MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - On Oct 23 - a mere six weeks ago - Vice President Leni Robredo sat down with the Reuters news agency to speak candidly about her views on the Duterte administration's signature program, the so-called war on drugs.
She described it as a failure.
"We ask ourselves, 'why is this still happening?' The President has already made very serious threats to drug syndicates, to drug lords...and yet it's still very prevalent, so obviously, it's not working."
Reuters took particular note of two other comments the Vice President said.
"The crackdown has overwhelmingly targeted the poor rather than big drugs networks, Leni Robredo said in an interview, adding that Duterte's violent rhetoric was aiding a culture of police impunity for which international help should be sought if the government refused to change tack."
On Oct 28, five days after Robredo's comments stirred the vipers in Malacañang Palace, a peeved President Duterte issued a public dare.
"Now if you're better than me, I'll hand to you full powers over the drug (war). I'll give you six months. Let's see if you can handle it," he challenged Robredo. "I will surrender my powers to enforce the law. I will give it to the Vice President. I will give it to her for six months."
He added: "Let's see what will happen. I will not interfere. You want it? You're more bright? Then try it."
His challenge to Robredo was the sort of instinctive political reaction he was known for making on his feet, and which many in Davao City mistakenly call strategic.
In reality, it was merely tactical, based on his reading of Robredo's relative weakness at the moment; it was only a bully's dare, not meant to be taken seriously, and not thought through because it did not, in the mind of the bully, require any thought.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo played the familiar role of bully's intermediary, couching the President's challenge in flattering terms (it was a "kind gesture" to Robredo, Oct 30), and then sweetening the pot (it comes with "a Cabinet secretary portfolio," Oct 31).
The enticements were meant, possibly, to disguise the trap that was being laid, but the effect was the opposite: They served to sharpen the contours of the trap instead.
On Nov 6, to the shock of many, including both the Vice President's supporters and the President's allies, Robredo accepted Mr Duterte's inchoate challenge. (The executive order that created the inter-agency committee which she was supposed to co-chair only provided for one chairmanship, among other defects in the offer.)
She offered a simple reason for stepping into the trap: "Even if we say that the offer was mere politicking and the government agencies will not follow me and they will do everything for me not to succeed, I'm ready to bear all of these. Because if I can save one innocent life, my principles and heart are telling me I should give it a try," she said in Filipino.
But she also issued a challenge of her own. "They asked me if I was ready for this job. But my question is: Are you ready for me?"
It became clear, quickly, that the Duterte administration - based on the tough-guy persona of a vigilante mayor, characterised by the swagger and sex talk and susceptibility to violence of entitled masculinity - was not in fact ready for her.
GMA News TV has a good summary of what Robredo did in her 19 days as co-chair.
But what really got the President's goat, and the country's attention, was her request to review the government's list of high-value drug targets. (Her calling out China, the President's benefactor, for its failure to stop Chinese drug smuggling, and her meeting with US officials, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, must have also struck many in Malacañang as galling.)
The torrent of macho rationalisations to keep the co-chair of the policy-making body that is supposed to direct the war on drugs in the dark about the true source of the illegal drugs problem in the Philippines - the drug lords and drug syndicates she had told Reuters about - was astonishing, even impressive.
The officer in charge of the Philippine National Police asked: "But would it really matter if you know who are on the list?"
The director general of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, her co-chair of the committee, wondered aloud: Why is she asking for it? She is "just presiding a committee that is Icad."
Representative Robert Ace Barbers muttered something about "classified information" and "security clearances." And President Duterte invoked national security. "Classified matters cannot be shared," he said, and threatened to fire Robredo if she shared them.
The truth was, as the President eventually admitted, Robredo was the leader of the opposition, and no one in the administration felt comfortable sharing information with her.
Which brings us back to the bully's dare: Why "hand...full powers" to someone you did not trust in the first place? Because bullies don't think. They bluster, and brag, and bully. Robredo's unexpected response was emasculating.
As Senator Ping Lacson, a former PNP chief, tweeted after the President finally fired Robredo: "The more exciting question is, between PRRD and VP Robredo, guess who's laughing now?"
The writer is columnist with the paper. The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media entities.