In June 2017, American college student Otto Warmbier died shortly after being released from North Korean captivity. He had arrived home in Ohio in a coma, and his family believes he was “brutally tortured” during his time in prison.
But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un says he knew nothing about Warmbier’s treatment — and President Trump believes him.
“I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen,” Trump said in Hanoi on Thursday. “It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen.”
It was yet another instance in which Trump took an autocrat at his word, a habit the president has developed even in cases where evidence suggests that foreign leaders aren’t telling the whole truth. It is especially notable when compared to the icy treatment Trump has dished out to the leaders of traditional democratic allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Here are some other instances of Trump’s willingness to believe authoritarian leaders:
In July 2018, after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland, Trump shocked both Republicans and Democrats when he said he “doesn’t see any reason” for Russia to have meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Throughout a news conference with Putin, Trump failed to challenge Putin’s claims that Russia had not interfered in the election — just days after the Justice Department charged a dozen Russian intelligence officers with stealing Democratic Party emails.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” he said at the time. “But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Trump also called the Russia investigation “a total witch hunt” and claimed it had damaged relations between the two countries.
On Thursday, Trump said he did not believe that the North Korean leader was responsible for Warmbier’s medical condition and that Kim “feels badly” about his death.
“He tells me he didn’t know about it, and I take him at his word,” Trump said, choosing to believe Kim even as he walked away from a nuclear deal at their summit in Vietnam.
After the news conference, Nikki Haley, who recently stepped down as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted that “Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime.”
“Our hearts are with the Warmbier family for their strength and courage,” she wrote. “We will never forget Otto.”
Last year, Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and never walked out. A month after his disappearance, the CIA determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered his killing. “The accepted position is that there is no way this happened without him being aware or involved,” a U.S. official familiar with the CIA’s conclusions told The Post last November.
But Trump was not convinced. He suggested that Khashoggi may have disappeared at the hands of “rogue killers” and stood by the crown prince even as the CIA concluded he was responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
Asked in an interview with The Post in November about whether the crown prince had any role in Khashoggi’s killing, Trump said that “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.” He added: “But he denies it. And people around him deny it. And the CIA did not say affirmatively he did it, either, by the way. I’m not saying that they’re saying he didn’t do it, but they didn’t say it affirmatively.”