By his own account, U.S. President Donald Trump believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s claim that he knew nothing about the abuse of American student Otto Warmbier in a North Korean prison.
This is not the first time that Trump has sided with an authoritarian ruler.
The U.S. president’s enthusiasm was irrepressible: “He's a character and he's a real personality. He's very smart. He's sharp as you can be and he's a real leader.”
North Korean dictator Kim was the object of this high praise from Trump during an interview with Fox News, his favorite TV station. Although Kim did not make any concessions at the summit in Vietnam, the U.S. president did not want to say a single bad word about the dictator who imprisons and tortures his citizens (including his relatives) and has them executed without due process.
The American public is used to such fawning by now. However, Trump also sided with Kim concerning the death of the American student, Warmbier. Trump does not hold Kim responsible for it. Kim “tells me he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word.”
He suggested that the ruler could not know about all the prisoners in his country: “Big country, lot of people. And in those prisons and those camps, you have a lot of people.” North Korea is smaller than Greece, has only 25 million inhabitants and is a police state. It must be assumed that Kim knows exactly what happens in the country he runs like a prison camp.
Consternation over Trump’s Defense of the Despot
In the U.S., there is now great consternation over Trump's defense of the despot. Warmbier’s parents made their disapproval known and stated that “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto.” The 22-year-old student Warmbier was arrested in North Korea for stealing a propaganda poster and was clearly subjected to such intense torture that he fell into a comatose state. He died a few days after he was sent back to the U.S.
Democrats as well as Republicans criticized the U.S. president on Friday, in a show of unity that is rarely seen these days. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader in the House of Representatives, stated: “I do not see the leader of North Korea as somebody who's a friend. We know what happened to Otto. We know what this country has done.”
Adam Parkhomenko, Democratic strategist and former consultant for Hillary Clinton, tweeted, “My heart breaks for the Warmbier family. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child only to watch the president of the United States take the side of that child’s murderer.”
What is wrong with Trump? Why is he doing this?
The political analysts who are now heatedly discussing this on all the TV stations have a simple, albeit alarming explanation: Trump is fascinated with despots and would love to be one of them.
“Donald Trump is dictator curious. This is a guy who loves these kinds of authoritarians. He loves these kind of tough guys, these thugs, these war lord types because he envisions how he’d love to lead,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson on MSNBC. The U.S. president already has a long track record of “loving the tough guy.”
‘Very Good Relationship’ with Putin
The list of Trump's declarations of affection for this type of ruler is quite long: The U.S. president loves to praise the “very good relationship” he has with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After the summit in Helsinki, Trump claimed to believe his assertion that the Kremlin had not interfered in the U.S. elections in 2016. U.S. investigators and intelligence agencies, however, came to a different conclusion.
Last October, Trump declared that Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman credibly assured him that he had known nothing about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The CIA discovered that the prince was definitely behind the murder plot.
When it came to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Trump complimented him on his firm hand in the “drug war” and invited him to the White House. After being appointed to office, Duterte encouraged his fellow countrymen to kill drug takers: “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself.” More than 12,000 people have been killed in the Philippines since then, and human rights activists report targeted killings committed by security forces.
Protecting Human Rights No Longer Seems So Important
As for Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who had more than 800 people killed in a single day massacre, Trump met him in New York and praised him for doing “a fantastic job.” Trump also has a good personal relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who gladly locks up critics, opponents and journalists and does not care much about freedom of religion and women’s rights.
The 45th U.S. president gives the impression of appreciating good relations with such rulers. He is impressed by how firmly they have their countries under control — and how their people respect or even fear them. This predilection is apparently so strong that he believes these rulers over his own intelligence agencies.
Protecting human rights all over the world, which until recently had been a constant key political demand in America’s foreign policy, no longer plays an essential role in Trump's “America First” agenda, and not just since his statements about the Warmbier case.
Now that his remarks have been harshly criticized, Trump feels misunderstood. This is not the first time he has backpedaled after a diplomatic faux pas.
On Friday night, he reminded people on Twitter that he was the one who brought Warmbier back to America. “Of course I hold North Korea responsible for Otto’s mistreatment and death,” the U.S. president tweeted. He had nothing to say about Kim’s role in it.