On Thursday, during a press conference following President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un, the president was asked if he had spoken with the North Korean dictator about the abuse and subsequent death of American Otto Warmbier.
In response to the question, Trump said:
I have. And I really don’t think it was in his interest at all. I know the Warmbier family very well. I think they’re an incredible family. What happened is horrible. I really believe something horrible happened to him, and I really don’t think the top leadership knew about it.
And when they had to send him home – by the way, I got the prisoners back and the hostages back. The others came back extremely healthy but Otto came back in a condition that was terrible. And I did speak about it, but I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough, they’re rough places and bad things happened. But I really don’t believe that he was – I don’t believe he knew about it...
He felt badly about it. He knew the case very well, but he knew it later. And you’ve got a lot of people, big country, a 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, really bad things. He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.
Following the president’s comment, the Warmbier family released a statement, which read in part:
Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.
On Friday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway appeared on Fox News, and defended President Trump over the controversial remarks:
The president agrees with the Warmbier family and holds North Korea responsible for Otto Warmbier’s death. He’s said that time and again. This president is responsible for having Otto Warmbier returned to this country and be reunited with his family in his final hours before he passed.
What the president is talking about [is] that Chairman Kim did not know what happened to Otto at the time of when it happened. And so, of course he holds North Korea responsible. He has deep affection and shares the grief for the Warmbier family, and that will never end, as will not the president agreeing with the Warmbier family that North Korea’s responsible.
But Chairman Kim did not know – what the president is saying is that there’s no indication Chairman Kim knew what happened [to] Otto Warmbier when it happened. It’s after he was returned here to the United States that we all learned of his sad and frankly unforgivable state.
Several politicians and media figures have offered their own statements, or outright condemned the president for what he said.
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said that Trump "owes Otto Warmbier’s parents an apology."
Fox News’ Chris Wallace slammed Trump, saying: "Why on Earth would you side with Kim Jong Un over the Warmbier family and the sense of outrage?"
And former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tweeted:
In January 2016, American college student Otto Warmbier was detained during a trip to North Korea after being accused of stealing a government propaganda poster. He was then forced to publicly confess, reading from what many believe was a script written by state officials.
Despite his pleas to return home, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. In June 2017, nearly a year and a half after he was initially detained, Warmbier was returned to the United States in a coma. Less than a week later, he passed away.
North Korean officials blamed the coma on botulism, but according to The New York Times, an anonymous government official said that the U.S. government had "obtained intelligence reports ... indicating that Mr. Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten while in North Korean custody."
However, when coroner Lakshmi Kode Sammarco performed an external examination, she found "no obvious signs of torture," reports CNN. Instead, the damage to Warmbier’s brain appeared to be the result of extended oxygen deprivation. The means by which Warmbier’s brain may have been starved of oxygen are unknown.