Former Obama staff: We never stopped trying to bring Otto Warmbier home

Posted at 12:39 PM, Jun 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-20 12:43:23-04

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that the death of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier after his lengthy detention in North Korea was a "total disgrace," and said if the college student had been returned home to the U.S. earlier, "I think the result would have been a lot different."

Trump said he had spoken with Warmbier's parents, telling reporters in the Oval Office that it was "incredible what they've gone through." Seated next to the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, Trump said Warmbier "should have been brought home a long time ago."

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"It's a total disgrace what happened to Otto. That should never ever be allowed to happen," Trump said. "And frankly if he were brought home sooner I think the result would have been a lot different."

Former Obama administration National Safety Council spokesman Ned Price told CNN Tuesday that efforts to rescue Warmbier never ceased, even in waning days of Obama's administration

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"We had no higher priority than securing the release of Americans detained overseas," Price said. "North Korea’s isolation posed unique challenges, but we worked through every avenue available to us — including through the Swedish, our protecting power, as well as through our representatives in New York — to secure the release of Mr. Warmbier."

Price said those efforts resulted in the release of at least 10 Americans from North Korean custody during the course of the Obama administration.

"It's painful that Mr. Warmbier was not among them, but our efforts on his behalf never ceased," he said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Warmbier's family and all who had the blessing of knowing him."

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Warmbier, who grew up in Hamilton County, died Monday at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, nearly a week after his return to the United States after being held in North Korea for more than 17 months. Warmbier's parents have not cited a specific cause of death, but pointed to "awful, torturous mistreatment" by North Korea.

Doctors have described Warmbier's condition as a state of "unresponsive wakefulness" and said he suffered a "severe neurological injury" of unknown cause.

The University of Virginia student was accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner while visiting with a tour group and was convicted of subversion. He was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years in prison with hard labor.