Intelligence officials have found it hard to keep President Trump’s attention when they are describing complex geopolitical conflicts during his daily briefings. Yet Trump has regularly zeroed in on the status of individual Americans imprisoned overseas.
Such was the case with Otto Warmbier.
“What are we doing for that kid in North Korea?” he repeatedly asked his briefers, according to a U.S. official familiar with the Oval Office meetings.
Multiple times Trump sought to talk with the parents of the captive university student, who was arrested as a tourist last year, but the Warmbiers declined. Two U.S. officials described internal discussions surrounding the Warmbier case on the condition of anonymity. When U.S. officials learned this month that Warmbier was in a coma, Trump personally approved a risky operation to send a diplomat and two doctors to Pyongyang to demand the 22-year-old man’s release. Warmbier died Monday in a hospital, days after being reunited with his family.
The president’s intervention in such individual cases, when Americans are involved, stands in contrast to his resistance to promoting human rights more broadly. Trump has proposed slashing U.S. programs that promote democratic values in other countries and rarely raises human rights concerns in public or private; his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has said such advocacy “creates obstacles” to advancing other American interests in foreign countries.
Yet the president has been willing to lean on countries when it comes to the treatment of Americans held in jails overseas. Even then, however, White House officials say such requests are better made quietly and in private.
"The previous administration spent a lot of time beating people up," one administration official said. Trump has taken a different approach, advocating in private in the hope of developing closer relationships with world leaders that can “get us more leverage at the table,” the official said.
Trump aides point to Egypt’s release of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker who had been jailed in Cairo for three years, as an example of the efficacy of Trump’s willingness to make a personal appeal for the release of an American.
That example, however, underscores the contrast with Trump’s approach to human rights collectively. When he welcomed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi in early April, Trump stayed silent on Sisi’s crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression in his country, where tens of thousands of Egyptians have been detained. But during meetings about improving counter-terrorism cooperation between the U.S. and Egypt, Trump privately asked Sisi to release Hijazi.
Hijazi, who was raised in Falls Church, Va., and graduated from George Mason University, was released several days later, and soon after her return to the U.S. she met with Trump in the Oval Office.
Trump also intervened privately with Chinese officials to convince them to release Phan Phan-Gillis, an American businesswoman who had been imprisoned in China on espionage charges for more than two years. Phan-Gillis was deported to the U.S. in late April, about two weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
“When it’s not about abstract notions of human rights and when American citizens are involved, I’ve never seen him wimp out,” a White House official said of Trump.
“In the ‘America first’ foreign policy, there’s no hesitation about doing the right thing for Americans whose rights have been denied them,” the official added.
Critics counter that such a narrow focus on specific cases of American citizens wrongly ignores the broader problem of how authoritarian governments like China and Egypt treat their own citizens and, by extension, any American unlucky enough in the future to be caught up in a repressive legal system.
One of the unintended consequences of the White House’s focus on Americans overseas, as officials acknowledge, is that it increases their value as hostages for a rogue regime like North Korea. Indeed, while Trump maneuvered for Warmbier’s release, two other Americans were arrested there in April and May, "when the North Koreans realized we were paying attention," the U.S. official said.
"We had not had dialogue with the North Koreans and suddenly we wanted to talk about the hostages," the official said. A fourth American, arrested months before Warmbier, also remains in North Korea’s custody.
Trump was in another country that is often criticized for its human rights record, Saudi Arabia, when he laid out his policy for withholding judgment of other governments, during his first foreign trip in May.
“We must seek partners, not perfection,” Trump told a gathering of Arab leaders, calling his approach “principled realism.”
“We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes — not inflexible ideology,” he said.
Aides say it is simply easier to get Trump to act on a case with a face and a name, a senior U.S. official said.
As Trump prepared to take the oath of office in January, intelligence briefers outlined in stark detail the ways North Korea was speeding up its effort to place a nuclear bomb on a ballistic missile that could reach U.S. cities.
Trump was alarmed, but he was fixated on the fact that the pariah state held two Americans when he took office: Warmbier, a University of Virginia student arrested in January 2016 while on a tour, and Kim Dong-chul, a Korean American who owned a business inside North Korea’s special economic zone.
In April and May, North Korea detained two additional American citizens, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim, who were both affiliated with Pyonyang University of Science and Technology. Administration officials saw that as a play for negotiating leverage at a time when Trump was pressing China to force its ally Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons program.
Trump was furious. He instructed Tillerson to “take all appropriate measures” to secure the Americans’ release, an administration official said. That effort picked up on June 6, when U.S. officials learned Warmbier was in a coma. Trump “put their feet to the fire,” the official said.
Warmbier's father, Fred, said last week that, at Trump's direction, State Department officials "aggressively pursued" a resolution.
The Obama administration had told Warmbier’s family "to take a low profile" as it worked to bring him home — to refrain from hanging ribbons on trees or doing media interviews to bring attention to the case. After Trump took office, Warmbier said, he and his wife "decided the time for 'strategic patience' was over" — using the term for President Obama’s policy toward the rogue government in Pyongyang.
Trump went further on Tuesday, implicitly blaming Obama for Warmbier’s death, calling the man’s treatment "a total disgrace" and suggesting he might not have died had he been retrieved sooner.
"Frankly, if he were brought home sooner, I think the results would have been a lot different," Trump told reporters Tuesday in the Oval Office.
The three other Americans remain in North Korea.