Despite having a reputation as a mere “rubber stamp” of the President, the Commission on Appointments (CA) this week rejected the appointment of President Duterte’s closest confidante and designated man to be the country’s top diplomat – Perfecto Yasay Jr.
The body of Senators who wield the power of confirming or rejecting the President’s political appointees failed to reconfirm Yasay as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs for lying about his previous citizenship status. During the start of his confirmation hearing, the diplomat explicitly denied ever having a U.S. passport. Suspiciously however, Yasay asked the CA not to question his citizenship in case his confirmation will end up being a trial by publicity with the media present. Relentless, the commission led by Senator Ping Lacson pressed on with the allegation that Yasay once held a U.S. passport which he vehemently denied.
The issue of his citizenship hounded Yasay earlier, when Rappler.com confronted him regarding official U.S. Immigration documents listing him as an ex-citizen. An annoyed Yasay hit back, “I did not own a US passport, all right?” to the journalist. Further scrutiny of his immigration background suggested that Duterte’s former college roommate did acquire U.S. citizenship in 1986, only to renounce it in 2009. If one can remember Yasay ran for the vice-presidency in 2010, under Philippine laws candidates for public office are only allowed to have Filipino citizenship.
With the evidence being more difficult to deny, Yasay caved under pressure and admitted that he was a U.S. citizen. The damage had been done, however, as the secretary had lied under oath before the CA. In his final confirmation hearing, Yasay also tried hard to avoid answering ‘yes or no’ when pressed regarding his citizenship.
This prompted the commission to reject Perfecto Yasay’s reconfirmation as Department of Foreign Affairs secretary. This means that he cannot assume his position as DFA chief, even if the President chooses to confirm him.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, a member of the CA, used the rejection verdict to prove that “the CA is not the rubber stamp of President Duterte“. While it may be true that a repudiation of a personal appointee is a blow to President Duterte, there could be more than meets the eye in the rejection of ex-Sec. Yasay.
Prior to his appointment as Foreign Affairs secretary at the start of the Duterte administration, Yasay was seen as a placeholder for the DFA role as the President’s intended pick for the job – Alan Peter Cayetano – was ineligible to assume office for a year due to a law banning failed candidates from being appointed to government jobs. There were rumours that Yasay was on his way out as early as September last year. Duterte however, confirmed that his college buddy would serve for “a few more months” but reiterated the position was not permanent given “he has contractual obligations to teach, professorial chair, well most universities in the western side [of the United States].”
Doing the math, “a few months” from September could be coming up soon. In December last year, the President again confirmed that his running-mate and top campaign donor – former Senator Alan Peter Cayetano – was in the running for the top diplomat role. In the immediate aftermath of Yasay’s failed confirmation, the President declared that career diplomat Enrique Manalo would be the “acting foreign secretary”. It should not come as a surprise if the out-of-job, failed vice-presidential candidate would be Duterte’s next permanent appointee.
What a clever ploy it would be if the CA rejected an appointee who was on his way out anyway: they portray themselves to be independent from the chief executive’s personal interests while at the same time not falling out of favor with the latter as a result. There may be genuine reasons to reject Perfecto Yasay’s appointment, but if this is supposed to be proof of the commission’s objectivity then they need to try harder.