President Donald Trump’s administration scored a political win this past week, as his administration, via Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, negotiated the return of American Otto Warmbier, a North Korean prisoner of war.
Warmbier, then a student at the University of Virginia, had been detained since early 2016 for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster from the country.
The news wasn’t all celebratory, however. Warmbier is essentially in a vegetative state, which the North Korean government attributed to botulism and sleep medication that together induced a comatose state.
Despite the inherent accomplishment of bringing an American detainee back to U.S. soil, further developments on the potential Russia scandal — including congressional testimony this week from Attorney General Jeff Sessions — dominated the headlines instead.
Trump’s administration has recently faced increased scrutiny from the media due to a possible and — according to Trump himself, ongoing — Russia investigation:
I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2017
In November 2014, then-President Barack Obama negotiated the release of what were then the last and only two detainees in North Korean custody. Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae both were freed and sent home to the United States.
Although former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper handled those negotiations rather than the State Department, their return received much more universal acclaim than the Trump administration’s feat.
But what may come as a bigger surprise is the Trump administration’s lack of acknowledgement concerning Warmbier’s return. Former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted about Miller and Bae’s release at the time, while Trump has simply retweeted a tweet from his son, Donald Jr., that contrasts Obama’s inaction with his administration’s result.
Welcome home Kenneth Bae & Matthew Miller. We're grateful for the tireless efforts of everyone who helped them return to their families. -VP
— VP Biden (Archived) (@VP44) November 8, 2014
Not surprising at all!
Father Of Otto Warmbier: Obama Admin Told Us To Keep Quiet, Trump Admin Brought Him Home https://t.co/55NS12EU9K
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) June 18, 2017
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s concurrent visit to North Korea — his fourth in the last several years — received as much, if not more, media attention than Trump’s role in Warmbier’s release. And the visit, as has since been reported, was uneventful at best.
It all begs the question: Why is Trump’s biggest universal foreign policy accomplishment to date flying under the radar?
“I’m so glad Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and I, along with a very talented team, were able to get Otto Warmbier back with his parents. What’s happened to him is a truly terrible thing, but at least the ones who love him so much can now take care of him and be with him.”
Trump may have also stumbled into bad timing. This past week saw Sessions’ testimony, Trump’s admission to being investigated and a shooting that saw Republican Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), and four others wounded in a shooting in Alexandria, Va.
It may have been a rare occurrence to see Trump take the limelight off himself, but the shooting in particular shifted the focus to those injured and the gunman who shot at a congressional baseball practice.
What did help Trump’s case is that Warmbier’s parents took a moment to thank the president in a press conference in Cincinnati. He further used the opportunity to criticize Obama for not doing more to bring Warmbier home.
The difference is interesting in that Obama’s role in bringing home the two detained citizens was not explicitly made political. Trump did not make this incident political either, though he also has not denounced Warmbier’s father arguably politicizing his son’s release.
After alleging that he contacted Secretary of State John Kerry and unnamed congressmen and women, Warmbier’s father says he was told to “stay quiet” to keep relations with North Korea stable. He further said the “results speak for themselves” when asked whether the Obama administration could have done more for his son, which painted more of an anti-Democrat tone in contrast with his praise for President Trump.
Soon after Obama helped bring back detainees, his approval rating stood at 48 percent in a Gallup poll. While the news is still fresh for Trump, his most recent Gallup approval rating comes in at 39 percent.
There may be too many other stories playing out simultaneously for this achievement to results in an approval ratings hike for Trump.
In fairness to Trump, Obama’s approval rating in late 2014 may or may not have had anything to do with his role in bringing back Miller and Bae from North Korea. And Trump on Sunday tweeted that his approval rating in a Rasmussen poll has come in at 50 percent:
The new Rasmussen Poll, one of the most accurate in the 2016 Election, just out with a Trump 50% Approval Rating.That's higher than O's #'s!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2017
Despite Trump’s excitement over the latest Rasmussen poll, most other polls still have Trump in the high 30s of percent in terms of favorability.
Trump certainly has more on his plate at the moment with the Russia controversy than Obama did in 2014 to offset a political victory like this. But approval ratings and the news cycle will remain worth paying attention to to see if the president can ride this win into tangible political gains.