If he were alive today, Mark Twain might say the following: “There’s lies, damned lies — and Donald Trump.” The president of the United States not only lies routinely, but he believes other people’s lies without a modicum of skepticism.
Last week, the liar in question was North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who claimed to have known nothing about what appears to have been the torture and, ultimately, murder of American college student Otto Warmbier. After holding a second nuclear summit for which he was grossly unprepared, this time in Vietnam, Trump said Kim “tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.” He added that Kim “felt badly about it. He felt very badly.”
Right. Because Kim’s empathy and compassion toward his starving countrymen and those he has had killed, allegedly including his half-brother, are legendary.
It is mind-numbing and breathtaking to hear such nonsense from a president, who, if normal, would vindicate the victim through punitive actions rather than side with a violent dictator in some weird, contrived, non-productive chit-chat about nuclear weapons. Warmbier’s parents were appropriately outraged by the president’s cavalier comments — especially since he had used the Warmbiers as props during his 2018 State of the Union address — and they issued a harsh rebuke.
The 21-year-old Warmbier had been touring North Korea when on Jan. 2, 2016, while going through airport security to leave the country, he was detained by North Korean authorities. He was accused of stealing a propaganda poster from the Pyongyang hotel where he was staying. No conclusive evidence was provided that he did so, but he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
After 17 months, Warmbier was sent home in a coma, having suffered severe brain damage from possible multiple beatings, and he died a few days later. His brutal death was surely no accident, as Cindy and Fred Warmbier asserted in their statement rebuking Trump, nor was it likely unknown to Kim, whose Supreme Leadership doesn’t leave much wiggle room for independent action. No one familiar with North Korea believes that Kim wasn’t well aware of his American captive. How could he not have been after a year-and-a-half of international news coverage and outreach from the U.S. State Department? Thus, make no mistake, Warmbier’s death was as much an assault on America as it was on this young American son.
But Trump, who confessed to having a “warm relationship” with Kim, based presumably on whatever pheromones passed between them, said he believed the man he previously called “little rocket man.” This is because the president is (a) a useful idiot; (b) a malevolent force in the universe; (c) a small-pawed, big-dog fanboy; (d) a strategic genius.
I think most of us can eliminate option d.
Option c is probable given Trump’s strange attraction to tyrants, dictators, murderers and thieves. He has used similar terminology with other strongmen, with whom he has been equally credulous. Trump believed Russian President Vladimir Putin when he denied knowing about Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. And he believed Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman when he denied knowing anything about the torture, murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
At the same time Trump believed their lies, he disbelieved the conclusions of American intelligence agencies, which, in each case, pointed a finger at the top guys. How could it be otherwise?
Even if we pretend that Trump is a strategic genius who is flattering his foes by faking belief in their lies, one is left to wonder to what end? To win their approval? To soften them for the next round? To charm them into believing he’s one of them, that they are essentially the same but for minor differences resolvable through the art of the deal?
If only he were trying to seize a widow’s home to make space for a new limo parking lot at one of his casinos. Or negotiating a new Trump tower in Moscow. But the stakes are a little higher now. And Trump, in trying to be a tough guy, has created the opposite perception.
What every foreign ruler, dictator, president or potentate now knows is that every American tourist, journalist, college student or diplomat is fair game for capture, arrest, hostage-taking, torture or murder — all without consequence. All they have to do is lie to the president, a proven weakling, and the bad thing that happened will just go away.
The American people must not let him get away with it.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.