A number of senators from the Republican Party are reported to be fuming over President Donald Trump’s defense of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un over his possible role in the death of an American college student. According to The Hill, a number of senators from Trump’s own party who have been strong supporters of the president in the past are unhappy with his comments following his abridged summit with the dictator of the nuclear-armed communist nation.
Trump was commenting during a hastily thrown-together press conference after the summit was cut short, referring to the death of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested in North Korea for the theft of a propaganda poster. After his arrest and apparently while in custody there, Warmbier suffered severe brain damage. Although the U.S. managed to broker his release, he died shortly after returning to American soil. Trump defended Kim, calling him “a friend” and a “great leader” before saying that killing Warmbier “wasn’t in his interests.”
“He tells me he didn’t know about it, and I take him at his word,” Trump said. “What happened is horrible. I really believe something very bad happened to him and I don’t think that the top leadership knew about it. I don’t believe [Kim Jong-un] knew about it. ”
A number of top Republicans took umbrage at those comments and others by the president, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
“I personally find that statement extremely hard to believe,” she said.
Sen. Rob Portman of Warmbier’s home state of Ohio also weighed in, in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, calling his treatment “unforgivable.”
“We can’t be naïve about what they did to Otto, about the brutal nature of the regime that would do this to an American citizen,” he said.
Later in an interview with The Hill, Sen. Portman called Kim and his close allies “human rights violators across the board,” and disagreed with Trump’s assessment that Kim didn’t know about Warmbier’s plight.
Many observers noted that Trump’s standing by Kim over the Warmbier death echoes his support of other autocratic leaders, including his support for Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi despite a CIA report concluding he was likely complicit, and Trump’s claiming to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence community.
Doctors say Warmbier returned to the U.S. in a vegetative state, and that it is likely he suffered a heart attack which may have been what led to his brain damage. North Korean officials claim that he went into the vegetative state after contracting botulism just after his conviction a year prior.
For his part, Trump quickly pivoted to claiming credit for Warmbier returning home at all.
“By the way, I got the prisoners back,” he said. “I got the hostages back, and Otto was one of the hostages, but Otto came back in a shape that was not even to be talked about.”