Trump's comments about Otto Warmbier spark bipartisan backlash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pitches Goya Foods products on Twitter Sessions defends recusal: 'I leave elected office with my integrity intact' Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff 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 SchiffStone rails against US justice system in first TV interview since Trump commuted his sentence Overnight Defense: US formally rejects Beijing's South China Sea claims | House set to consider defense policy bill next week | 57 injured as firefighters battle warship blaze Sunday shows - Spotlight shifts to reopening schools 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) MenendezBottom line Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski 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."