National security adviser John Bolton made some news on Sunday. In an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” he denied that the Trump administration paid the $2 million medical bill North Korea sent for Otto Warmbier.
And in doing so, he showed yet again that when President Trump denies a report, you can’t take him at face value.
Bolton told Chris Wallace that the administration had “absolutely not” paid the bill, which The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield reported last week that North Korea had sent. But he confirmed that he had been “told” that a U.S. representative had indeed agreed to pay it, as Fifield also reported.
“That is what I’m told, yes,” he said.
Bolton’s interview confirmed basically all the key details of Fifield’s report, but it also came after Trump on Friday called the story “fake news.”
“There was no money paid,” Trump said. “That was a fake news report that money was paid. I haven’t paid money for any hostage.”
But Fifield never reported that the money was paid — and neither did anyone else. All she reported was that a U.S. representative had agreed to pay it, upon North Korea’s request:
The bill went to the Treasury Department, where it remained — unpaid — throughout 2017, the people said. However, it is unclear whether the Trump administration later paid the bill, or whether it came up during preparations for Trump’s two summits with Kim Jong Un.
The White House declined to comment. “We do not comment on hostage negotiations, which is why they have been so successful during this administration,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders wrote in an email.
So the White House doesn’t comment on hostage negotiations ... until it does, repeatedly. And Trump’s “fake news” claim wound up being a complete straw man, denying something that had never been reported in the first place, while the actual report was confirmed by his own aide. A tremendous display of honesty and consistency all around.
This is, of course, hardly the first time Trump or his aides have denied a report that they later wound up confirming. This happened over and over again in the Mueller report, as has been pointed out by multiple outlets.
Trump defenders will note that Trump only denied that the money had been paid, which is true. But he also indicated that the report had said this, which is false. There was no “fake news” here — just a president either badly misunderstanding or, more likely, mischaracterizing a report that made his administration look bad.
The question from there is whether the agreement should have been signed in the first place. Fifield reported that North Korea made it a condition of Warmbier’s release to come back to the United States. The representative, Joseph Yun, phoned then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who consulted with Trump about what to do. Trump said to sign the agreement. So either the U.S. signed the agreement with no intent to follow through, or it changed its mind.
This comes as the Trump has set about playing up his hostage negotiation skills, even tweeting a quote allegedly from his chief hostage negotiator, Robert O’Brien, calling Trump the “greatest hostage negotiator” he knew of in U.S. history. The State Department has not offered on-the-record confirmation of the quote.
Bolton suggested that sources for Fifield’s report might have misremembered how the decision was made to sign the agreement. But he didn’t dispute the reporting. So for now, the White House still isn’t directly disputing that Trump agreed to pay $2 million for Warmbier’s release.
Trump and the White House have emphasized they haven’t paid for any of the hostages they’ve brought home. But signing that agreement, regardless of the intent, sure seems like a concession — one that they now have to account for.