- Leah Millis/Reuters
- President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Thursday accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s word that he didn’t know about the maltreatment of US student Otto Warmbier.
- Warmbier was detained in North Korea, placed in a prison camp, and later released to the US in a vegetative state. He died soon after.
- Trump’s trust in Kim is part of a pattern of the president taking the word of dubious leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
President Donald Trump said he takes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “at his word” when it comes to the death of US student Otto Warmbier. The statement is part of a pattern of Trump exhibiting trust in high-profile, authoritarian leaders.
Warmbier was arrested in North Korea, imprisoned, and returned to the US in a vegetative state. He died soon after. His parents have since sued the North Korea government. A federal judge in December ruled in Warmbier’s parents’ favor and ordered Pyongyang to pay them $501 million in damages, but they’re unlikely to see a penny of that money from North Korea.
But Trump on Thursday said he believed Kim, whose regime is known to use brutal tactics to maintain power, when the North Korean leader told the president he was not aware of Warmbier’s treatment in detention.
As Trump and Kim met in Hanoi, Vietnam, this week, the president told reporters he’d confronted the North Korean leader about what happened to Warmbier. The president said he believed something “really bad” happened to Warmbier, but said he didn’t “think that the top leadership knew about it.”
“I don’t believe that he would have allowed that to happen,” Trump said of Kim, whose government has been described by Human Rights Watch as “among the world’s most repressive countries.”
“It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough, they’re rough places and bad things happened.” Trump added. “I don’t believe he knew about it.”
Trump said Kim told him he felt “badly” about Warmbier’s fate, adding, “He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”
President Trump on Otto Warmbier: "I really believe something very bad happened to him, and I don't think that the top leadership knew about it…(Kim Jong-Un) felt very badly about it…He tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word." pic.twitter.com/EWnw7BzVNe
— Axios (@axios) February 28, 2019
The president’s remarks accepting Kim’s explanation of the Warmbier abuse align with similar instances in which Trump has accepted the word of authoritarian leaders.
In Helsinki, Finland, last summer, Trump appeared to take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over the US intelligence community on the subject of Russian election interference.
When asked by reporters if he believed the US intelligence community’s assessment that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election, Trump said, “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
After facing significant backlash, Trump later walked back on his comments, but he’s expressed doubts on the subject of Russian election interference multiple times.
Similarly, Trump also took Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s word that he was not involved in the brutal killing of reporter Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, a Saudi national who moved to the US and wrote columns for the Washington Post, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October by agents of the Saudi government. Khashoggi had often been critical of the Saudi royal family in his reporting amid Prince Mohammed’s efforts to consolidate power in the kingdom.
The CIA has reportedly concluded that Prince Mohammed ordered his killing, and that assessment has been shared by many members of Congress – including top Republicans.
But in November, Trump vowed to stand by Prince Mohammed despite the allegations against him.
“King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi,” Trump said. “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Trump has not shifted in his position on this since that time, even as more reports have pointed to Prince Mohammed as the architect of Khashoggi’s death.
The president has garnered a reputation for trusting his instincts over the assessments of experts. “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me,” Trump said in November.