Donald Trump took Kim Jong-un’s word that he knew nothing of the torture of an American college student while in North Korean custody, an about-face that sparked a bipartisan backlash back home on Thursday.
The US president appeared to side with the reclusive leader about the 2017 case of Otto Warmbier, drawing outrage from incredulous Democrats who accused Trump of repeatedly aligning with tyrants.
The 22-year-old Ohio native was returned to the United States in a coma and died shortly afterwards. A US judge concluded Warmbier was tortured by North Korean authorities.
At the conclusion of his Hanoi summit with Mr Kim, Mr Trump told reporters he talked with Mr Kim about the “horrible” Warmbier case.
“He knew the case very well, but he knew it later,” Mr Trump said, adding that “some really bad things” happened to Mr Warmbier while he was detained.
Mr Kim “tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word”.
Mr Trump took credit for the release of Mr Warmbier and other US hostages in 2017, saying at the time that “Otto was tortured beyond belief by North Korea”.
At his January 2018 State of the Union address, the President praised Mr Warmbier and spoke directly from the podium to the young man’s parents seated in the audience.
“You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength truly inspires us all,” Mr Trump said, as politicians gave them a standing ovation.
But as Mr Trump presses for Korean denuclearisation, betting heavily on his relationship with Mr Kim, the hard line he signalled that night in Congress has largely evaporated, prompting angry reactions across the political spectrum.
“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,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the most senior Republican to break with Trump on the issue.
“I support the President’s effort to denuclearise them, but I do not have a misbelief of who this leader is.”
Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, snapped about Mr Warmbier’s brutal treatment.
“Of course Kim knew about it,” he tweeted. “Apparently, the President of the United States is the only one who believes this obvious lie.”
An angry House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff branded Mr Trump’s acceptance of Mr Kim’s denial “detestable,” while Senator Chris Van Hollen said the United States “cannot give Kim Jong-un a free pass for torturing and murdering one of our own”.
Senator Rob Portman, from Warmbier’s home city of Cincinnati, delivered a five-minute floor speech highlighting his “unforgivable” treatment and the “brutal” nature of the regimen, though he made no mention of the President’s reversal.
And Mr Trump’s former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, a Republican Party luminary, said, “Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regimen.” But she too stopped short of criticising Mr Trump.
Several Democrats took the President’s position as just his latest embrace of autocratic leaders.
They pointed to his acceptance of President Vladimir Putin’s 2018 insistence that Russia did not meddle in the US election, and Mr Trump refusing to accept CIA conclusions that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she thought there was “something wrong” with Mr Trump choosing to believe “thugs” like Mr Putin and Mr Kim over the US intelligence community.
“Why does he keep sticking up for dictators over his own people??” Senator Tim Kaine asked.