet meetings are important in another aspect: they are one opportunity for Cabinet officials to convince Duterte to take a particular course of action or change his mind about an important policy.

Thus, these meetings are also a time when the different groups within the Cabinet go head-to-head.

Officials who have been present in Cabinet meetings recall 4 main issues over which debates between Cabinet members or between Duterte and Cabinet members raged.

For the mining issue, the main characters were Environment Secretary Gina Lopez and Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez. The passionate green advocate clashed with the Duterte childhood friend and campaign financier in at least two Cabinet meetings, according to Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo. 

Dominguez, who had the mining industry’s interests at heart, wanted “due process” in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ implementation of its mining audit and suspension. Lopez insisted her agency observed due process but had to act more decisively given findings of the audit.

The debate never got out of hand and always ended on a positive note, said Panelo.

“They would laugh it off after. Secretary Gina would say, ‘Sige na, Secretary, love naman kita eh (Come on, Secretary, you know I love you),’” he added.

But the ultimate resolution of the issue would be to Lopez’s disadvantage. The unyielding advocate would be nixed by the Commission on Appointments, many of whose members have mining interests or connections, with little or no intervention from Duterte.

As for the SSS issue, Duterte’s economic managers, led by Budget Secretary Ben Diokno and Dominguez, sought to convince the President that approving a P2,000 pension hike would endanger the agency’s funds in the longterm. 

But the President, backed by some Left-leaning Cabinet secretaries, insisted on it.

In one Cabinet meeting, faced by his economic advisers’ arguments, a stubborn Duterte supposedly said, “Ang problema, pangako ko 'yan.” (The problem is, I made a promise.)

The deal was sealed when a Cabinet member spoke up about a spouse who asks every day when the P2,000 pension hike would come.

“What will I tell [my spouse], Mr President?” asked the Cabinet secretary.

It was then that Duterte insisted on a compromise: approve a P1,000 pension hike first, then approve the next P1,000 if the tax reform package is passed by Congress.

In the issue of ratifying the Paris climate change deal, Duterte was up against a majority of Cabinet officials who united, despite outward differences, to persuade him it had to be approved.

Duterte was publicly outraged by the “hypocrisy” of the international agreement since it asks even poor developing countries like the Philippines to cut down on carbon emissions when more prosperous industrialized countries were to blame for global warming.

But, in the end, as he admitted in public, he budged in the face of a "near unanimous" vote by Cabinet officials for the ratification of the deal. It was one instance when the neoliberals and Leftists, as well as radical Gina Lopez, took the same stand.

COLORFUL CABINET. President Duterte sits between Leftist Cabinet members, Cabinet Secretary Jun Evasco and NAPC chairperson Liza Maza during a NAPC meeting in the Palace. Presidential photo

COLORFUL CABINET. President Duterte sits between Leftist Cabinet members, Cabinet Secretary Jun Evasco and NAPC chairperson Liza Maza during a NAPC meeting in the Palace.

Presidential photo

Duterte was also, in a way, outvoted in the matter of rice importation. His economic managers convinced him during a Cabinet meeting that rice importation is necessary since the country’s own rice production is insufficient to provide the required rice buffer stock.

For political analyst Tony La Viña, Duterte changing his mind about this issue shows he has "good listening and decision-making skills."

A long leash

While Duterte is known for his strong-arm tactics against critics and naysayers, he is considerably more understanding to his Cabinet appointees. 

There are cases when a Cabinet secretary would refute or contradict him in public, yet was spared from any trash talk from the President.

Other presidents, like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, might not have been as forgiving.

"Duterte gives as much leeway as possible, the leash is long," said Aries Arugay, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

Cabinet officials who have so far been able to do this are Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia.

Lorenzana has told soldiers not to be “too optimistic” about a salary hike despite Duterte’s repeated promises that he would get this done.

Pernia, when asked about Duterte’s decision to reject European Union aid that came with strings attached, quickly said he was not consulted on it and the decision should not be taken as policy.

“It means that he doesn’t micromanage his Cabinet. His Cabinet are not total minions. Power still flows from the President, but there is certain room or space for maneuver given to Cabinet members,” said Arugay.

ECONOMIC EXPERTS. President Duterte's economic advisers, secretaries Sonny Dominguez, Ernest Pernia, and Mark Villar promote 'Dutertenomics.' Malacau00f1ang photo

ECONOMIC EXPERTS. President Duterte's economic advisers, secretaries Sonny Dominguez, Ernest Pernia, and Mark Villar promote 'Dutertenomics.

' Malacau00f1ang photo

Lorenzana is also supposedly among the major voices who convinced Duterte to allow US-Philippines military exercises, albeit with some changes so as not to anger China. 

The exercises are no longer held in the West Philippine Sea and are focused on humanitarian aid and disaster response, not countering an invader.

But Duterte does draw the line somewhere. In the case of former Interior Secretary Ismael Sueno, Duterte said he was convinced Sueno was “lying through his teeth” when he said he had not yet read a DILG legal opinion on the Austrian fire trucks deal.

If this was indeed the President’s reason for firing Sueno, then the decision to part ways was instinctive, based on gut feel, with little or no opportunity for Sueno to respond.

“For Duterte, there’s no due process here. Once in his judgement he has lost trust in you, that’s it,” said Arugay.

One other major Cabinet shake-up was Vice President Leni Robredo’s resignation as housing czar.  While Duterte did not fire her as he did Sueno, some observers argue he left Robredo no choice when he said he didn’t want her attending Cabinet meetings. 

“He can be very sensitive about people’s loyalties, especially of people he doesn’t know. If it was Evasco, Dominguez, Bello, or Dureza, I don’t think he would’ve reacted that way,” said Arugay.

But Arugay thinks Duterte was only testing Robredo and did not really want her out of his Cabinet.

“He is fond of testing. He will say the most controversial thing and he will look at how people react, then he will adjust, ‘Ah, I’ve figured this guy out,’” said Arugay. 

It was eventually Robredo herself who sealed her fate by tendering her resignation.  

There are still several uncertainties facing Duterte’s Cabinet after the one-year mark. Three of his Leftist Cabinet members – Taguiwalo, Ubial, and Mariano – have not yet been confirmed by the Commission on Appointments.

It’s not certain if he will appoint a new housing czar to replace Robredo or is content to keep Evasco in charge of it.

If all goes according to Duterte’s plan, Armed Forces chief General Eduardo Año will take his oath as new Interior Secretary when he retires from the military in October.

Putting out fires

To say it’s been tricky to be Duterte’s Cabinet appointee is an understatement, given the many fires they've had to put out.

Duterte has a nerve-wracking tendency to make big policy announcements without so much as a heads-up to secretaries who will be most affected by his words. 

“In that sense, there is no coordination between him and the secretaries. The working relationship is, it’s like they have to do damage control when the President says something that has an implication on their specific portfolio,” said Ela Atienza, chairperson of the University of the Philippines’ political science department.

Take the time he announced the Philippines’ military and economic “separation” from the United States during a business forum in Beijing during his October state visit.

Security officials seemed as unprepared for Duterte’s statement as the media. Lorenzana refused to comment when approached by reporters. National Security Adviser Esperon spoke as if he had nothing to do with the policy announcement. 

 "I don't need to advice anything because that's already a decision made,” he had said as he headed straight for the venue’s exit.

A few hours after, two of his economic advisers, Dominguez and Pernia, issued a joint statement to cool things down. They insisted that despite Duterte’s declared split, the country “will maintain relations with the West”  but desires “stronger integration with our neighbors.”

Then there was the time during Duterte’s Hanoi visit when he announced an end to war exercises with the US. A nonplussed Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr could only stammer repeated no’s to media as he insisted that was not what Duterte said. 

As much as an assurance to himself as to the media, Yasay reiterated official statements that the Duterte administration would continue to respect commitments with the US.

In March, Duterte displayed alarming confusion about Benham Rise during a Malacañang press conference. He appeared to have thought it was located within the disputed West Philippine Sea, leading him to make worrisome statements about China’s “claim” over territory unequivocally bestowed to the Philippines.

Days after, security officials had to sit him down in a briefing about Benham Rise to explain it is located on the eastern side of the country and thus not involved in the maritime dispute with China.

In succeeding speeches, Duterte would showcase his new knowledge about Benham Rise and champion efforts to rename it Philippine Rise.

Duterte’s first year in power has proven a challenge to his Cabinet appointees, who not only have had to adjust to their national positions but also to the unpredictable and fiery leadership style of their President. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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