When American student Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States from North Korea broken and in a coma in 2017, lawmakers were quick to blame Kim Jong Un and his repressive regime.
But on Thursday, when President Donald Trump let Kim off the hook, Republicans said nothing.
The comments came during a press conference in Vietnam on Thursday, following a second round of face-to-face talks between Trump and Kim that failed to lead to a deal over ending North Korea’s nuclear program.
Trump told reporters that the two leaders had discussed Warmbier.
“He felt badly about it. He felt very badly,” Trump said. “He tells me that he didn't know about it and I will take him at his word.”
Loyal allies to occasional critics of the president on Capitol Hill simply threw up their hands in response to the remarks—even if they believed Trump was wrong, they certainly weren’t going to say so out loud.
In 2016, Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was arrested in North Korea for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster during a visit to the country. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but was returned to his home in Ohio with severe brain damage 17 months later. He died soon after returning to the United States.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said he believes Kim knew what was happening to Warmbier but then made excuses for the president.
“He’s probably trying to preserve his negotiating position,” Graham said, referencing Trump’s ongoing effort to get Kim to give up his nuclear weapons.
The chairman of the Senate’s foreign affairs panel, Sen. James Risch (R-ID), told reporters “to talk to the president about that, not me.”
“I don’t know Kim Jong Un, never met him, don’t have any judgment on that,” he said.
“President Trump is a human being,” Risch said, “like all of us, and makes judgments like any human being.”
Even freshman Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who has occasionally criticized the president’s approach, declined to say if he thought Trump was wrong to take Kim at his word.
“I have the greatest confidence in our intelligence services, and I believe them first and foremost,” said Romney.
Indeed, the only GOP lawmakers to raise much of a fuss over Trump’s comments were those who represent Warmbier’s home state of Ohio.
But even then, they preferred to issue implied rebukes of Trump rather than responding directly.
Sen. Rob Portman worked extensively with Warmbier’s family in helping to secure his release from North Korea, where he was detained for over a year. Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, Portman said, “We can’t be naive about what they did to Otto, about the brutal nature of a regime that would do this to an American citizen.”
“Let’s make sure he is high on our agenda and our conscience as we deal with North Korea,” he said.
After his remarks, Portman told The Daily Beast that he had not spoken with Trump or any White House officials regarding the comments, but indicated he had been in touch with the Warmbier family.
The president’s expression of trust in Kim fits into a pattern of him simply taking autocrats and U.S. adversaries at their word if they deny wrongdoing. In Helsinki last year, Trump held up Vladimir Putin’s “extremely strong” denials that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, and he did the same for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who denied he had anything to do with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But the Warmbier comment is a particularly glaring reversal for Trump. During his 2018 State of the Union address–to which he brought Warmbier’s parents as guests–Trump said that what happened to their son was an example of the “depraved character” of Kim’s regime.
“Tonight,” Trump said, “we pledge to honor Otto's memory with total American resolve.”
Speaking at a press conference in Hanoi on Thursday, Trump said, “Something horrible happened to him,” but also said, “I really don’t think the top leadership knew about it.”
“Those prisons are rough,” Trump said. “They’re rough places and bad things happen.”