During an interview with the president that aired Wednesday, Fox News anchor Bret Baier pressed President Trump on Kim Jong Un's many reported human rights abuses. And Trump basically shrugged and brushed it all off.
"You know, he is a killer," Baier said. "I mean, he's clearly executing people." Trump responded by calling Kim a "tough guy" and commenting that other leaders have done "really bad things" too.
It's by no means the first time Trump has downplayed North Korea's abysmal record on human rights. In its 2017 World Report, Human Rights Watch described North Korea as "one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world." The organization found Kim's regime responsible for "murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion, and other sexual violence" — all crimes that were "committed by the government."
But according to Trump, that amounts to Kim being "tough." He used similar language in a recent interview with Greta Van Susteren, a former Fox News anchor who now works at Voice of America. Trump called Kim "rough" when pressed by Van Susteren on Kim's record of abusing his people. She pointed out that Kim had starved and "been brutal" to his own people and then asked Trump to clarify if the president still believed "he loves them"? Trump responded, "He's done what he's done."
And on Wednesday, Trump again refused to condemn Kim. He finally answered "yes" to the question of whether or not Kim had done terrible things. But Trump also cast aspersions on unnamed "other people" who had ostensibly been similarly awful.
Baier pushed, saying Kim has "still done some really bad things." And Trump responded:
Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I mean I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.
Trump has not always struck such a conciliatory tone. In March, CNN put together a timeline of Trump's statements on North Korea over the years. All the way back in 1999, when he was known as a NYC real estate dealer who welcomed any kind of publicity, Trump told Meet the Press host Tim Russert that North Korea was "sort of wacko." A full 15 years later, Trump tweeted that North Korea was the "last place on Earth" he'd want to visit, following some kind of tiff with Celebrity Apprentice contestant Dennis Rodman. (Rodman's long been a big fan of the authoritarian regime, and in fact also traveled to Singapore during the June summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un.)
Trump began insulting Kim personally during the presidential campaign, calling him a "maniac" in one 2015 debate and a "bad dude" during a CBS interview in early 2016.
Then, in September of 2017, Trump launched a tweet insult heard 'round the world. Even casual news followers will likely be familiar with Trump's infamous nickname for Kim — "Rocket Man." Kim responded by dubbing Trump a "dotard." The world watched, part amused, part terrified, as the two leaders swapped insults on an international stage. It's unlikely anyone could have then foreseen that a diplomatic, face-to-face meeting between the two would follow roughly 19 months later.
Trump's current downplaying of Kim's human rights record is also puzzling in light of his response to Otto Warmbier's death. The American student was imprisoned in North Korea and held for several months. Shortly after being freed and returned to the United States, Warmbier passed away. Trump tweeted at the time that Warmbier had been "tortured beyond belief."
However, Trump has a history of making ambiguous — or even positive — statements about dictators. He's routinely downplayed any negative press on Vladimir Putin, expressed no remorse over quoting Benito Mussolini, and praised Saddam Hussein for killing terrorists.
So perhaps it's not all that surprising that Trump refers to one of the worst human rights offenders in the world simply as "tough."