TOKYO — President Donald Trump on Monday denied that North Korea had fired any ballistic missiles or violated the United Nations Security Council resolutions, taking the word of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the assessments of his own national security adviser and his Japanese host. He praised the North Korean dictator as a "very smart man."
He also again sided with Kim over former Vice President Joe Biden, after his Democratic rival was branded a "fool of low I.Q." by North Korea's state media for calling Kim a dictator and a tyrant.
At a joint news conference with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump gave cover to Kim as he directly contradicted his national security adviser, John Bolton, as well as Abe, by arguing that Pyongyang had not launched ballistic missiles this month nor violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.
"My people think it could have been a violation," Trump said. "I view it differently."
When pressed, the president added he was not "personally" bothered by North Korea's short-range missile tests this month.
Trump's comments were reminiscent of his repeated statements that he believed the denials of Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country interfered in the 2016 U.S. election - an assessment in direct conflict with U.S. intelligence conclusions about Russian interference.
On Saturday, Bolton, had told reporters there was "no doubt" that North Korea had violated the Security Council resolutions by firing off short-range ballistic missiles.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry was quick to round on Bolton Monday, with an unnamed spokesman quoted in state media as calling him a "war maniac" who has a "different mental structure from ordinary people."
But Bolton didn't get much support from Trump, who appears keen to think the best of Kim and their personal chemistry amid growing signs that one of his major foreign policy initiatives is failing.
"I view it as a man - perhaps he wants to get attention, and perhaps not, who knows," Trump said, referring to Kim and the tests. "It doesn't matter. All I know is that there have been no nuclear tests. There have been no ballistic missiles going out. There have been no long-range missiles going out."
The human right's atrocities on Kim's watch are plentiful, including forced labor, deliberate starvation and executions, among others. In 2016, North Korea imprisoned 21-year-old American college student Otto Warmbier and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor. Warmbier fell into a coma while in North Korean prison and died shortly after his return home in 2017, after Trump negotiated his release.
But Trump portrayed the North Korean dictator as a leader who believes, as the president himself said he does, that his country has "tremendous economic potential" but understands he can't develop it while still pursuing his nuclear ambitions.
"He knows that with nuclear, that's never going to happen, only bad can happen," Trump said. "He understands, he is a very smart man, he gets it."
The president - a former real estate developer - also cast Kim's opportunities through the lens of his previous passion. North Korea, the president said, is "located between Russia and China on one side, and South Korea on the other. It's all waterfront property. It's a great location, as we used to say in the real estate business."
In an earlier tweet, Trump also weaponized Kim against Biden - the Democratic candidate for president about whom Trump and his aides currently are most worried. In that missive, Trump wrote that he appreciated a recent comment by North Korea state media criticizing Biden, adding, "Perhaps that's sending me a signal?"
American presidents traditionally refrain from criticizing their political rivals or talking partisan politics on foreign soil, but when pressed about seeming to choose a brutal dictator over a fellow American, Trump doubled down on his initial tweet. "Well, Kim Jong Un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low IQ individual," he said. "He probably is, based on his record. I think I agree with him on that."
Bolton and the U.S. ambassador to Japan, William Hagerty - both sitting to the side - chuckled slightly at Trump's put-down of the former vice president.
Abe has been keen to play down his differences with Trump over North Korea and stressed that the two countries' positions were "the same." He said Trump had "broken the shell of mistrust" with Kim, and shared his vision of a bright future.
But Abe did not agree with Trump when it came to the missile launches.
"On May 9th, North Korea launched short-range ballistic missiles, and that's a violation of the U.N. Security Council's resolution, so, as I have been saying, this is quite a regrettable act," he said.
Earlier Monday, Japan's Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako welcomed Trump and his wife, Melania, at the Imperial Palace, making Trump was the first foreign leader to be welcomed there since Naruhito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne at the beginning of May. Following palace custom, the president walked much of the red carpet alone, greeting an honor guard and schoolchildren waving U.S. and Japanese flags.
In the evening, the Trumps were back at the palace for a six-course, black-tie banquet, beginning with "Consommé à la Royale," and including turbot and beef. Trump called himself "profoundly honored" to have been the first state guest of the new imperial era - known as the "Reiwa" era - invoked ancient Japanese texts, and thanked the people of Japan "for their incredible hospitality and warm welcome in this majestic land."
So far, Japan's attempt to court and flatter Trump during this four-day state visit appears to be paying off. Talking to the media before his summit discussions with the Japanese leader, Trump described Abe as a "truly amazing prime minister," and Japan as a "really interesting and fabulous place."
"We understand each other very well, we're very committed to each other as nations, so we have a situation where we have the best relationship that we've ever had with Japan, and we're going to keep it that way," he said.
Crucially for Japan, Trump signaled that a trade deal between the two nations - something he has been impatient to deliver - will be delayed until after July's Upper House elections in Japan. He said the two leaders would "get the balance of trade straightened out rapidly," adding that an announcement would come "probably in August."
Trump wants to see Japan cut tariffs for U.S. agricultural products, after the United States' withdrawal from the 11-nation Trans Pacific Partnership left its exporters at a disadvantage. He has also threatened to impose 25 percent tariffs on foreign cars, although he declared this month he would delay imposing them for 180 days to allow room for negotiations on restricting import volumes.
But Abe's constant reminders to Trump that Japan's car companies have poured money into the United States, including in regions dominated by Republican voters, also appear to be paying off.
Trump also boasted that Japan has become one of the world's top purchasers of American defense equipment and would be buying 105 F-35 stealth aircraft, giving it the largest such fleet of any U.S. ally.
But Trump said he believed a trade deal could be reached that would "benefit both our economies" and reduce the U.S. deficit.
Trump also backed Abe's efforts to mediate between the United States and Iran, with the prime minister reported to be planning a visit there next month.
"I do believe Iran would like to talk, and if they'd like to talk, we'd like to talk also," Trump said. "I know for a fact that the prime minister is very close with the leadership of Iran, and we'll see what happens … Nobody wants to see terrible things happen, especially me."
Several hours later, during his news conference, Trump said the United States was simply "looking for no nuclear weapons" when it comes to Iran, and offered yet another implicit dig at Bolton, who has pushed for a more hawkish stance toward the country.
"We're not looking for regime change," Trump said, as his national security adviser sat mere feet away. "I just want to make that clear."
This article was written by Simon Denyer and Ashley Parker, reporters for The Washington Post.