Medialdea’s balancing act in Malacañang

Pia Ranada
Medialdea’s balancing act in Malacañang
Salvador Medialdea is President Duterte's steady hand in the Palace, giving legal teeth to his orders

MANILA, Philippines – Executive Secretary Salvador “Bingbong” Medialdea, trading his usual Palace barong for a casual khaki polo, sat beside President Rodrigo Duterte who was smack in the middle of a tirade against Canada.

They were in San Fernando, Pampanga’s provincial capitol, wrapping up an hour-long meeting about the earthquake that had just rocked parts of Luzon. But Duterte was done talking about the disaster. He wanted to talk about Canada.

“Celebrate because your garbage is coming home,” Duterte said about the hundreds of tons of trash illegally shipped from Canada. 

Medialdea gave Duterte an amused smile and muttered something that egged Duterte on.

“The rest of the 5 trucks, pour it over the Canadian embassy,” Duterte responded, drawing hearty laughter from Medialdea who, in his mirth, put a hand to his eyes as if unable to stand the brightness of the President’s humor.  

Stripped of the event’s sober import, the scene might as well have been straight out of a guy buddy movie: Bingbong and Rody just having a good laugh after a hard day’s work.  

Yet the two are the country’s most powerful government executives and the butt of their joke an issue with major diplomatic consequences. Canada, after all, is home to 800,000 Filipinos and the source of $2.1 billion in investments in 2018.

But it’s this rapport between Medialdea and Duterte that has provided a solid backbone to the current presidency. More than halfway into Duterte’s term, the partnership has kept Duterte’s Malacañang afloat amid the controversies that have besieged it, not a few of which originated from the Chief Executive’s own mouth.

Medialdea remains among the few constants in Duterte’s Malacañang, after the exits of Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, Special Assistant to the President Bong Go, and two presidential spokesmen, Ernesto Abella and Harry Roque.

Through the years, Medialdea has proven adept at dealing with Duterte, able to ride with his unorthodox governance style. At the same time, he plays the critical role of fleshing out the President’s pronouncements and initiatives into state issuances and formal directives that can be implemented by departments and agencies.

Duterte’s loud mouth gives the go-signal, but it’s Medialdea’s pen that sets things in motion down the bureaucracy.

Rappler spoke with Cabinet members, Palace staff insiders, and officials close to Medialdea to get a better picture of his role in Duterte’s Palace. 

What emerges is an image of a man whose flexibility and temperament is a good match for the turbulent Duterte. But in a position of power that demands obedience to the law, Medialdea is caught in a balancing act. 

How do you avoid offending a powerful friend with a penchant for unreasonable demands while still respecting the laws you are sworn to uphold?

Davao boy in the capital

Bingbong was born in Davao City and aspired to be a lawyer like his father, Leo Medialdea. Leo was a provincial prosecutor in Davao, giving Bingbong his first link to Duterte whose father, Vicente, was then the region’s governor.

But unlike the governor’s son, Medialdea did not stay long in Davao. Leo moved the family to Manila when he was appointed as an assistant prosecutor at the Department of Justice. Bingbong spent high school and college in the capital, and took up law at the San Beda College of Law, also Duterte’s alma mater. He passed the bar in 1977.

Friends say he was a “lady magnet” because of his good looks and athleticism. He was good at basketball and golf, and to this day remains a big fan of both sports, though he can no longer play due to a bad knee and his weight which piled on after he quit smoking. 

But the sportsman also cultivated an artistic side. He plays the piano, a skill he learned from his mother, a classical piano player. This love for music led him to be among the local producers of Miss Saigon in 2000. At karaoke sessions, Medialdea belts out Frank Sinatra hits in an impressive baritone. 

As a new lawyer, Medialdea began a working relationship with Duterte that would last decades.

In the early ’80s, he was assigned legal cases in Davao City at a time when Duterte was a prosecutor there. After attending a hearing in his old hometown, Medialdea was invited by the up-and-coming fiscal for a friendly chat in his office. The two hit it off. Eventually, Duterte would turn to Medialdea when he had cases needing representation in Manila.

After Medialdea formed his own law office with partners, he would take the firm to Davao City where they were hosted by the now infamous Mayor Digong. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who had joined these outings, recalled the gregarious mayor teaching him and his wife how to eat durian properly.

Duterte would end up relying on the legal services of Medialdea’s law firm, Medialdea, Ata, Bello, Guevarra, Suarez and Associates (MABGS). 

Medialdea specialized in labor law and immigration cases. He was mostly in private practice, save for a stint as Livelihood Corporation administrator under the administration of Joseph Estrada and then as Estrada’s Presidential Assistant for Political Affairs. 

His connection to Estrada was then-presidential political adviser Angelito Banayo, who is now chairman of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office in Taiwan.

Then 2015 came around bringing winds of change. The tough-talking, curse-spewing Mayor Duterte was being heralded as a possible presidential candidate, a shock-and-awe antidote to the cold, ineffective bureaucrats of the past. Medialdea and other lawyers around Duterte were enamored by the idea.

They formed a loose group that began accompanying Duterte to engagements all over the country. Davao-raised Ilocano Jose Calida, eventually named Solicitor General, initially named the group “Champions of Rodrigo Duterte.” This was eventually changed to “The Guardians.” 

Its members now hold powerful government positions. Aside from Medialdea and Calida, it included National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, Government Service Insurance System chairman Rolando Macasaet, MECO chairman Angelito Banayo, former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, and Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation president Alfredo Lim.

Duterte’s candidacy then was dogged by uncertainty since the mayor himself remained coy until the last minute. But Medialdea and the rest of the Guardians were committed to see things through.

“ES (Executive Secretary) told us, might as well be with him so that in the event he will decide to run, we’re here; we’re formed to help him. We have to be prepared for whatever he will decide for the future,” Lim said in an interview with Rappler.

They each raised money and resources for the campaign (Medialdea’s wife Bertola is listed as a campaign donor) and tapped their mayor friends to host campaign rallies. Days would end in After Dark, Duterte’s favorite bar in Davao City, where they would exchange stories over drinks and blasts of karaoke music.

The Guardians’ faith was rewarded. Ten minutes shy of noon on November 27, 2015, Medialdea filed Duterte’s certificate of candidacy for president at the Commission on Election’s headquarters, ending months of speculation and launching a new chapter in both their lives.

Back to Malacañang

Five months later, Duterte was declared the winner of the 2016 presidential elections, nothing short of a miracle for what, according to Lim, was a cash-strapped campaign besieged by controversy after controversy care of its own rambunctious candidate. 

Medialdea, there from the very beginning, was now part of Duterte’s transition committee, tasked first and foremost with naming the new Cabinet.

 

Guevarra said Medialdea was surprised when Duterte informed him he was to be his executive secretary. After all, there were many others to choose from – chief of them Carlos “Sonny” Dominguez III, Duterte’s childhood friend and a Cabinet member under the Corazon Aquino administration. 

But it’s likely Medialdea’s legal background that made him Duterte’s pick. 

An Executive Secretary’s many duties include the following, according to Executive Order No. 292:

  • Directly assist the President in the management of the affairs pertaining to the Government of the Republic of the Philippines
  • Implement presidential directives, orders and decisions
  • Decide, for and in behalf of the President, matters not requiring personal presidential attention
  • Exercise primary authority to sign papers “By authority of the President,” attest executive orders and other presidential issuances unless attestation is specifically delegated to other officials by him or by the President. 
  • Promulgate such rules and regulations necessary to carry out the objectives, policies and functions of the Office of the President Proper

Guevarra, who was Medialdea’s righthand man in the Palace before becoming justice secretary, said Duterte did not often personally consult with Medialdea on official matters. Documents would be passed back and forth between Medialdea’s office and Duterte’s desk.

When Duterte had questions, he would summon the ES to his office or speak with him during Cabinet meetings. Other times, directives would be issued through a phone call by then-Special Assistant Bong Go, who has fondly called Medialdea the “Little Big President.”

Compared to his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, Duterte appears to rely less on his executive secretary. Guevarra said Aquino would often call for Pacquito Ochoa Jr during tense situations. This is not the case with Medialdea. One reason may be that Aquino was not a lawyer and may have felt he needed more legal advice, thought Guevarra, who had been Ochoa’s deputy executive secretary for legal affairs.

But like Ochoa, Medialdea has been described as a “low-key” executive secretary who shies from media attention and does not often give interviews. This is in contrast to the likes of Eduardo Ermita, executive secretary of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who also served as her spokesman on key issues.

The role of ES had also often been occupied by political heavyweights, like the late former Senate president Edgardo Angara and veteran lawmaker Ronaldo Zamora. In contrast, Medialdea was a relatively little-known lawyer when he was named to the post.

Medialdea’s office is in charge of crafting executive orders and proclamations, vetting appointees, and settling quasi-judicial cases referred to Malacañang by other departments.

These were often delegated to other lawyers in the office, or when especially substantive, to the Senior Deputy Executive Secretary, a position now held by Michael Ong. 

Master of the soft approach

Duterte’s working relationship with Medialdea cannot be separated from their personal relationship. According to Guevarra, it’s those years of close personal ties that have defined a steady, no-fuss working dynamic.

“They are very, very close – two guys with the same wavelength who enjoy a good level of comfort with each other,” Guevarra told Rappler.

He described Medialdea as Duterte’s “confidante” even on personal matters. They understand each other’s jokes and body language, he said. They are also close in age, Medialdea now 68 while Duterte is 74.

Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo describes Medialdea’s personal relationship with Duterte as “excellent.”

For Pagcor president Lim, Medialdea’s good friend and golfing buddy, it’s the Executive Secretary’s good sense of humor and easygoing character that make him the perfect righthand man for Duterte.

He described Medialdea as having a “self-effacing” sense of humor and of being “very fun to be with.” But more importantly, he’s supposed to be the type who can get along with anyone, no matter how singular.

“ES is the type of person with empathy. If you go to him and he knows you are wrong, he won’t tell you straight and you’ll leave his office happy. He has high EQ (emotional quotient),” said Lim.

This makes Medialdea able to adapt to any situation, the perfect temperament for an “out-of-the-box” president, said Lim.

According to Palace insiders, Medialdea would often phrase his input to Duterte in soft terms: “Baka puwedeng ganyan (Maybe it can be done this way).”

He is more deferential to Duterte than Dominguez, the only official who can openly contradict the President in a Cabinet meeting. The finance chief once pointedly questioned the need for a shift to federalism when Duterte’s main beef with the present setup was its impact on just one region, Mindanao.

CONFIDANTE. President Duterte confers with Executive Secretary Medialdea during a law-signing ceremony in Malacañang. Malacañang photo

 

Medialdea’s style is to change Duterte’s mind in a private setting.

He’s managed to tone down some of the President’s most outlandish decisions.

Through his intercession, Duterte lifted his suspension of Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office-accredited lotto operations, restoring a critical source of government funding.  

It was Medialdea, too, who told Duterte he could not unilaterally abolish the National Food Authority Council (NFAC), the country’s highest policy-making body on food security. So Duterte moved the NFAC under the Office of the President instead. 

But he’s taken Duterte’s cue too, issuing Palace orders that hew to the President’s politics. He issued a memorandum order blocking official trips to Canada by Filipino government officials – still a lot tamer than declaring war, which Duterte initially threatened to do.

Medialdea signed a memo suspending negotiations on loans and grants offered by countries supportive of a United Nations council resolution against Duterte’s drug war. This was days after the August 2019 Cabinet meeting when Secretary Dominguez suggested a stronger response to the resolution.

A Palace staffer sees Medialdea as the true “leader of the Cabinet” even as Dominguez is seen as the “wise elder statesman everyone listens to.” 

This is because it is Medialdea’s work that gives agencies the legal backbone and structure to implement Duterte’s many demands, like banning smoking in public areas, restricting the use of firecrackers, and fast-tracking government land distribution.

“ES Medialdea performs well as the Little President. He makes sure that the policies pronounced by PRRD are implemented in the entire bureaucracy of the Executive Branch,” Panelo told Rappler.

As primus inter pares or “first among equals,” a phrase often used to describe an executive secretary’s position in the Cabinet, Medialdea has not shied from correcting some bad habits.

He tried to impose rules on who can speak officially for the President when too many Cabinet members were serving as talking heads early on in the presidency. He made known to Presidential Communications chief Martin Andanar his displeasure over his underling Mocha Uson’s federalism jingle. He told off Chief Presidential Counsel Salvador Panelo for bringing women to an event for Cabinet members. 

Medialdea had managed to stay away from controversy for the most part, until the 30th Southeast Asian Games.

Duterte’s own special envoy, columnist Ramon Tulfo, accused Medialdea in his columns of abuse of power. In a July column, Tulfo claimed Medialdea signed a memo circular recognizing the controversial Philippine SEA Games Organizing Committee (PHISGOC) Foundation without Duterte’s knowledge.

PHISGOC would, in the coming months, be the object of ridicule for SEA Games logistical blunders that shamed even Duterte, and questionable use of funds involving overpriced training uniforms and the ceremonial cauldron.

Medialdea filed libel and cyberlibel charges against Tulfo, calling the accusations malicious and baseless.

But there’s no questioning Medialdea’s role in organizing the SEA Games.  

He and his office called meetings about the SEA Games where he was briefed about logistical preparations. He, along with Bong Go, took the lead in calling for unity amid rifts between the country’s sports organizing groups, even holding a special event in the Palace.

An official present at the SEA Games meetings said Duterte had absolute trust in Medialdea and Cayetano to organize the SEA Games without a hitch. After all, he saw the sporting event as the least among his concerns.

SEA GAMES BROUHAHA. Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea leads a 'call for unity' event amid tension among PHISGOC, Philippine Sports Commission, and the Philippine Olympic Committee. Malacañang photo

 

While Tulfo painted a picture of Medialdea as one who can be influenced (also alleging that the secretary demanded money from a government tipster before the release of their reward money), Lim and Guevarra vehemently denied this. 

“No, that’s not true. If he helps, he will only do so in a legal way. There are people who you don’t give in to and they will accuse you of something. But I can say ES is an honest guy,” said Lim. 

Medialdea, said Lim, hates people who “namedrop” in order to wheedle a favor from him. 

Guevarra said when Medialdea gets such requests, he would refrain from promising anything but would help out if there was nothing improper about the assistance asked for.

Enabler

What can’t be denied is Medialdea’s role in making Duterte’s policies a reality. Duterte often relies on EOs, proclamations, and memoranda to enact major policies without waiting for Congress to act, which critics often slam as a way of taking shortcuts and bypassing more stringent processes.

Medialdea’s office is responsible for these issuances.

These include the proclamation on martial law and state of national emergency on account of lawless violence, challenged before the Supreme Court. 

Medialdea’s signature is on Duterte’s Proclamation No. 572, which declared former senator Antonio Trillanes IV’s amnesty void and ordered his arrest. 

There’s Executive Order No. 34 which makes it easier for departments to skip public bidding and go for alternative procurement methods, a potential loophole for corruption.

Memorandum Order No. 17 returned the embattled Philippine National Police to the drug war.

Medialdea signed Memorandum Order No. 32 which directs additional deployment of military and police to Negros Island, Samar, and Bicol amid a string of killings. The troops were tasked to supress “lawless violence and acts of terror” in the areas.

Left-leaning groups and civic organizations blamed the memorandum order for a string of killings in Negros island.

After the MO was issued, police or military operations there led to 25 deaths, according to data from local group Defend Negros. (MAP: Negros killings since July 2016)

The rest of the at least 63 killings after the MO was signed were perpetrated mostly by unidentified assailants, said the group. Eight months after, two people a day were killed in 10 days in July, spurring cries for justice.

Those killed were a mix of farmers, members of peasant organizations, local officials, and suspected drug personalities. 

Medialdea is Duterte’s enabler, giving legal teeth to his pronouncements and policies. As “Little President,” Medialdea will be answerable for all consequences arising from his principal’s orders.  

Duterte is only weaving a fantasy when he says he would not let anyone else take the fall for his controversial orders.

“I take full legal responsibility for it. I and I alone. If ever, I will go to prison. You can enjoy your freedom,” Duterte said at the military’s anniversary on December 17.

With Duterte still popular and in power, there’s every reason for Medialdea to enjoy a good joke with his longtime buddy. But at the end of the line, when a controversial presidency exacts its price, will there be anything left to laugh about? – Rappler.com

Liked this profile? Read our other profiles on the influential officials in Duterte’s Malacañang:

One year of Panelo, the showbiz spokesman
The Unravelling of Harry Roque
Jun Evasco, the NPA rebel in the Palace ‘snake pit’
Ernesto Abella, the man who speaks for President Duterte
The man they call Bong Go


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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.