GOP senators fuming over Trump comments on Warmbier

Republican senators were steaming Thursday over President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE’s vehement defense of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s role in the death of American college student Otto Warmbier.

Trump’s statement that he believed Kim when he said he didn’t know at the time of Warmbier’s treatment left a number of GOP senators upset.

“I personally find that statement extremely hard to believe,” said Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins downplays 2020 threat: 'Confident' re-election would go well if she runs Cook Political Report moves Susan Collins Senate race to 'toss up' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE (R-Maine). 

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSchumer blasts 'red flag' gun legislation as 'ineffective cop out' McConnell faces pressure to bring Senate back for gun legislation Shaken Portman urges support for 'red flag' laws after Ohio shooting MORE (R-Ohio), who represents Warmbier’s home state, warned the president not to be “naive” about the “brutal nature” of the North Korean regime in a speech on the Senate floor.

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“I want to make clear that we can never forget about Otto. His treatment at the hands of his captors was unforgivable and it tells us a lot about the nature of the regime,” said Portman, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“We can’t be naive about what they did to Otto, about the brutal nature of the regime that would do this to an American citizen,” he warned.

Portman later told The Hill that Kim and his lieutenants are “human rights violators across the board” and said it’s likely that Kim knew about Warmbier’s status. 

“I can’t tell you specifically who was knowledgeable of it but I would assume it goes straight to the top,” he added. 

While Republican senators expressed relief that Trump had walked away from the negotiations with Kim after he insisted that the United States drop economic sanctions in exchange for concessions on North Korea’s nuclear program, the remarks about Warmbier were what many were talking about. 

“I think it was probably smart for him to walk away when he didn’t get the concessions,” said Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate Senate braces for brawl over Trump's spy chief Congress kicks bipartisan energy innovation into higher gear MORE (R-Alaska). 

“It’s high stakes, it’s high risk but it’s also high reward if you can make it happen,” she added.

Collins said she was surprised that Trump was willing to take Kim at his word on Warmbier given the North Korea’s long record of human rights abuses.

“I am surprised that he accepted at face value apparently what happened to the American who was held there,” she said.

Warmbier, a Cincinnati native and University of Virginia student, was arrested in January 2016 for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster while on a tour of Pyongyang. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor but later released to the United States in a vegetative state and died in June of 2017. 

Trump tried to assure reporters at a press conference Thursday that Kim wasn’t responsible for Warmbier’s harsh captivity, which left him with extensive brain damage. 

“He tells me he didn’t know about it, and I take him at his word,” Trump said Thursday. 

His comment defending Kim was reminiscent of remarks he made at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last year, when Trump said he gave credence to Putin’s claim that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

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Portman noted in his floor speech that North Korean officials failed to tell Warmbier’s family or American officials about his health status during 15 months of negotiations over the American’s release. 

“Who did the North Korean government tell about the fact that he had this brain damage? No one. Unbelievably for the next 15 months of his life they kept this a secret,” Portman said on the floor. “They denied him access to the best medical care he deserved, which of course we would have provided.”

The Trump-Kim talks broke down after Kim offered to dismantle a nuclear facility if the United States dropped all of its economic sanctions against North Korea, but refused to promise to scale down his country’s nuclear weapons program. 

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRomney: 'Putin and Kim Jong Un deserve a censure rather than flattery' A US-UK free trade agreement can hold the Kremlin to account Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity MORE (R-Utah), who is emerging as a counterweight to Trump on foreign policy issues, on Thursday applauded Trump’s decision to walk away from the negotiating table. 

“In a negotiation, when you’re not making the progress you want, it’s always a wise strategy to walk away,” he said. 

Democrats criticized Trump for sitting down with Kim in the first place.

“What we saw in Hanoi was amateur hour with nuclear weapons at stake and the limits of reality-TV diplomacy,” Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezPelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid House passes temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans Senate panel advances bipartisan bill to lower drug prices amid GOP blowback MORE (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a CNN interview Thursday.

But GOP lawmakers defended the high-stakes summit by arguing that diplomatic efforts by previous administration have failed to yield any result. 

“To Trump’s credit, he’s trying to change the dynamic,” said Portman, noting that the lack of engagement with North Korea left few channels of open communication to negotiate Warmbier’s release when he was in captivity.

Jordain Carney contributed