“We have been respectful during this summit process. 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,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier family said in a statement Friday.
On Thursday during a press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, following a summit with Kim, Trump said the North Korean leader told him he didn’t know what happened to the American student.
“He tells me that he did not know about it and I will take him at his word,” Trump said. “He felt badly about it. I did speak to him. He felt very badly about it.”
After being held as a prisoner in North Korea in 2016, the 22-year-old college student was returned to the U.S. in a coma in 2017 and died a week later.
“I believe something very bad happened to him,” Trump said Thursday. “I don’t think leadership knew about it.”
After the Warmbier parents released their statement, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway defended her boss.
“The president agrees with the Warmbier family and holds North Korea responsible for Otto Warmbier's death,” she said on Fox News Friday. “What the president is saying is that there's no indication that Chairman Kim knew what happened to Otto Warmbier when it happened.”
But both Republicans and Democrats are critical.
“The attempt to exonerate or excuse Kim Jung Un over the death of this young man was just abysmal,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said in statement.
“We know what happened to Otto. We know what this country has done,” Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy said.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley joined in the rebuke, saying, “Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime. ... We will never forget Otto.”
On Friday afternoon, Trump fired back at people chastising his comments and took to Twitter to say that Warmbier “will not have died in vain.”
“I never like being misinterpreted, but especially when it comes to Otto Warmbier and his great family. Remember, I got Otto out along with three others. The previous Administration did nothing, and he was taken on their watch. Of course I hold North Korea responsible for Otto’s mistreatment and death. Most important, Otto Warmbier will not have died in vain. Otto and his family have become a tremendous symbol of strong passion and strength, which will last for many years into the future. I love Otto and think of him often!” he wrote.
In 2018, Warmbier's tearful parents were given two standing ovations at the State of the Union and mouthed thank yous to the president.
"After a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor before returning him to America last June, horribly injured and on the verge of death," Trump said during last year’s State of the Union. Trump then called the parents "incredible people."