Last month, as he greeted Danny Burch, an oil-company engineer held captive in Yemen for 18 months, Trump offered an updated scorecard for his administration’s results. “Well, I will say, Danny, we’re 20 and 0,” the president beamed. “We’ve gotten a lot of them out.”
Freed U.S. citizens, along with their friends and families, have often welcomed Trump’s publicity-friendly approach. But some experts worry that, by putting his personal stamp on the issue, Trump could potentially put Americans abroad in more danger.
“The risk is that you increase the value of hostage taking,” said Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and author of a book on hostage negotiations. “You know it will get the president’s attention.”
Even though the president likes to keep score when talking about Americans freed abroad under his watch, the evidence that Trump is freeing more hostages than his predecessors is scant. James O’Brien, a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs between 2015 and 2016, said the Obama administration freed roughly a hundred Americans abroad during that time.
“I find the boasting odious,” O’Brien said of Trump’s comments about hostages. “Every day an American is held abroad is a loss."
Trump’s transactional view of negotiations faced renewed scrutiny this week, when The Washington Post reported that the president authorized a U.S. official to sign a pledge to pay $2 million in medical fees for Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student imprisoned in North Korea, before the comatose 22-year-old could be released.
Warmbier died shortly after he returned to the United States in June 2017. There is no evidence that the North Korean bill was ever paid, but the revelation of its existence drew a critical response. Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, told The Post that it sounded like a “ransom” for his son.
Trump, who has made outreach to North Korea one of his signature foreign policies, tweeted on Friday to say that “no money” was paid for Warmbier’s release. In a second tweet, the president suggested he was the “greatest hostage negotiator” in the “history of the United States.”
The United States has a long-standing policy against paying ransoms to free hostages taken by terrorist organizations. The issue is not the cost — the U.S. government has funded rescue operations that were likely more expensive than a ransom payment — but the worry that the money could be used to harm Americans.
The policy was formalized in 2015 by the Obama administration after a government review was prompted by the kidnapping of U.S. citizens by the Islamic State and other nongovernmental extremist groups. It is not clear whether it would directly apply to a case involving a foreign government like North Korea.
In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Joseph Yun, the State Department’s point man on North Korea during Warmbier’s release, did not confirm that he had signed the North Korean document but said that freeing hostages was always a “tough question” for the U.S. government.
“There have been cases when money was paid to a national government who held American citizens,” Yun said, without elaborating. In 2011, the government of Oman reportedly paid a $1 million bail fee to release two American hikers who had been imprisoned in Iran.
O’Brien said he was not aware of any comparable instances where the United States had signed a document that promised to pay money in a similar manner to that of the Warmbier case. “I never had a government ask for money and wouldn’t have agreed to pay it,” he said.
Signing the document made the United States look “anxious and weak,” O’Brien said; conversely, refusing to pay it afterward made the United States look unreliable.
Trump’s emphasis on hostage negotiations initially came as a relief to some families who felt that the Obama-era attitude was too procedural and not open to improvisation. When Warmbier was first detained, his family had sought a more assertive U.S. government response but were rebuffed by officials.
There is no clear evidence that North Korea imprisoned Warmbier deliberately in a bid to extract cash or force diplomatic talks with the United States. But many adversarial countries who imprison American citizens appear to have noted that the new U.S. president is more open to deals than his predecessor.
“I put this offer on the table publicly now: exchange them,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said when asked about the fate of foreign and dual nationals imprisoned in Iran on Wednesday, suggesting a swap for Iranians held in the United States.
The detention of American citizen Paul Whelan in Russia on espionage charges has also been widely interpreted through the lens of tit-for-tat political measures, with negotiation experts like former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson suggesting that Moscow was seeking a “quid pro quo” in relation to the U.S. case against Maria Butina, a Russian gun-rights activist.
The tactic may not necessarily be unwise. Speaking to the National newspaper about the American journalist Austin Tice, who has been missing in Syria since 2012, Trump’s special envoy for hostage affairs suggested that freeing hostages was one route to better relations with the United States.
“The president has made it very clear that if you want to have better relations with the U.S., if you want the atmosphere for better relations,” said Robert O’Brien, no relation to James O’Brien, “then don’t hold our hostages or help us find our hostages if they’re missing in your country.”
For now, Trump is keen to keep negotiating. “I love doing it because I love the end result,” he said as he greeted Burch in March.