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A lawn sign in Otto Warmbier's hometown of Wyoming, Ohio. Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The death of Otto Warmbier last year amid allegations he was brutally tortured by the North Korean government became a catalyst for President Trump's June summit with dictator Kim Jong-un, but the circumstances of his death may not be so clear, Doug Bock Clark writes for GQ.

The big picture: No one knows exactly what happened to Warmbier during his 17 months in captivity — only that he was returned to his family with severe brain damage attributed, without evidence, to botulism. But after six months of reporting and conversations with dozens of North Korea experts, Clark found that the chances Warmbier's condition was caused by physical torture may be equally unlikely.

Flashback: In January 2015, Warmbier was arrested in North Korea for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from a restricted area of his hotel. He confessed to the crime during a televised news conference while reading from a handwritten script, one expert says was likely drafted by the North Koreans, and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

What they're saying, per Clark's reporting:

  • Other Americans detained in North Korea say Warmbier was likely brought to a guesthouse run by the North Korean secret police — quite luxurious in comparison to domestic prison camps.
  • "For the next two months, until his forced confession, Otto would probably have been relentlessly interrogated. ... The goal wasn't to extract the truth but to construct the fabulation that Otto read off handwritten notes at his news conference."
  • When Warmbier was brought home, his family used damage to his teeth and foot as evidence that he was beaten. The narrative that Warmbier was tortured was used by the Trump administration as a basis for escalating tensions with North Korea, but just one of the dozen experts Clark interviewed believes there was "even a remote likelihood that he had been beaten."
  • That is not to say that Warmbier wasn't psychologically tortured, however, and "the likelihood that his brain damage happened immediately after the sentencing...raises the possibility that he may have attempted suicide."

The bottom line: Medical examinations show that reports about Warmbier being physically beaten were likely wrong — and yet the Trump administration continued to spread that narrative even after that reality came to light.

  • Thus, Clark writes, "if the maverick boldness that the administration displayed in rescuing Otto represents the best of Trumpism, what followed once it was clear the reports were flawed encapsulates its troubling disregard for facts when a dubious narrative supports its interests."

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - World

U.S. airstrike kills senior al-Qaeda leader in Syria, DOD says

A displacement camp near the village of Qah in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. Photo: Ahmad Al-Atrash/AFP via Getty Images

A U.S. airstrike in northwest Syria on Friday killed senior al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid al-Matar, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

Why it matters: Syria serves as a "safe haven" for the extremist group to plan external operations, according to U.S. Army Maj. John Rigsbee.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Giuliani associate Lev Parnas convicted of campaign finance crimes

Lev Parnas, a former associate of then-President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Florida businessman Lev Parnas was convicted Friday on charges of conspiracy to make foreign contributions to political campaigns, according to multiple outlets.

Why it matters: Prosecutors said Parnas, then an associate of former President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, funneled over $150,000 from a Russian businessman into U.S. campaigns as part of an effort to land licenses in the U.S.'s legal cannabis industry.

Supreme Court agrees to hear challenges to Texas abortion law

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear two cases challenging Texas' abortion law, which bans the procedure as soon as six weeks into pregnancy, but left the law in place in the meantime.

Why it matters: The court is moving extraordinarily fast on the Texas cases, compressing into just a few days a process that normally takes months. And that schedule means the court will take up Texas' ban a month before it hears another major abortion case — a challenge to Mississippi's own 2018 ban on abortions after 15 weeks.

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