That’s one possibility. Another possibility until this morning was that WaPo’s reporting about the $2 million pledge was simply incorrect. But that’s now been ruled out by Bolton himself, who admits that the U.S. agreed to pay North Korea for Warmbier — a decision made before he became NSA, he’s quick to add. There’s a third possibility, though: Not only did we agree to compensate the most degenerate government on Earth for horribly abusing an American citizen, we actually did pay them. WaPo’s sources claimed that the IOU went unpaid through 2017 but its fate since then is unclear. It’s conceivable that we forked over $2 million at some point since then and that Trump and Bolton are now engaged in a cover up, knowing that if news of the payment leaked Trump’s strongman image would be shattered. No doubt the media’s sniffing around for evidence of that as I write this. Better hope they don’t find anything, warns Matthew Walther:
This would be a lie concerning a subject about which most Americans have strong views — i.e., the lives of their fellow citizens in the hands of our enemies. I cannot imagine even Mitch McConnell defending Trump’s attempt to cover up something as sordid as a ransom paid secretly in order to secure an outcome that was later passed off as the work of a heroic and skilled diplomat. It would be the opening that Republican critics of the president such as Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse and others who have long been on the fence — Lindsey Graham comes to mind — have been waiting for to declare open war.
It would be hell in an election year. Nothing would play more into, say, Joe Biden’s hand than a real example of Trump cowering in front of America’s enemies and then lying about it. It would not even matter if Trump responded that his predecessors had done similar things in the past. It would become almost impossible for the president to pose as a tough, shrewd negotiator who defends the lives and liberties of Americans at home and abroad.
Trump’s base would invent whatever reason it needed to excuse the humiliating decision to pay a ransom (“Obama paid Iran more!”) but not everyone who voted for him in 2016 is part of his base. Democrats would club him with it every day from now until next November. He’d have to defend not only the decision to make the payment but overtly lying about it afterwards when questioned. Bolton would also be forced to explain why he was under the impression this morning that no money had changed hands. Did he lie to the country’s face on “Fox News Sunday” or is the National Security Advisor being kept in the dark about U.S. diplomacy with Pyongyang? Whatever the answer ends up being, it’d amount to a scandal. It’s a political disaster in the making.
But it’s already a scandal, really. Consider the two possibilities before us, that the U.S. did pay the $2 million to Kim or that it didn’t. If we did pay it, it’s blood money. Warmbier’s father told WaPo that it sounds like a “ransom” but it’s worse than that. A ransom payment ideally results in the hostage being returned to safety. Given Warmbier’s condition when he was handed over, the payment in this case would practically amount to murder for hire. (North Korea reportedly framed its demand as reimbursement for Warmbier’s hospital bills, which is like running someone down with your car and then billing their family for the damage to your fender.) If, on the other hand, Trump and Bolton are telling the truth and we pledged to pay the $2 million without ever having done so, how can nuclear negotiations advance? The NorKs would have firsthand evidence, replete with an instrument signed by a U.S. diplomat, that the Trump administration has no intention of keeping its diplomatic promises. Why would they ever agree to destroy their nuclear program knowing that Trump’s not only willing to break his commitments to them but has already done so?
It’s hard to believe Kim would have agreed to two separate summits despite the U.S. having welched on its Warmbier obligations. And it’s surprising that neither Trump nor Bolton nor anyone else has suggested that the issue has been resolved somehow since the Warmbier negotiations ended, e.g., “they agreed to forgive the debt in the spirit of compromise when the first summit was scheduled.” Either the unpaid $2 million bill is still hanging out there, capable of becoming an issue between the two sides at any time, or it was paid at some point and we’re being deceived. Which is it?