Trump's comments about Otto Warmbier spark bipartisan backlash

President TrumpDonald TrumpFranklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Man suspected in wife's disappearance accused of casting her ballot for Trump Stefanik: Cheney is 'looking backwards' MORE took heat from both sides of the aisle on Thursday for saying he trusts that Kim Jong Un was not responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died after being imprisoned in North Korea.

At a press conference in Vietnam, Trump told reporters that Kim had denied involvement in Warmbier's death, "and I will take him at his word."


"He knew the case very well. But he knew it later,” Trump said of Kim. “And, you know, you’ve got a lot of people. Big country. Lot of people. And in those prisons and those camps, you have a lot of people. And some really bad things happened to Otto. Some really bad things.”

The remarks from Trump were somewhat surprising since he had previously said that Warmbier was "tortured beyond belief" while in prison in North Korea. Trump also took credit for Warmbier's release in 2017. 

But Trump has also sought to develop a closer relationship with Kim as he seeks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. 

Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster during a January 2016 visit to Pyongyang. He was sent back to the U.S. in a coma in 2017 and died at the age of 22 a short time later.

Conservatives were among those expressing disappointment that Trump took Kim's word that he did not have any involvement in Warmbier's death.

"This is the conundrum of Donald Trump for many of us who like his policies and don’t like a lot of the things he does and says," CNN analyst and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) said on "New Day."

Santorum praised Trump's decision to leave Vietnam without taking a deal with Kim after North Korea demanded the lifting of sanctions, but decried the president's comments about Warmbier as "reprehensible."

"I mean he gave cover ... to a leader who knew very well what was going on with Otto Warmbier," Santorum said. "I don’t understand why the president does this. I am disappointed to say the least that he did it."

Conservative host Ben Shapiro also knocked Trump for his comments, calling them pathetic.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSunday shows - Cheney removal, CDC guidance reverberate Schiff: Biden administration needs to 'push harder' to stop violence in Mideast Sunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans MORE (D-Calif.), one of the president's sharpest critics in the House, called Trump's defense of Kim "detestable."

"Walking away from the summit was better than making a bad deal. It’s also the result of a poorly planned strategy," Schiff tweeted. "But accepting Kim’s denial of involvement in Warmbier’s death? Detestable, and harkens back to Trump’s duplicitous acceptances of denials from other dictators."

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezTensions mount among Democrats over US-Israel policy Senate Democrats ramp up push to limit Biden's war powers Democrats reintroduce legislation to ban 'ghost guns' MORE (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that Trump’s comments do “enormous damage” to the United States’ standing in the world.

“He seems to find warmth with authoritarian dictatorships and believes them and their word when they have records of violating international law and human rights than to believe our own intelligence community.”

Trump has previously fostered bipartisan backlash with his past acceptance of authoritarian leaders' explanations.

The president caused an uproar after a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, last year where he gave credence to Russian President Vladimir Putin's claims that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Lawmakers rebuked Trump later in 2018 when the president pointed to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's denials that he was involved in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, tweeted that Trump had given Kim Jong Un "a pass. Just like MBS."