National security adviser John Bolton, a lifelong hawk toward North Korea, declined to give an opinion Sunday on the responsibility of Kim Jong Un for the death of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was held prisoner by the regime and died in 2017, after being sent home in a coma.
President Trump said after meeting with Kim in Vietnam last week that he took him “at his word” that he didn’t know about the matter. Asked for his reaction on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Bolton replied: “My opinion doesn’t matter.”
“You’re the national security adviser to the president,” Jake Tapper, the show’s host, told Bolton. “Your opinion matters quite a bit.”
“I am not the national security decision maker,” Bolton countered. “That’s his view.”
In 2017, before he joined the administration, Bolton told Fox News that the treatment of Warmbier was “barbaric, but typical for this regime.”
When Tapper told Bolton that he didn't know one expert who thinks "anything could have happened to Otto Warmbier without Kim Jong Un knowing about it ahead of time," Bolton offered a snarky response: "Good for them."
"People in the media seem to have the impression that administration officials kind of comment from the distance, as if I were a Fox News contributor, as I used to be," Bolton said. "I don't do that anymore."
“I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen,” Trump told reporters in Hanoi, Vietnam, Thursday after his second summit with Kim was cut short. “Those prisons are rough. They’re rough places. And bad things happen. I really don’t believe — I don’t believe he knew about it.”
The president said Kim wasn’t aware of Warmbier’s deteriorating condition.
“He felt very badly,” Trump said of Kim. “He knew the case very well. But he knew it later.”
“You know, you got a lot of people, big country, a lot of people,” he continued. “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.”
“He tells me that he didn’t know about it,” Trump said of Kim. “And I will take him at his word.”
Warmbier’s parents, who credited Trump with getting their son returned to the U.S. — he died shortly after, without regaining consciousness — were sharply critical of Trump’s new eagerness to give Kim the benefit of the doubt.
“We have been respectful during this summit process,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier, Otto’s parents, said in a statement. “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.”
On Sunday, Bolton tried to clean up Trump’s message.
“The president made it very clear he considers what happened to Otto Warmbier an act of brutality that’s completely unacceptable to the American side,” Bolton said. “I have heard him before the summit itself, before the press conference, talk about how deeply he cared about Otto Warmbier and his family. The fact is, the best thing North Korea could do right now would be to give us a full accounting of what happened and who was responsible for it.”
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland on Saturday, Trump lamented the controversy he finds himself in.
“I’m in such a horrible position, because, in one way, I have to negotiate,” Trump said. “In the other way, I love Mr. and Mrs. Warmbier, and I love Otto. And it’s a very, very delicate balance.”
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