Thursday, February 28, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took yet another dictator's word for it.

Trump's summit meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un ended abruptly today, with no agreement reached. While it will hurt Trump politically—he had already been actively campaigning for a Nobel Peace Prize on the results of it—the result is actually far better than some observers had feared. With Trump facing increasingly dire legal threats back home, there was reason to believe that Trump would make extraordinary concessions to Kim simply to change the news cycle.

But in a brief post-cancellation press conference, Trump bent over backwards to absolve Kim of the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died after he sustained a brain injury in a North Korean prison camp. It's not clear whether Warmbier was simply tortured to death, or whether he was driven to attempt suicide as a result of torture.

TRUMP: I really believe something very bad happened to [Warmbier], and I don't think that the top leadership knew about it. ...And I will—I did speak about it, and I don’t believe that [Kim] would've allowed that to happen. Just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough. They're rough places. And bad things happened. But I really don’t believe that he was -- I don’t believe he knew about it. 
REPORTER: Did he say—did he tell you that he did not—did Kim Jong Un tell you— 
THE PRESIDENT: He felt badly about it. I did speak to him. He felt very badly. But he knew the case very well, but he knew it later. And, you know, you got a lot of people. A big country. A lot of people. 
REPORTER: Why are you— 
THE PRESIDENT: He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.

For decades, North Korea has held hostages from other countries, including the United States and Japan, in order to trade for concessions. At the time he fell into a coma, Warmbier was the subject of intense diplomatic negotiation. It is inconceivable that Kim was unaware of Warmbier's situation.

It's not clear why Trump—having been effectively humiliated by his inability to get any concessions whatsoever from Kim—would continue to defend him. But it fits a pattern of behavior. Trump also ran interference for the royal family of Saudi Arabia after his intelligence agencies presented him with overwhelming evidence that Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman had U.S. journalist Jamal Khashoggi murdered:

I will say this: I don’t know, I don’t know. But whether he did or whether he didn’t, he denies it vehemently. His father denies it, the king, vehemently. ...We have a very strong ally in Saudi Arabia, an ally that said at the very top level, the crown prince, they did not commit this atrocity.

And when he held a joint press conference last July with Russian president Vladimir Putin, and was asked about Russia's sabotage of the 2016 election on his behalf, Trump said this:

I have president Putin, he just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be. So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. 

UPDATE, 3/1: The Warmbier family has denounced Trump's appeasement.

So what?

  • Stupidity, cowardice, or mental illness are really the only reasons an American president would defend someone like Kim Jong-un.