Speaking in Hanoi after his summit with Kim Jong Un broke down, President Donald Trump says he takes the North Korean dictator “at his word” that he was not responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died after being detained in the country in December 2015 during an organized tour and sent back to the U.S. in a coma.
“He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word,” Trump said at a news conference following a summit with Kim in Vietnam, which produced no agreement with the rogue nation.
Trump previously took credit for the June 2017 release of Warmbier and used his death to pressure Kim over human rights, saying the 22-year-old Ohio native was “tortured beyond belief.”
“I did speak about it, and I don’t believe that he would have allowed that to happen,” Trump told reporters.
“It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Prisons are rough, they’re rough places, and bad things happened,” he added. “He felt badly about it. I did speak to him, He felt very badly.”
“He knew the case very well. But he knew it later,” Trump said of Kim. “And, you know, you’ve 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 bad things.”
“Something happened from that day. It was a terrible thing. It was brutal. A lot of people started to focus on what was going on, including North Korea. I really think that Otto is someone who did not die in vain.”
Trump’s remarks sparked bipartisan backlash.
“This is the conundrum of Donald Trump for many of us who like his policies and don’t like a lot of the things he does and says,” CNN analyst and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) said on “New Day.”
Santorum decried the president’s comments about Warmbier as “reprehensible.”
“I mean he gave cover … to a leader who knew very well what was going on with Otto Warmbier,” Santorum said. “I don’t understand why the president does this. I am disappointed to say the least that he did it.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) called the president’s defense of Kim “detestable.”
“Walking away from the summit was better than making a bad deal. It’s also the result of a poorly planned strategy,” Schiff tweeted. “But accepting Kim’s denial of involvement in Warmbier’s death? Detestable, and harkens back to Trump’s duplicitous acceptances of denials from other dictators.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that Trump’s comments do “enormous damage” to the United States’ standing in the world.
“He seems to find warmth with authoritarian dictatorships and believes them and their word when they have records of violating international law and human rights than to believe our own intelligence community.”