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Bolton defends Trump's comments about Kim Jong Un and Otto Warmbier

"When he says I'm going to take him at his word, it doesn't mean that he accepted as reality; it means that he accepts that's what" Kim said," Bolton said.
Image: John Bolton
President Donald Trump meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-In in the Oval Office of the White House on May 22, 2018 in Washington, as national security adviser John Bolton watches.Evan Vucci / AP file

While President Donald Trump said he takes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at his word that he didn't know about the mistreatment of U.S. student Otto Warmbier, that doesn't mean Trump accepted Kim's word "as reality," national security adviser John Bolton said Sunday.

"When he says, 'I'm going to take him at his word,' it doesn't mean that he accepted as reality; it means that he accepts that's what Kim Jong Un said," Bolton told "Fox News Sunday" anchor Chris Wallace.

Bolton's comments came amid a Sunday political talk show blitz following the president's summit with Kim in Vietnam last week. Trump left his second summit with North Korea's leader without any denuclearization deal.

On Sunday, Bolton called for North Korea to give "a complete accounting of who was responsible for what happened to" Warmbier. Wallace pointed out that that Trump's statement on Warmbier was "not the first time that the president has taken the word of an autocrat over outside evidence."

After a meeting with Kim, Trump was asked if he confronted the dictator about Warmbier, who died in 2017 after being imprisoned in North Korea for more than a year. Trump said he did talk about Warmbier's death with Kim.

“He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” Trump told reporters. On Friday, Trump walked back his remarks in a pair of tweets, writing, "Of course I hold North Korea responsible" for Warmbier's death, and, "I never like being misinterpreted."

Trump also said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, “I'm in such a horrible position because in one way I have to negotiate. The other way, I love Mr. and Mrs. Warmbier, and I love Otto. And it's a very, very delicate balance.”

Warmbier's father, Fred Warmbier, did not comment to NBC News on Sunday about the president’s latest remarks on his son's death, saying he wants the family’s statement on Friday to stand on its own.

“We have been respectful during this summit process, Warmbier and his wife, Cindy, said in that statement. "Now we must speak out. 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."

Wallace noted on Sunday that Trump has previously sided with autocratic leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the face of information from U.S. intelligence.

"Why does the president trust Putin and MBS and Kim over U.S. Intelligence?" Wallace asked.

"I don't think that's what he's saying, and if you take the case of Jamal Khashoggi, (a Saudi-born journalist who was murdered last year by agents of the Saudi government at the Saudi consulate in Turkey) he and others in the administration have said repeatedly we want from Saudi Arabia a complete top-to-bottom explanation of what happened," Bolton said.

"It's been months and you haven't gotten it, and the Senate has been calling for stricter sanctions and you guys are opposing it," Wallace said. "It certainly would happen in the case of Putin. He specifically said U.S. Intelligence said this, but Putin says no."

In response, Bolton said "foreign leaders who are friends of ours lie to our face as well." He added, "This is nothing new in international relations."

Bolton was also pressed on CBS's "Face the Nation" about the president's comments on Kim and Warmbier. Anchor Margaret Brennan said Trump's remarks "seemed to suggest" he "was willing to put aside these egregious human rights abuses and basically the killing of an American while in captivity."

"Listen, I've heard the president talk about Otto Warmbier on any number of occasions in the Oval Office, and I know how strongly he feels about it," Bolton said. "I have no doubt of that whatever."

On CNN's "State of the Union," anchor Jake Tapper asked Bolton if he himself took Kim at his word.

"The president takes him at his word," Bolton said, adding, "My opinion doesn't matter."

Tapper also asked Bolton about Trump's past public acceptance of denials from Putin and bin Salman

"He's not saying he's siding with dictators," Bolton said, adding, "He has expressed his opinion about what they've said on these various points."