When the president you serve speaks glowingly about strongmen, it makes your job as his chief diplomat more difficult. Yes, sometimes you have to deal with such leaders, but you also need to avoid legitimizing them. You may be on the verge of cutting a deal, but does that mean you give the autocrat a pass on humanitarian abuses — even ones directly involving the United States?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been through this already with Jamal Khashoggi. Now he’s going through it with Otto Warmbier.

And on Wednesday, he got testy over it.

To set the backstory, Trump hasn’t just said over-the-top nice things about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un; he’s literally talked about how they "fell in love.” And the latest episode in the romance involves Trump saying recently that he didn’t think Kim knew about the situation that led to the death of Warmbier — a U.S. citizen — in a North Korean prison.

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“I really believe something very bad happened to him,” Trump said, “and I don’t think that the top leadership knew about it.” He added: “I don’t believe he knew about it.”

After Warmbier’s parents rebuked Trump, he tweeted, “Of course I hold North Korea responsible” — without saying whether he meant Kim personally.

Fast forward to Wednesday, and Pompeo was testifying on Capitol Hill. Given Trump’s comments, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) peppered Pompeo with questions about whether Kim was culpable for the high-profile humanitarian abuses in North Korea.

On each one, Pompeo avoided directly blaming Kim, instead saying he was the leader of the country and saying the “regime was responsible.”

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Here’s the transcript:

MALINOWSKI: Is Kim Jong Un responsible for maintaining North Korea’s system on labor camps?
POMPEO: He’s the leader of the country.
MALINOWSKI: Is he responsible for ordering the execution of his uncle and the assassination by chemical agent of his half-brother?
POMPEO: He’s the leader of the country.

Malinowski then got to Warmbier and referenced the White House’s recent comments about how “President Trump likes Chairman Kim,” and Pompeo bristled:

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MALINOWSKI: Was he responsible for the decision not to allow Otto Warmbier to come home until he was on death’s door?
POMPEO: I’ll leave the president’s statement to stand. He made that statement. We all know that the North Korean regime was responsible for the tragedy that occurred to Otto Warmbier. I’ve met that family. I know those people. I love them dearly.
(CROSSTALK)
POMPEO: They suffered mightily, sir.
MALINOWSKI: So what’s to like [about Kim]?
POMPEO: They suffered mightily.
MALINOWSKI: So what’s to like about Kim Jong Un?
POMPEO: Sir, don’t make this a political football. It’s inappropriate. That’s inappropriate to do.
MALINOWSKI: Well, when the White House says that sanctions decisions are based on liking Kim Jong Un – has the president ever used that kind of language with respect to Angela Merkel? Has he every publicly called her a friend?
POMPEO: I’ve heard him talk about her that way, yes. I don’t recall if it was in a public setting or not.

This is not the first time Pompeo has, like Trump, declined to point the finger directly at Kim. He also did so early this month when he was pressed on it by USA Today. The newspaper also described a testy scene, in which Pompeo emphasized he was being “very patient” with the line of questioning but still wouldn’t point to Kim.

So this is not a coincidence or a matter of over-parsing. It’s clear he and Trump are studiously avoiding blaming Kim personally, and no amount of testiness from Pompeo should obscure that. He doesn’t even want to say Kim assassinated his relatives.

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And again, this involves an American citizen. By repeatedly declining to personally blame Kim, it effectively gives him a personal pass on this one. That’s not making this about politics; it’s making sure the administration is clear about who it holds responsible for human rights violations. And the less culpability there is for human rights abuses, the less incentive there is to stop committing them.

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Trump and Pompeo may have decided this is the price of doing business, just like they decided that not blaming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, was the price of doing business with Saudi Arabia. But it’s worth emphasizing the price they’re paying — along with the very distinct possibility that they may get nothing for it, judging by North Korea’s recent activities.

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