The Trump administration has never shown much interest in human rights. Last year, it pulled the United States out of the U.N. Human Rights Council. In 2017, within months of President Trump’s inauguration, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said diplomats should not let human rights values become “obstacles” to achieving national goals. Trump has spoken favorably about some of the world’s most vicious dictators.
On Thursday, Trump yet again showed just how little regard his administration has for human rights issues. As he wrapped up his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump told reporters in Hanoi that he did not believe Kim was responsible for the death of American student Otto Warmbier.
Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was arrested and imprisoned in North Korea in 2016 while on an organized tour. In 2017, he was released — in a coma — and flown back to the United States for medical treatment. He died a week after returning home. His parents have said they believe their son was “brutally tortured” while imprisoned in North Korea. And in the past, Trump also has seemed to suggest as much.
But Thursday, after meeting with Kim, Trump said he believed the North Korean leader knew nothing about Warmbier’s death. “I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen,” Trump said. “It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen.”
That denial is part of a pattern with Trump. When given the opportunity to stand up to some of the world’s most notorious authoritarians, Trump has chosen to give them the benefit of the doubt despite history, news reports and experts telling him otherwise.
⋅ Expressed confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government is accused of a long list of human rights violations. Trump said he believed Putin’s claims that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
⋅ Praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job” fighting illegal drug use, even as reporters documented that Duterte’s law enforcement has played a role in thousands of extrajudicial killings in the drug war.
⋅ Has stood by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite evidence suggesting that he ordered the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
⋅ Has spoken on multiple occasions about his “friendship” with President Xi Jinping of China, one of the world’s leading oppressors of Muslims.
Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on CNN that Trump’s comments about Warmbier were in themselves nearly a violation of human rights. “It’s unfortunate; it’s almost a human rights violation,” he said. “The president should know better. And what should happen is a full accounting: Kim Jong Un should say to his intelligence people, ‘Let’s tell the truth on this.’ But they’re not going to do it.”
“It doesn’t give the families of American hostages much strength or faith in their own government,” Richardson added.
Nicholas Burns, formerly a U.S. diplomat and now a diplomacy and international affairs professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, told me that Trump was right to engage Kim but wrong to accept the explanation given.
“It’s just exactly wrong. Kim runs a Mafia-style family dictatorship,” Burns said. “He is responsible for what happened with his police forces and security forces. And the president had an obligation to remind Kim of that, that he’s responsible for this. And it’s outrageous what happened to Otto. It was brutal. And I thought it was a big mistake of judgment by the president.”
Trump even faced criticism from the right, with radio host Ben Shapiro tweeting:
“Flattering a man who murders American citizens and his own relatives [with] impunity is unconscionable. You don’t get points for ‘effort’ when the ‘effort’ involves pretending Otto Warmbier wasn’t murdered, and that the US has a ‘special relationship’ with the worst dictator on the planet — and when that ‘effort’ results in less than nothing.”
In an emotional hearing in December, Warmbier’s parents asked that North Korea be held accountable for their son’s death and filed a lawsuit seeking more than $1 billion in damages from the Kim regime.
But it does not look as if Trump, whom the Warmbier family have praised in the past and who returned empty-handed from the summit with Kim, is going to push the North Korean dictator on Warmbier or other human rights abuses. And this could have the most damaging effect on Trump’s foreign affairs legacy.