The President's men, 6 years after

MANILA, Philippines – It’s lonely at the top, they say. It's not easy leading a nation with more than a hundred million people scattered among 7,100 islands. President Benigno Aquino III may have known this himself and has relied on his inner circle of trusted friends and advisers to help him.

Aquino, his closest allies said, matured in the past 6 years of his administration. From being friends with the President in 2010, the year he took office, they said Aquino became more their “boss” and the nation’s commander-in-chief as the years went by.

The President is known among his men as someone with a sharp memory and who is into details. In fact, meetings, especially board meetings of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), would last the whole day because of his desire to get to the bottom of things.

He can also be temperamental, Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad said, more so if he is dissatisfied with the information given him.

Abad and Foreign Secretary Jose Rene Almendras added it is difficult to ask for the President’s approval, especially on projects and plans concerning public money.

According to Almendras, it’s a running joke in the Cabinet that Aquino is really not from Tarlac as he is supposedly an Ilocano, who are known for their thriftiness.

Aquino, for his part, remains deferential to elders in the Cabinet and “extra cautious” with women in his team, Abad said.

Whom did President Benigno Aquino III listen to when he had to grapple with policy issues? How was he like to members of the Cabinet? Did he play favorites? How has he changed in the past 6 years?

No one would argue that 3 among the President’s most-trusted people are his long-time friend Executive Secretary Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa Jr, college classmate and friend Almendras, and party mate Abad.

Despite all the controversies, Aquino’s inner circle remained intact after 6 long years under public scrutiny. 

Paquito Ochoa Jr: The Little President

HE HAS MY BACK. President Benigno Aquino III and close friend Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. File photo by Malacau00f1ang photo bureau

HE HAS MY BACK. President Benigno Aquino III and close friend Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr.

File photo by Malacau00f1ang photo bureau

If there’s one Cabinet official Aquino was bent on keeping, it would be Ochoa.

It’s no wonder why unlike past presidents, Aquino had only one executive secretary throughout his entire 6-year term despite a few controversies involving Ochoa.

Their fathers and namesakes – the late Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr and former Pulilan Mayor Paquito Ochoa Sr – were friends. But it was not until after their deaths that the sons met.

“He is a team player. His dad and my dad were very close allies. Although I met him after both of our dads had died – way, way beyond that. Perhaps it was part of God’s plan that I met him,” Aquino said in an interview with Rappler.

Since Aquino entered politics in 1998, Ochoa had been his principal legal counsel. He attributed all of his supposedly sound legal decisions to Ochoa.

“He has been there with me for the longest time. If I appear knowledgeable about the law, to a large degree he has been my tutor from Congress pa.”

Aquino, in 2010, was quoted in a Newsbreak article as saying that Ochoa had never failed to give him the correct position to take in issues. Six years after, Aquino remained firm on this.

“If I want make sure everything I do is underpinned with legality, with correctness etc, siya 'yung [his help is] automatic. Talagang [He's really] the Little President,” Aquino said, referring to the common monicker given to the Office of the Executive Secretary.

In a 2012 interview with Rappler, Ochoa said it was his job to make the President’s life easier.

When asked, he indicated that there is no single loudest voice among the President's advisers, since "Cabinet secretaries, as alter egos of the President, get to weigh in on matters pertaining to their respective portfolios, and as such everyone has a voice in the Administration."

Abad, for his part, said that while the dominant voice in Palace meetings would depend on the issue being discussed, the Executive Secretary is still the last person that the President would talk to before making a final decision.

The President himself acknowledged the widely known fact that he has a hundred percent trust in Ochoa. He said the latter has “no separate agenda.”

Parang [It's like] when I say he has my back, he really has my back. Number 1, he doesn’t have a separate agenda; he shuns publicity for that matter. I have to push him and say, ‘Pare, kailangan dito ikaw (ang) magsalita (Bro, you have to be the one to speak on this issue),” Aquino said.

Ochoa, while considered the most trusted man of the President, had rarely given interviews to the media. In events in Malacañang, Ochoa could be observed as quiet and low profile.

In 2011, a P40-million glass mansion was linked to him. Ochoa and Malacañang denied it, saying it was not on his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net worth because he was not the owner.

In 2013, Ochoa was dragged into the police killing of 13 alleged criminals in Atimonan, Quezon. He was the chairman of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC) but denied approving the police plan. (READ: Aquino stands by Ochoa in Atimonan killings issue)

Ochoa was also embroiled in the pork barrel controversy, after he was alleged to be connected to supposed mastermind Janet Lim Napoles.

In an interview with Newsbreak in mid-2011, barely a year into the job that he ever expected to land, Ochoa revealed his personal policy in dealing with intrigues, which he would observe until the end of the Aquino administration:

Jose Rene Almendras: From Ateneo to Malacañang

TROUBLESHOOTER. President Aquino and his classmate and friend, Foreign Affairs Secretary Jose Rene Almendras. File photo by Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

TROUBLESHOOTER. President Aquino and his classmate and friend, Foreign Affairs Secretary Jose Rene Almendras.

File photo by Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

“He functions as a troubleshooter.”

This was how Aquino described his kumpadre and long-time friend Jose Rene Almendras, when the former appointed Almendras as foreign secretary in March 2016.

Prior to this, Almendras, former president of Manila Water, served as energy secretary in 2010, and Cabinet secretary from 2012 to 2016.

Almendras wanted to leave government after his DOE stint, but he could not say no to the President. He ended up staying in the Aquino Cabinet for a full 6 years.

Aquino knew this and, in turn, lauded Almendras, the manager of his Cabinet, for accepting more responsibilities.

“Rene, as Cabinet Secretary, was very, very instrumental in pushing everybody to speed up – taga-follow up, taga-query, taga-organize (he follows up, he makes queries, he organizes). May (He has the) willingness to accept more and more assignments,” Aquino said.

Of all the Cabinet secretaries, it is Almendras who has personally known Aquino the longest. This could be the reason why Aquino could not simply let go of his trusted friend, who, insiders said, happens to be a good manager.

Their friendship started in 1978 during their freshman year in Ateneo De Manila University. Aquino also happens to be the godfather of Almendras’ son.

“He’s close to my family. He often asks, 'How’s Marian? How’s Noel?' When my son graduated, he was there and he congratulated my son. He always tells my children: If you don’t want to talk to Daddy, you can talk to me.”

Asked how it feels to have a friend for a boss, Almendras told Rappler in an interview: “It’s difficult. I need to learn how to call him Noy (Aquino’s nickname) again because even when we’re horsing around, I still refer to him as Mr President. I do not want to signal to others na ‘close kami kaya kaya ko siyang tawaging Noy.” 

“He makes fun of me quite regularly. But I still refer to him as Mr President,” he added.

While he has close ties to the President, Almendras downplayed his role in Aquino’s decisions.

He said he only involves himself when he is asked to, or when the topics are within his field of expertise like the economy or business. Politics, however, is not one of them, he said.

“My involvement is according to where I am asked to join and the President manages his Cabinet that way. He will bring in the people with the expertise to be able to discuss the issues. I’m not a politician. He knows I have no political experience. I am never involved in a meeting on politics,” he said.

“The President knows us and we know him well. He knows we will not do anything or we will stop something from happening if we know it’s going to create problems for him. It’s different from he trusts us and we are the only ones who influence his decisions,” he said, referring to him and Ochoa.

Almendras said he is known among the Cabinet as one of the bearer of bad news, only because as Cabinet Secretary, he said, everything that reaches his level has to be addressed immediately

“There’s this feeling, I always bring bad news. When I tell the President, ‘Can I see you?’ His first question is 'Bakit ano nangyari (Why, what happened)?' I guess I’m one of those whose role in government is to tell the truth to the President, to bring the realities to the President. By the time it reaches me, it’s going to be something important.”

Despite the controversies against Aquino, Almendras stands by his close friend.

Almendras said Aquino, known for his stubbornness, used such trait to the country's advantage.

“There were probably times I would have wanted to say, 'Bumigay ka na (Give in),' but he did not. He really fought for the things he believed in. Some people would say he was persevering, some people would say matigas ulo niya (he's hard-headed). Either way you look at it, it requires conviction and character to hang on to that which you believe in,” he said.

Their relationship, however, is not pure bliss. Almendras admitted they did not always agree with each other’s decisions. But looking back, he said his relationship with Aquino grew stronger.

“Yes, there are times when he probably is not happy with my decisions but he would have had to talk to me, and he would. There are times I may not agree with his position. I discuss it with him. If he decides, I would follow already because that’s the rule of thumb with me.”

Aside from Almendras, Aquino has other college friends in his inner circle – Cristino "Bong" Naguiat, chair of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR); and businessman Romy Mercado, who did not join government.

As friends do, Almendras said they sometimes just listen to the President "release" his thoughts.

"The President is a real friend. The President is a person who, if you are his friend, he will not be plastic. Masama loob ko sa 'yo, sasabihin niya. Hindi makikipagbolahan lang sa 'yo (I'm holding a grudge against you, he'll say. He won't beat around the bush with you)," Almendras said.

With only a week left before June 30, Almendras said he would go back to the corporate world. But not without having a vacation with his friends first.

"We were actually looking for a vacation but we couldn’t come to an agreement where to. We either go to the beach or somewhere. But all things considered, we will have to plan his (Aquino's) moving back to Times Street first," he said, referring to the Aquino family home in Quezon City.

Butch Abad: 'The ideologue'

LP. President Aquino with Budget Secretary Butch Abad, his party mate in the Liberal Party. File photo by Malacau00c3u00b1ang Photo Bureau

LP. President Aquino with Budget Secretary Butch Abad, his party mate in the Liberal Party.

File photo by Malacau00c3u00b1ang Photo Bureau

In the early part of the Aquino administration, Abad took on the role as the President’s mentor. But as the years went by, Aquino grew into the position, Abad said.

They have known each other since the early 1980s, when Aquino went back from the United States shortly after the murder of his father, former Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. He and Abad met when the former joined the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSB), Aquino's first employer.

Abad was also Aquino’s campaign manager when he ran for the Senate in 2007 and for president in 2010.

This stuck with Aquino, who would tease Abad for being an “ideologue.” While focused on the country’s budget, Abad was one of the key people Aquino consults on political concerns. Abad said almost all decisions had political ramifications.

“They’re very few of us involved in politics in the Cabinet. He (Aquino), having been congressman and senator, he values wise political advice. So I’m there for those two things – 'Can we afford this? Is this proper use of money? What’s the political angle here?' Every issue always has a political angle,” he said.

Abad is closely associated with defeated administration standard-bearer Manuel "Mar" Roxas II. Roxas and Aquino also go a long way back. Despite controversies, the two stuck it out with each other. Aquino endorsed Roxas as his preferred presidential bet.

ENDORSEMENT. President Aquino endorses Mar Roxas for president in the May 2016 polls. File photo by Malacau00c3u00b1ang Photo Bureau

ENDORSEMENT. President Aquino endorses Mar Roxas for president in the May 2016 polls.

File photo by Malacau00c3u00b1ang Photo Bureau

From being friends with the President to becoming his soldier, Abad said the President grew into the position. If before, Aquino would call Abad his mentor, now he has clearly become the commander-in-chief, said Abad.

When Aquino first sat in Malacañang, Abad recalled that the President would find it “awkward” to be called "Mr President" by his close friends. But as years passed, Aquino got to imbibe the office he is holding.

Aquino has become more confident, mature, and responsible as a leader, as he knew he has to answer for everyone, Abad said.

“Yes, even from the start, he would tell me, 'That’s my mentor.' He would really call me. But you know, because of the day-to-day performance of presidential functions, eventually he did it on his own. He grew into the job. Kita mo talaga (You can really see he's the) commander-in-chief. I guess that’s what the office does to you,” Abad said.

When told of the impression that he is indispensable in major decisions by the President, Abad said: “Well, hindi naman ganoon (it's not like that). But there are certain people, I see them, even if the area strictly speaking is not in their jurisdiction, but they still get consulted,” he said.

He was referring to Ochoa, Almendras, former Interior secretary Mar Roxas, and Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez on matters of messaging.

Since the President has an eye for detail, Abad said Cabinet secretaries would do intense research before meeting with Aquino. In his case, he is usually consulted on matters concerning budget and politics.

“Well, he became more and more the boss that you know. When you’re called, unlike before, more and more he expects a lot more from you. You start thinking more thoroughly about the subject matter that you will discuss with him beforehand. Kaya lahat kami nagaassignment (So we all do our assignment) before we go to him,” he said.

Living 6 years under public scrutiny has somehow affected the relationship of the two, especially at the height of the controversy on the Disbursement Acceleration Program, which critics called as the President’s pork barrel. It was questioned before the Supreme Court which ruled as unconstitutional certain executive acts under the DAP.

“In a way, yes [it was affected]. He thought we could have been more careful, you know, and more prepared to deal with such an eventuality,” Abad admitted.

Abad, in no time, tendered his resignation letter. For him, it was the darkest phase of his career in public service. Never has he been as vilified in his decades-long career in politics, he said.

“That’s why I had to tender my resignation because I didn’t want the whole thing to erode the confidence in his government. I said as far as that issue is concerned, the buck stops with me. Just to prevent the erosion of confidence, credibility of this admin, I'll take the heat,” he said.

Aquino rejected Abad’s resignation letter. The latter said Aquino maintained that they did not do anything wrong and it was just critics who tweaked the issue.

Now, moving forward, Abad said the prospect of more cases against him is “real.” In fact, he is already preparing for it. Despite this, the President’s “mentor” said he is ready to face whatever is thrown his way. After all, he said, he and Aquino had been through worse – Martial Law and the People Power revolution. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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