Donald Trump last week tried to publicly exonerate North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, saying the dictator wasn’t responsible for what happened to Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after being released by the rogue state. Kim, the American president said, “tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.” Trump added that Kim told him that he “felt very badly” about the student’s death.
The comments were not well received, especially by Warmbier’s family. Trump’s remarks were so problematic that his own team didn’t seem to know what to say, either.
White House National Security Advisor John Bolton refused to give his own assessment of the matter yesterday, going so far as to argue, “When [Trump] says, ‘I’m going to take him at his word,’ it doesn’t mean that he accepted as reality, it means that he accepts that’s what Kim Jong-un said.”
As laughable as that was, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo didn’t do much better in his interview with USA Today.
Asked if he holds Kim responsible, Pompeo said, “The North Korean regime is responsible for the death Otto Warmbier and the humanitarian violations that are continuing to take place.”
Pressed about Kim’s personal responsibility and whether Kim knew about Warmbier’s case, Pompeo fell silent again before saying he had answered the question and been “very patient” with that line of inquiry.
I guess the cabinet secretary’s frustrations are understandable; if I had to justify Trump’s defense of a rogue nuclear-armed dictator responsible for an American student’s death, I’m not sure what I’d say, either.
But Pompeo’s interview with the newspaper grew even more contentious when he was asked about Trump’s failed nuclear talks.
Pompeo reacted angrily when asked about the North Korean foreign minister’s statement, made hours after the talks dissolved, that the offer Kim made in Hanoi was final.
“That’s not what the North Koreans said,” Pompeo responded. “Don’t say things that aren’t true. … Show me the quote from the North Koreans that said this was their one and only offer. Where’d you get that?”
After he was read a quote from Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho – in which he said “our proposal will never be changed” – Pompeo fell silent for about six seconds. Then he countered, “What they said is they’re prepared to continue conversations with us and that’s what we intend to do.”
All of this came just a week after Pompeo falsely claimed Trump hadn’t declared an end to the North Korean nuclear threat.
At a distance, it’s easy to assume that being a prominent member of this president’s cabinet is an impossible task. Pompeo’s difficulties suggest that assumption is correct.