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Trump Denies Payment Agreement With North Korea For Otto Warmbier's Care


President Trump insists that the U.S. did not pay to secure the release of Otto Warmbier. Warmbier was the young American imprisoned in North Korea in 2016. He fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. He was returned to the U.S. in 2017 and died shortly afterwards.

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now to talk more about this story. And Tam, The Washington Post reported yesterday that the North Koreans demanded that the U.S. pay 2 million for Warmbier's hospital care, and there's more to it than that. Can you fill us in and tell us about the president's reaction?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Yeah, so The Post story says that as the American team was preparing to leave North Korea with Warmbier, they were presented with an invoice that said, pay $2 million for his hospital care even though he fell into a coma while in their care. And care might be a charitable word. According to the article, the U.S. team signed an agreement to pay the bill at the direction of President Trump. And what the story doesn't say is whether the invoice was ever paid. Today President Trump insisted that it wasn't.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We don't pay money for hostages. The Otto case was a very unusual case. But I just want to let you know no money was paid for Otto.

KEITH: He also called the Post story a fake news report. But I've asked the White House whether they are disputing other aspects of the story, and they aren't saying.

CORNISH: The president called this an unusual case. Is it? Is it rare for - or what do we know about how North Korea does this sort of thing?

KEITH: Yeah, so it may not be as unusual as you might think when it comes to North Korea. I called a man named Mickey Bergman. He's vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. He had worked early on in trying to get Warmbier freed, and he works all the time with families of Americans held captive in other countries. And he told me that in 1994, Bill Richardson, who he works with, brought back two pilots shot down in North Korea. And as Richardson was there, he was presented with a bill that included a line item for ammunition. He asked what it was for, and someone told him, well, someone has to pay for the bullets that we used to shoot them down. The U.S. did not pay for those bullets.

But Bergman told me that it's not unique for North Korea to present invoices. He told me that when you pick up a prisoner or a hostage, you do what you have to do to get the person out of there whether you intend on paying or following through or not. And he doesn't have direct knowledge of whether this invoice happened or not, but he said he wasn't surprised by it at all.

CORNISH: What is U.S. policy when it comes to paying for Americans held overseas?

KEITH: The U.S. doesn't pay for hostages - full stop. But it gets a lot more complicated from there. Otto Warmbier wasn't technically a hostage. Many Americans imprisoned overseas or held in other countries are political prisoners, and often that ends up involving more of a diplomatic conversation. There may not be a payment, but there may be political concessions.

CORNISH: This morning, President Trump tweeted about the Warmbier case, and it quickly turned into this criticism of his predecessor. Quote, "this is not the Obama administration that paid $1.8 billion for four hostages." Can you unpack this for us?

KEITH: Yeah, so this is controversy that dates back to 2016. As part of talks around the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. government agreed to release $400 million in Iranian money that it had been holding in escrow essentially since 1979 and $1.3 billion in interest. It also secured the release of five Americans who had been held in Iran. This blew up into a huge controversy when it was later revealed that 400 million of it came in cash that was delivered by plane at the same time that the Americans were being released. And the Obama administration eventually admitted that it had been using the cash as leverage. And it didn't turn it over until the Americans were released.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tamara Keith at the White House. Tamara, thanks for the background.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.