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Trump absolves Kim Jong Un of responsibility for Otto Warmbier’s death

“He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.”

American student Otto Warmbier arrives at court for his trial in Pyongyang, North Korea, on March 16, 2015.
American student Otto Warmbier arrives at court for his trial in Pyongyang, North Korea, on March 16, 2015.
Xinhua/Lu Rui via Getty Images

During President Donald Trump’s summit-ending news conference in Vietnam on Thursday, a reporter asked him if he’d confronted North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un about the treatment of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was imprisoned in North Korea for 15 months, only to return to the US in a comatose state in June 2017 and never recover.

The reporter noted that despite Warmbier’s brutal death, Trump has called Kim “my friend” and repeatedly boasted about their “great relationship.” The journalist then asked him, “Have you in Singapore [during the first Trump-Kim summit] or here confronted Kim Jong Un about Otto Warmbier’s death, asked him to take responsibility, and what did he say to you?”

Trump confirmed that he had — but went on to say he takes Kim’s word for it that he had nothing to do with it.

“I really believe something very bad happened to [Warmbier], and I don’t think that the top leadership knew about it,” Trump said. “I don’t believe that [Kim] would’ve allowed that to happen. It just wasn’t in his advantage to allow that to happen.”

Trump continued:

I did speak to [Kim about Warmbier]. He felt very badly. He knew the case very well, but he knew it later. And, you know, you got a lot of people — big country, lot of people. And in those prisons and those camps, you have a lot of people. And some really bad things happened to Otto. Some really, really bad things. But he tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.

It’s hard to imagine that North Korea’s totalitarian dictator wasn’t aware of how a high-profile captive was treated — especially considering the show trial that Warmbier, who was arrested for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, was forced to endure.

As Vox has previously detailed, the North Korean government claimed Warmbier “was left in a coma because of a food poisoning disease called botulism, but doctors were strangely unable to identify any trace of botulism or the cause of his deathly injuries.”

American doctors were also unable to discover any physical evidence of abuse or torture — despite the fact that Warmbier’s parents had described in gruesome detail the horrific state their son was in when he’d returned to the US. “It looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and re-arranged his bottom teeth,” Warmbier’s father Fred told GQ magazine.

Trump’s comments absolving Kim of responsibility for Warmbier’s death were widely criticized. Rob Portman, a Republican US senator from Warmbier’s home state of Ohio, released a statement saying “we should never let North Korea off the hook.”

Trump’s former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley also seemed to subtly rebuke the president in a tweet.

But one of the negotiators who worked to bring Warmbier home from North Korea — Mickey Bergman of the Richardson Center — told Vox he thought he understood what Trump was trying to say, albeit in an ineloquent way.

“I think what [Trump] was referring to is that Kim told him he doesn’t know what went wrong,” Bergman said, adding that “whether we want to believe that or not” is another question.

Bergman pointed out that it’s unprecedented for a North Korean hostage to be returned to the US “in a coma.” Along the same lines, Bergman characterized the Warmbier tragedy as “an anomaly” during an interview earlier Thursday on Fox News.

But Bergman also told Vox that “there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind and in anybody else’s mind that the North Koreans are absolutely responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier.”

“Whether it was intentional or an accident,” he continued, “he was under their control or supervision, and the fact that he was in the detention for more than a year in North Korea I would argue is torture in itself.”

Trump, however, wasn’t even willing to go that far.

Trump has a history of believing tyrants

Trump’s comments about believing Kim when he says he had nothing to do with Warmbier’s death echo comments he’s made about Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

Though the US intelligence community concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election on Trump’s behalf, Trump said during a joint news conference with Putin last July that Putin “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial” and hence “I don’t see any reason” to believe the US intelligence community over Putin’s word. Trump’s comments were widely criticized, and he later said he misspoke.

And while the US intelligence community concluded the Saudi government was responsible for the murder of dissident journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi last fall, Trump indicated he’s willing to take MBS’s word for it that he wasn’t involved.

During his news conference Thursday, Trump once again signaled a willingness to believe the word of an authoritarian over that of his own intelligence community. Asked about intelligence reports that North Korea has recently expanded its nuclear and missile programs, Trump responded that he doesn’t necessarily buy it.

“Some people are saying that, and some people are denying that,” Trump said. “Some people are saying that and some people aren’t.”

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.