Brown, Portman respond to President Trump's statements on Otto Warmbier’s death

Posted at 1:04 PM, Feb 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-28 13:04:12-05

WASHINGTON — Ohio’s Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown, said he’s concerned that President Donald Trump is not holding North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier, Brown told ABC News Thursday.

Trump said in Vietnam that he takes the North Korean leader “at his word” that he was unaware of the alleged mistreatment of Warmbier who died after being imprisoned there.

“It sends a message to dictators — and around the world — that the president of the United States, with the values that we represent as a country, that he believes autocrats when they lie or when they cover up or when they justify policies,” Brown said, “that then result in the deaths of innocent human beings whether they're Americans or whether they're native peoples of those lands or anybody else.”

Brown accused Trump of gravitating toward “autocrats” like Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, and not speaking out about human rights.

“You never should go meet with the North Korean dictator without bringing up the name of Otto Warmbier and bring up the whole issue of human rights over and over,” Brown said. “That's who we are as a country.”

The president’s statements Thursday prompted a quick response from Ohio's Republican senator, Rob Portman, who said in a statement, “We must remember Otto, and we should never let North Korea off the hook for what they did to him.”

Portman has been in contact with Warmbier's family since the Tri-State native was imprisoned in early 2016 for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. Warmbier died in June 2017 after being returned home in a vegetative state. His parents say he was tortured.

The University of Virginia student had been visiting North Korea with a tour group when he was detained. A court there sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor for the alleged offense.

Last year, a U.S. judge ordered North Korea to pay more than $500 million in a wrongful death suit filed by Warmbier's parents.

Richard Cullen, the attorney for Fred and Cindy Warmbier, told ABC News, "I don't think they're going to have anything to say about it,” when asked if the family had a response to Trump’s comments.

Trump has claimed credit for freeing American prisoners abroad and had used Warmbier's death as a rallying cry against the North Korea's human rights abuses before softening his rhetoric ahead of talks with Kim.

ABC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.