President Trump received cautious pushback Thursday from fellow Republicans for saying he believed North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s assertion that he was unaware of the treatment of American college student Otto Warmbier while imprisoned in his country.
Speaking as Trump headed home from a two-day summit with Kim in Hanoi, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he continues to see North Korea as “an evil regime.”
“I think it starts at the top,” Portman said. “And I think we have to acknowledge that as we deal with them.”
Portman, who was close to Warmbier’s family in Ohio and fought for his release, said, however, that he has long favored engaging with North Korea, as Trump is doing, and that the United States had made “some progress” toward denuclearizing the nation.
Asked if Trump should trust Kim, Portman said, “I think he should verify whatever he hears from [Kim] independently.”
Speaking to reporters at a news conference Thursday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also counseled caution on trusting Kim.
“I do not see the leader of North Korea as somebody who’s a friend,” McCarthy said. “We know what happened to Otto. We know what this country has done. I support the president in his effort to denuclearize them, but I do not have a misbelief of who this leader is.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has been a staunch Trump ally on many issues, said he didn’t “buy it for a minute” that Kim had nothing to do with Warmbier’s treatment. He suggested Trump was “probably trying to leave some space to negotiate” on broader issues with Kim by saying he trusted his account.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was “surprised that [Trump] accepted at face value, apparently, what happened to the American who was held there.”
Other leading Republicans avoiding commenting on Trump’s assessment of Kim’s truthfulness.
During floor remarks Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised Trump’s performance in Hanoi but made no mention of his comments regarding Warmbier.
Trump and Kim abruptly cut short their summit Thursday amid contradictory accounts of why they were unable to reach an agreement to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
At a news conference before heading home, Trump condemned the “brutality of the North Korean regime” following Warmbier’s death at age 22, but the president made clear he didn’t hold Kim personally accountable.
“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.”
Trump said that he spoke to Kim about the death of Warmbier and that Kim “feels badly about it.” He said the North Korean leader knew about the case but learned about it only after the fact because, Trump suggested, “top leadership” might not have been involved.
Trump’s comments prompted much sharper criticism from Democrats, who alleged a pattern of coddling authoritarian leaders. Among those weighing in were both senators from Virginia, where Warmbier had attended college.
Sen. Tim Kaine said Trump has repeatedly accepted the word of “dictators,” like Russian President Vladimir Putin or Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“I can only imagine how it felt for the Warmbier family to have the President defend Kim Jong Un,” Kaine said in a statement. “Why would you not go to bat for an American family of this American student who was so brutalized by the North Korean regime?”
Taking to Twitter, Sen. Mark R. Warner wrote that “Otto Warmbier’s bogus arrest and brutal murder was an international incident.”
“Of course Kim knew about it,” Warner wrote. “Apparently, the President of the United States is the only one who believes this obvious lie.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she considered it “strange” that Trump continued to assert he believes “thugs” such as Kim and Putin.
The No. 2 House Democratic leader, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), said he was “concerned” that Trump took Kim “at his word when he claimed innocence in the brutal death” of Warmbier.
“Such statements dishonor this young man’s memory and cause further pain to his grieving family,” Hoyer said in a statement.
Josh Dawsey, Carol Morello and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.