You need to watch this rather than read a transcript in order to appreciate Chris Wallace’s stunned silence as it dawns on him that Bolton really would resort to an excuse this transparently lame and untrue.
The ‘Stache was in a tough position. Obviously he knows that American prisoners aren’t brutalized in North Korea except on the say-so of Big Brother, just like he knows that North Korea will never denuclearize no matter how many backslapping tweets Trump posts about Kim Jong Un. I bet he begged behind the scenes not to be tasked as the White House’s mouthpiece on the Hanoi summit yesterday in light of how much cognitive dissonance the questions would inevitably cause him. But for whatever reason, he got the call. The only mystery is whether that cognitive dissonance produced an answer as feeble as the one above, in which Bolton falsely claims that Trump didn’t necessarily believe Kim’s excuses about Otto Warmbier (“It doesn’t mean that he accepts it as reality”), or whether he deliberately refused to defend Trump on the merits, recognizing how pitiful his defense of Kim was.
For the record, as the transcript of Trump’s Hanoi presser makes clear, the president did claim to believe Kim when Kim told him that he didn’t know what was being done to Warmbier.
[TRUMP:] I did speak about it [with Kim], and I don’t believe that he would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough, they’re rough places and bad things happened. But I really don’t believe that he was — I don’t believe he knew about it.
REPORTER: Did he tell you that — did Kim Jong Un tell you?
TRUMP: He felt badly about it. I did speak to him, he felt very badly. He knew the case very well, but he knew it later. And you’ve got a lot of people, big country, a lot of people. And in those prisons and those camps you have a lot of people. And some really bad things happened to Otto, some really, really bad things. But he tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.
A point so obvious that it shouldn’t need articulating: If Bolton’s spin were true, Trump himself would have echoed it when he tweeted about Warmbier on Friday. He didn’t. What he said was that he holds “North Korea” responsible for Warmbier’s death — without mentioning Kim — not that he blames Kim and was merely relaying what Kim had told him during his Hanoi press conference. Given that the presser was aired on live television, with the footage of Trump widely available online, it’s comically embarrassing that Bolton didn’t have a better spin ready. My best guess is that he’s annoyed at Trump’s answer too and wasn’t going to exert a bit of real effort to try to clean it up for him.
In fact, watch the answer he gave Jake Tapper yesterday when Tapper asked him this same question. Bolton didn’t bother spinning this time. If you want a defense of what Trump said, he implies, go ask Trump.
Question: "Do you take Kim Jong Un at his word?"
John Bolton: "The president takes him at his word."
Question: "I know he does, what about you?"
— The Hill (@thehill) March 3, 2019
The question I really want answered is which interview was recorded first. Did Bolton give that answer to Tapper and then think, “Hmmm, I should probably try to defend Trump a *little*” — and the best he could do was that word vomit he expelled on Chris Wallace? Or did he give his answer to Wallace first and then think, “That was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever said in public,” before deciding to just wash his hands of the matter when he spoke to Tapper? Humiliating either way. Next time send Kellyanne. She’ll spin anything.
Here’s Dem Rep. Tom Malinowski telling MSNBC a few days ago that he’ll introduce a resolution in the House formally blaming Kim — not just North Korea but Kim personally — for Warmbier’s. That bill stands a real chance of a veto-proof majority in both chambers. Which will probably suit Trump fine: It’d be embarrassing if he had to decide whether to issue a veto that would kill the resolution. If a veto won’t kill it, then his dilemma is relatively easy. Might as well sign it and blame Congress if the North Koreans don’t like it.