President Trump said on Thursday that he confronted Kim Jong Un over the death of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. college student who died in 2017 after being held in a Pyongyang prison — and that he does not hold the North Korean authoritarian leader responsible for Warmbier’s death.
“I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen,” Trump told reporters in Hanoi, Vietnam, 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.”
Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student from Ohio, was arrested and accused of committing a “hostile act” while on a study tour of North Korea in 2016. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Trump took credit for negotiating his release to the United States. Warmbier, who suffered a massive brain injury while in custody, was returned to his parents in a coma in June 2017. He died a few days later.
The president said Kim wasn't aware of Warmier’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.”
Trump’s former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, appeared to break with her former boss on Twitter, placing blame for Warmbier’s torture squarely on the “North Korean regime.”
Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime. Our hearts are with the Warmbier family for their strength and courage. We will never forget Otto. ❤️🇺🇸— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) February 28, 2019
And Trump’s comments defending Kim drew an immediate comparison to his defense of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the CIA reportedly assessed that the Saudi leader ordered the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In December, Trump said the crown prince “vehemently” denied knowledge of Khashoggi’s murder.
“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event,” Trump said in an official press release. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Trump's comments on Warmbier also echoed his defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump said in July after a summit with Putin in Helsinki. “But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
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