President Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, last week was an epic failure on multiple fronts, but only one part of it seems to bother him.
“We get along, we’ve developed a good relationship, very good, and made great, historic progress,” Trump said after his most recent encounter with North Korea’s tyrant.
But when Trump told reporters that he took Kim “at his word” that the leader was unaware of American Otto Warmbier’s imprisonment and his injuries sustained while in custody, it undercut one of Trump’s most sensitive narratives about himself: that he brings hostages home.
This is not the first time his bizarre impulse to unnecessarily exonerate thugs has created a challenge for him, but this one seems particularly damaging.
The irony for Trump is that his efforts to downplay the deaths — refusing to question autocrats for whom he repeatedly proclaims his affinity—are what will sear the names of the victims into the collective American memory forever.
It’s rare when the fate of a single person matters to a president’s record, but it can teach us something about the moment we live in because when it comes to a statement about our values, the damage is difficult to undo. So it is for Trump and his pathetic responses to the killings of Otto Warmbier, Jamal Khashoggi and others.
Are we safe in this world? Does American citizenship mean anything abroad anymore? Trump’s answer to both questions is crystal clear: not on my watch.
Trump would have us believe, through his photo ops with returning hostages and his own proclamations, that he values American lives. But it’s just one more fairy tale that should be retired.
Until now, wanting to give Trump credit for something, anything, many observers have been complicit in perpetuating a myth that he has been better than his predecessors on an issue that—admittedly limited in scope—carries outsize resonance with a population that desperately wants to believe that the president of the United States is protecting the nation.
In June 2017, when North Korea returned Warmbier’s comatose and near-lifeless body to the United States, it wasn’t the victory of tough-nosed diplomacy that Trump tried to sell it as. Fearing that Warmbier, long suffering from injuries sustained in their custody, would die, North Korean officials reached out to American interlocutors about releasing him.
When Warmbier was flown home to Ohio, his family was horrified by the condition he was in, and ultimately made the heartrending decision to take him off life support and put an end to his anguish.
To the Warmbier family’s unending credit, they have handled the botched return of their son with a kind of public grace that this president does not deserve.
But even these honorable Americans have their breaking point.
“We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out. 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,” the Warmbier family said in a statement on Friday.
Trump contends that the Obama administration did nothing to bring Warmbier home, and his parents are rightly critical of President Barack Obama’s failure to get traction on their son’s return. By most official accounts, though, there was a blackout in communications with Pyongyang at the end of the Obama years, with Kim’s regime refusing to engage with the United States or its representatives.
That doesn’t let Obama off the hook. But if there is no channel of negotiation, there is no way to free a prisoner.
Ironically, the Trump administration can now employ the same excuse of not having a channel to discuss Americans detained in Iran. Americans imprisoned there strengthen arguments for further isolating the Islamic republic, although in the case of our interactions with the regime in Tehran, the break in communication was Trump’s own doing.
At this point, though, no one actually thinks that Trump cares about anyone not named Trump. But his ridiculous acceptance of Kim’s denial is unconscionably reckless.
First, it was failing to hold Saudi Arabia’s leadership responsible for the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident. Trump publicly and very callously said that our commercial ties — in the form of arms sales and oil imports — with Riyadh were more important than the fate of a single person.
Now, apparently, simply proclaiming innocence is enough to get you off the hook with this president. This opens the door to the murder without consequence of American people at the hands of any government in the world.