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John Bolton tried to explain away Trump’s Otto Warmbier comments — and it went poorly

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Serving President Trump often means trying to square a rhetorical circle. Sometimes it requires pretending he didn’t say what he said. Other times you’ll (gently) distance yourself from something you clearly regard as ridiculous.

And if you’re John Bolton on Sunday, it’s both.

On two Sunday shows, Trump’s national security adviser was asked to account for Trump’s controversial comments about Otto Warmbier. Before Trump departed from their failed Hanoi summit last week, he gave North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a little gift. He said he didn’t believe Kim knew Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, had been mistreated in a North Korean prison before his death. This strained credulity, to say the least.

So on “Fox News Sunday,” Bolton tried to pretend Trump didn’t actually say this:

CHRIS WALLACE: This is not the first time that the president has taken the word of an autocrat over outside evidence.
BOLTON: It’s not taking the word. He said I’m going to take -- when he says, “I’m going to take him at his word,” it doesn’t mean that he accepted as reality; it means that he accepts that’s what Kim Jong Un said.
WALLACE: So when he says “I take him at his word,” it doesn’t mean that he believes Kim Jong Un?
BOLTON: Well, that’s what he said. I think one way to prove that is to give the United States a complete accounting.

Except Trump rather clearly accepted Kim’s word as reality. In his exit news conference in Hanoi, Trump repeatedly made the case for how Kim wouldn’t have known about it and said explicitly that he believed that explanation.

To wit:

  • “I really believe something very bad happened to [Warmbier], and I don’t think that the top leadership knew about it.”
  • “I did speak about it, and I don’t believe that [Kim] would’ve allowed that to happen. Just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough. They’re rough places. And bad things happened. But I really don’t believe that he was — I don’t believe he knew about it.”
  • “He felt badly about it. I did speak to him. He felt very badly. But he knew the case very well, but he knew it later.”

Saying he takes people at their word is actually how Trump has talked about these issues in the past — specifically when it comes to Russian President Vladimir Putin denying 2016 election interference and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman denying involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist. But in this case Trump went even further and said he believed the explanation, too. And it’s unambiguous.

As for Bolton’s other appearance — on CNN’s “State of the Union” — it might actually be more painful:

JAKE TAPPER: Do you take Kim Jong Un at his word?
BOLTON: The president takes him at his word.
TAPPER: No, I know he does, but what about you?
BOLTON: My opinion doesn’t matter. My opinion is that ...
TAPPER: You're the national security adviser to the president.
BOLTON: Right. I’m not ...
TAPPER: Your opinion matters quite a bit.
BOLTON: I am not the national security decision-maker. That’s his view.

“That’s his view.” Bolton, a notorious hawk on North Korea and many other issues, might as well have said out loud that he didn’t agree with Trump. If he did, there’s no reason to decline to subscribe himself to Trump’s view and say his own opinion doesn’t matter.

This calls to mind then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s tortured response to whether Trump did business with Russian oligarchs. “That — that’s what he said,” Manafort replied. “I — that’s what I s — that’s obviously what the — our position is.”

When you don’t want to associate yourself with Trump’s claims, you simply state that it’s the company line and that Trump speaks for himself. But when your national security adviser has to both rewrite history about your comments and distance themselves from them, you can get a pretty good idea exactly what he thinks of what the boss just said.