President Trump’s decision to make Otto Warmbier the public face of his pressure campaign on North Korea aimed to convince the American public that, beyond the existential but abstract threat of its nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Un’s brutal regime posed a more tangible danger to the United States.
By highlighting Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student who died days after his release from 17 months in captivity, Trump married his “fire and fury” war rhetoric with an emotional appeal over the grief of a single family.
Yet after the collapse of nuclear negotiations with North Korea in Hanoi last week, Trump is facing an unforeseen backlash as the public’s emotion has boomeranged back on him. At a news conference, Trump said he raised Warmbier’s death with Kim but took the dictator “at his word” that he did not know of the mistreatment and felt “very badly” about it.
The Warmbier family’s rebuke of Trump on Friday in a sharply worded statement opened a damaging fissure at a time when the administration is scrambling to salvage bilateral talks and put the president’s primary foreign policy initiative back on track. Having once relied on the Warmbiers to bestow moral authority on his risky North Korea strategy, Trump has lost a crucial partnership at the worst time, as the general public relates to the renewed pain of a family that feels betrayed by the president.
Victor Cha, who served as a high-ranking Asia policy official in the George W. Bush administration, said Bush also demonized North Korea on human rights and, like Trump, met with defectors.
“But the difference is he was consistent; he stuck with it no matter what,” Cha said of Bush’s tough rhetoric. “The big difference is that once Trump sated his short-term needs, and after he met with Kim, he never talked about it again. It just goes to show there was no principle behind it. It was tactical and short-term.”
To Trump’s supporters, his attention on the Warmbier case is evidence of a president who has eschewed broader human rights goals abroad to focus on his efforts on freeing individual Americans — from China, Egypt and North Korea. In May, Trump met three other Americans released from North Korea on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews in the dark of night for a dramatic welcome shown live on cable television.
But his critics see a president whose transactional nature has limits in the more complicated world of geopolitics — and on an interpersonal level with a grieving family.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier, Otto’s parents, initially were thrilled by Trump’s attention. Otto was detained in December 2015, accused by North Korean authorities of stealing a propaganda poster during an organized tour of the country. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a trial the family called a farce in which he was forced to confess to bogus charges.
Warmbier’s parents had grown frustrated with the Obama administration for not securing their son’s release, although former officials said in interviews Saturday that they faced a virtual news blackout for more than six months as Pyongyang cut off communications.
The family “wanted a more assertive public posture. Our view was that was not the best way to get him out. There was no real consensus,” said a former Obama administration official who worked on Warmbier’s case and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations. “It was something that was widely debated — how public should we be, how in-your-face? There are informed views on both sides.”
This former official said the tensions between Washington and Pyongyang made negotiating almost impossible, even for Sweden, the United States’ protecting power, which attempted to intervene because the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Trump has boasted repeatedly of freeing Warmbier, including in a tweet Friday when he wrote: “Remember, I got Otto out along with three others. The previous Administration did nothing, and he was taken on their watch.”
But experts said Kim probably released Warmbier because his condition had deteriorated and the North Korean leader did not want the American to die in custody. The circumstances around what caused Warmbier’s injuries — the family said he was tortured, while the Kim regime said he suffered from botulism — remain shrouded in mystery.
Trump quickly forged a bond with the family, as he has with the “angel families” of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants. The president appeared with the angel families at campaign events in 2016, brought them to the Oval Office and featured them in his State of the Union addresses.
The president called the Warmbiers several times, as did Vice President Pence, whose personal lawyer also represents the family. Trump cited Warmbier’s death in speeches to the U.N. General Assembly, the South Korean National Assembly and his 2018 State of the Union.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier were seated in the House chamber as guests of first lady Melania Trump as the president told their son’s story. They wept as Trump pledged to “honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.” It was one of the most emotionally resonant moments of the speech.
Jim O’Brien, who served as special envoy for hostage affairs in the Obama administration, said he often advocated for more prominently raising public awareness of American citizens who were detained by terrorist groups. But in an interview, O’Brien called Trump’s use of the Warmbiers “exploitative” because the president did not follow through in forcefully pressing Kim to take responsibility and make concessions.
“The shameful element about what Trump did was not ask for records about Otto so the family would know what happened and ask for guarantees that future Americans who are detained get consular access right away,” O’Brien said. “The short attention span of Trump, who uses this kid and his family and then has no idea about any follow-through, is why this seems so callous.”
Since Trump’s first summit with Kim in Singapore in June, the president has not spoken of human rights. Last week, he referred to Kim as “my friend” and called him a “real leader.”
Trump’s gamble that establishing a personal rapport with Kim would lead to a breakthrough at the negotiating table was incompatible with his prior strategy of developing a bond with the Warmbiers. In December, the family won a $500 million legal judgment in federal court against North Korea for Otto’s torture and killing.
Trump has tried to fend off criticism by saying on Twitter “I love Otto” and mentioned him again in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday.
“It was not wrong to make Otto a central part of your strategy,” O’Brien said. “But the amount of publicity was careless and unnecessarily grandiose. And the failure to follow through, especially as he sat alone with Kim, is what makes it seem callous and myopic.”