President Donald Trump made a shocking statement Thursday morning, absolving North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of responsibility in the death of American hostage Otto Warmbier.
Warmbier was held captive in North Korea for more than a year after being accused of stealing a North Korea propaganda poster during a university trip to Pyongyang in 2016. During his captivity, the then-21-year-old Warmbier was so mistreated that he sustained permanent phsyical damage, rendering him nearly comatose, unable to walk, speak, or even breathe without medical assistance.
North Korea claims Warmbier had a serious medical emergency while in captivity, leaving him in a near-vegetative state. Warmbier's family says he was beaten and starved to the point where his body could no longer function.
Trump secured Warmbier's release in 2017. He died not long after returning to the United States.
At the time of Warmbier's return, Trump commented that Warmbier was the victim of North Korea's "brutal regime," according to a local Ohio news organization, and pledged to take on North Korea over the teenager's death. "A lot of bad things happened ... It is a brutal regime and we’ll be able to handle it," Trump said.
On Thursday, after the latest attempt on the part of the Trump administration to entreat with the North Koreans, Trump seemed to soften his words, telling reporters that he had discussed Warmbier's death with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and that he believes Kim Jong Un had nothing to do with Warmbier's brutal treatment at the hands of North Korean authorities.
USA Today reports that Trump told media, "I don't believe he knew about it," Trump said of Kim. "He tells me that he didn't know about it and I will take him at his word."
"He knew the case very well. But he knew it later,” Trump continued. “And, you know, you’ve got a lot of people. Big country. Lot of people. And in those prisons and those camps, you have a lot of people. And some really bad things happened to Otto. Some really bad things.”
The comments came as a shock to Americans and to the American foreign policy community. Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley spoke out on the subject, openly disagreeing with the president, according to The Hill.
"Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime," Haley tweeted Thursday morning. "Our hearts are with the Warmbier family for their strength and courage. We will never forget Otto."
Although Trump's comments were met with immediate scorn from a bipartisan group of legislators and officials, this is not the first time that the president has referred to Warmbier's treatment in the context of his interactions with North Korea. In fact, Trump has repeatedly said that it was Warmbier's return and subsequent news of his condition that "inspired" the two countries to meet for the first time in Singapore.
Trump has claimed in the past that news of Warmbier's cruel treatment and shocking death inspired Kim Jong Un, initially, to come to the bargaining table.
In June of 2018, according to NBC News, before the first summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, Trump credited Warmbier for bringing the two countries together, telling media that Warmbier "did not die in vain."
"Otto Warmbier is a very special person and he will be for a long time in my life. His parents are good friends of mine. I think without Otto, this would not have happened," Trump told reporters at a press conference in Singapore.
"Something happened from that day, was a terrible thing. It was brutal," Trump continued. "But a lot of people started to focus on what was going on, including North Korea. I really think that Otto is someone who did not die in vain. He had a lot to do with us today."
That summit, unlike the most recent summit, ended with a joint declaration encouraging North Korea to pursue a de-nuclearization program.