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McCarthy, in break with Trump, says Kim Jong-un knew about Otto Warmbier’s brutal mistreatment

A somewhat grudging admission that the president's initial remarks exonerating the North Korea dictator were wrong.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) participates in a weekly press conference with Republican House leaders at the U.S. Capitol July 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) participates in a weekly press conference with Republican House leaders at the U.S. Capitol July 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In a rare public break with President Donald Trump by a top Republican in Congress, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he believes North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un “knew what happened” to American college student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested and grievously injured in Pyongyang.

Warmbier, who was allegedly tortured by North Korea in 2015, was returned to the United States in a coma and died days after being flown out of Pyongyang.

Trump has been widely rebuked for his comments last week exonerating Kim Jong-un in the American’s death. The U.S. president made his remarks after the conclusion of a summit last week with the North Korean leader.

McCarthy, in his remarks to ABC, appeared to disagree, although seeming to want to try to do so without being too strident about it.

“Look, North Korea murdered Otto,” McCarthy said on This Week.

“I think Kim had all authority to do that. I think Kim knew what happened, which was wrong. That’s why when we pass sanctions, we named it after Otto Warmbier. That’s why the president kept those sanctions in place. The sanctions the president did not lift on North Korea are named after Otto and I think the president clarified that.”

McCarthy was likely referring to Trump’s tweets on Friday, claiming that his earlier comments about Warmbier had been “misinterpreted.”

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“I never like being misinterpreted, but especially when it comes to Otto Warmbier and his great family. Remember, I got Otto out along with three others. The previous Administration did nothing, and he was taken on their watch. Of course I hold North Korea responsible,” he said.

The issue of blame for Warmbier’s death also came up on CNN’s State of the Union. CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Bolton whether he agreed with Trump’s assertion in Hanoi last week that Kim “didn’t know about [Warmbier’s torture] and I will take him at his word.”

“The president takes him at his word,” Bolton responded.

“I know he does, but what about you?” Tapper asked.

“My opinion doesn’t matter,” Bolton said. “I am not the national security decision maker. That’s his view.”

Trump’s comments in Hanoi drew criticism from Warmbier’s parents, who the next day released a statement saying, “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.”

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It wasn’t the first time Trump has heaped praise on foreign dictators. As ThinkProgress previously reported, the president has a clear affinity for strongmen, often taking what they say to him at face value. This behavior has extended to multiple authoritarians, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.

In a similar misstep last fall, Trump downplayed the possibility that Saudia Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had anything to do with the gruesome death and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, signaling his unwillingness to hold the Kingdom accountable due to its support of U.S. foreign policy priorities.

“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information,” he said in a statement, “but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

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This post has been updated to correct McCarthy’s title in Congress.