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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Did Trump Praise Kim Jong Un?

Hillary Clinton distorts the facts when she accuses Donald Trump of “heaping praise” on North Korea strongman Kim Jong Un. Trump has called Kim a “maniac” and a “madman” who is “sick enough to use” nuclear weapons.

The Clinton campaign said she was referring to Trump’s comments at a rally in January in Iowa, where Trump said Kim deserved “credit” for how he took over the country at such a young age. But in that speech Trump also called Kim a “maniac” with nuclear weapons who needs to be taken seriously because of the ruthless way he killed his rivals to retain power.

Clinton, who was secretary of state from January 2009 to February 2013, made her remarks on NBC’s “Meet the Press” while talking about Trump’s statements on foreign affairs.

Clinton, May 22: What he is advocating — look what he’s done this past week. You know, attacking our closest ally, England. Heaping praise on a dangerous dictator in North Korea.

Trump has gotten into a verbal spat with two of England’s leaders, British Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, over Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” But did Trump praise Kim Jong Un?  

We could not find any instance of the likely Republican presidential nominee praising Kim last week. The only instance we could find of Trump even talking about Kim last week was in a Reuters interview on May 17. In that interview, Trump said he would have “no problem speaking to [Kim]” as president of the United States. But Trump didn’t praise Kim.

Josh Schwerin, a Clinton campaign spokesman, referred us to a Jan. 9 Business Insider article that carried the headline “TRUMP: You’ve got to give that ‘maniac’ in North Korea some credit.”

In a Jan. 9 speech in Iowa, Trump said that “you have to give him credit” for the way Kim took control of the country after his father died. But Trump used Kim’s rise to power as a cautionary tale for the U.S. “The Republican presidential front-runner said Kim’s willingness to push aside generals and ‘wipe out’ his uncle demonstrated why the US needs to treat North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a serious threat,” Business Insider wrote.

Here are Trump’s remarks in context:

Trump, Jan. 9: If you look at North Korea – this guy, he’s like a maniac, OK? And you have to give him credit. How many young guys — he was like 26 or 25 when his father died — take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden — you know, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it. How does he do that? Even though it is a culture and it’s a cultural thing, he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him. Because he really does have missiles. And he really does have nukes.

Kim became “supreme leader” of North Korea in December 2011 two weeks after his father’s death. At the time, the New York Times noted that Kim was only in his 20s and “untested, making him more vulnerable to challenges.” Since then, there have been reports from South Korea that Kim ordered his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and his uncle’s deputies executed. The Times reported that Kim’s uncle was executed for “stealing state funds and plotting to overthrow his nephew.”

Trump’s comments on Kim at the Iowa rally came at a time when there were news reports of North Korea conducting a hydrogen bomb test. Three days before the rally, Trump on “Fox and Friends” called Kim a “madman” when asked about those reports of a nuclear test. “You have this madman over there who probably would use it and nobody talks to him, other than, of course, Dennis Rodman talked to him. That’s about it,” Trump said. “But nobody is talking to him whatsoever and nobody is discussing it with China.”

Trump went on to say that he would work with China to “close down” North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. “He’s getting too close to doing something,” Trump said of Kim. “Right now he’s probably got the weapons but he doesn’t have the transportation system. Once he has the transportation system, he’s sick enough to use it.”

We understand that, taken out of context, Trump’s words about giving Kim “credit” may seem to some as praise for Kim. But in context of what Trump said in the Jan. 9 speech and what he said three days before that speech, it’s clear that Trump sees Kim as a dangerous leader.