When Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States in 2017 and died shortly afterward, President Donald Trump condemned the North Korean regime for the imprisonment and suspected torture of the college student who was arrested in 2015 for alleged spying.
“You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength inspires us all,” Trump said, addressing Warmbier’s parents, during his 2018 State of the Union address. “Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.” He added in that same speech: “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.”
Fast forward to Thursday in Hanoi, when, at a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump said this of Warmbier and North Korea: “He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.” Trump added that Kim “felt badly about it. He felt very badly.”
Trump is, apparently, taking the word of a brutal dictator who had his half-brother murdered with nerve gas at an airport and who continues to live a posh lifestyle while his country suffers the effects of staggering economic sanctions? The guy who North Korean media says began driving a car at age 3, helped cure Ebola and can control the weather? We’re going to believe THAT guy???
On its face, Kim’s claim that he was unaware of Warmbier’s arrest and treatment is beyond laughable. Kim rules North Korea with an iron fist. He wouldn’t know that an American college student had been arrested in his country? He would miss how Warmbier’s arrest and incarceration became a massive national and international story? And at no time in the 18 months Warmbier was held would anyone in Kim’s government ever see fit to mention that they were holding an American prisoner?
Like I said, that’s beyond unbelievable.
Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, released a sharp statement Friday criticizing the President’s approach.
“We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that. Thank you,” their statement said.
So why did Trump reverse course on Warmbier and North Korea? Simple: Because it was the politically expedient thing to do.
Trump wants to make a denuclearization deal with North Korea. He suspects, rightly, that doing so would be a massive foreign policy achievement and a major pillar of his presidential legacy. To make that deal, which Trump was unable to close during this second summit with Kim, he knows that he has to keep Kim happy, keep him talking and keep him in the right mindspace to make a deal.
In order to do that, Trump is willing to say and do whatever is needed – up to and including giving a violent dictator a pass on the wrongful imprisonment and mistreatment of an American college student who, after being held for 18 months, was returned to the United States in a vegetative state and died days later.
Trump responded Friday on Twitter.
“I never like being misinterpreted, but especially when it comes to Otto Warmbier and his great family,” the President tweeted Friday. “Remember, I got Otto out along with three others. The previous Administration did nothing, and he was taken on their watch.
“Of course I hold North Korea responsible for Otto’s mistreatment and death. Most important, Otto Warmbier will not have died in vain. Otto and his family have become a tremendous symbol of strong passion and strength, which will last for many years into the future. I love Otto and think of him often!”
While Trump’s willingness to overlook Kim’s clear falsehoods about Warmbier may make an eventual denuclearization deal more likely (although, at this point, who really knows?) the question that has to be asked is, at what cost? How much of our moral principles and standing in the world are we willing to sacrifice to appease a dictator with a horrendous human rights record?
Trump’s answer – at least on Thursday – appears to be all of our moral principles. Because if we have to accept the farce that Kim Jong Un knew nothing about what happened to Otto Warmbier, what other atrocities will we be made to overlook?
Rick Santorum said it best on CNN Thursday morning.
“This is reprehensible, what he just did,” the Republican former Pennsylvania senator told anchor John Berman of Trump. “He gave cover, as you said, to a leader who knew very well what was going on with Otto Warmbier. And again, I don’t understand why the President does this. I am disappointed, to say the least, that he did it.”