WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump warmly received three Americans back from North Korean imprisonment early Thursday, calling their release a vindication of his aggressive foreign policy strategy. But many Americans jailed by other repressive regimes around the world appear to have gained little from Trump’s ad-hoc and often confrontational international approach, their advocates say, and in several cases the president may have actually made it harder for them to come home.
After tweets promoting the event and White House emails inviting camera crews, Trump posed at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland with Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong-chul, whom the North Koreans released to show goodwill ahead of a summit between the U.S. commander in chief and North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un.
Elsewhere, American families remained separated from their loved ones.
Consider the Americans trapped in Iran. At least six are known to be there: Robert Levinson, Xiyue Wang, Karan Vafadari, Morad Tahbaz and father and son Baquer and Siamak Namazi. Some U.S. green card holders are also detained.
Trump’s decision this week to withdraw the U.S. from a groundbreaking international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program dramatically escalated tensions between the two countries and torpedoed the main dialogue between American and Iranian officials.
Supporters of the jailed U.S. citizens were already worried that the administration did not focus on their plight as it frequently issued laundry lists of various other troubling Iranian actions and did not impose punishments specifically over the detentions.
“The rhetoric and the commitment and the inclusion of a need to secure the release of the American citizen hostages and the end of hostage-taking as a matter of their foreign policy has not been operationalized into meaningful and unequivocal action,” Jared Genser, an attorney for the Namazis, told HuffPost.
Genser had a White House meeting less than 24 hours after Trump withdrew from the deal and noted that the issue was on officials’ radar. He even got a top aide to take Trump a laminated printout of a tweet about the Namazis that he issued during his campaign. ”We hope the president is able to do for the Namazis what he’s now done on North Korea,” Genser told HuffPost.
But without deal-related economic benefits to use as leverage with Iran, Trump might have little influence over Tehran on the prisoner issue, according to Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post journalist who had been jailed in the Islamic Republic and was released in 2016, at least in part because of goodwill the Obama administration created through the nuclear negotiations.
“If Trump decides to leave the deal, he will effectively be abandoning American citizens — the very same ones he has vowed to save,” Rezaian wrote last month. After Trump’s speech, Rezaian asked what happened to concern for those Americans.
They didn’t make it into Trump’s address, which instead repeated criticisms of the Iranian government. Asked about the cases at a State Department background briefing, an official said Americans’ safety was the administration’s priority but then acknowledged the skepticism among the press. “Well, I know, you can make that face, but it’s true,” the official added.
The Trump administration has also harshly criticized the government of Venezuela and on Tuesday called for the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro. American Joshua Holt has been imprisoned in the country since 2016. Trump mentioned Holt by name when he announced new sanctions against Venezuela last year. But the dialogue that might secure Holt’s release is being led not by his administration but by key outside figures who are talking with Maduro’s inner circle.
And in Syria, Trump officials’ efforts to start a dialogue with the regime of President Bashar Assad over the fate of missing journalist Austin Tice appear to have fallen apart because of poor coordination. Weeks after then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo broached the subject with the Syrian government, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley surrendered what could have been a key bargaining chip: She walked back the United States’ anti-Assad position, handing Damascus a boon that Washington might have used as leverage.
Assad further damaged hopes for Tice once the Syrian leader turned chemical weapons on his people again that April and Trump responded with airstrikes.
Conversely, other governments holding U.S. citizens have received warm words from Trump ― and little pressure to send the Americans back.
The president repeatedly praised Egypt’s strongman President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi on the campaign trail and in his early months in office. He then held a high-profile celebration when Sisi released an American aid worker who spent nearly three years in jail, Aya Hijazi. More than one year later, Trump has yet to publicly name any of the multiple other U.S. citizens who are among more than 50,000 people in Egypt’s poorly run jails.
“There’s a sentiment in Congress and among those families who’ve been victimized by Egyptian officials in various ways that the administration isn’t doing enough,” said Praveen Madhiraju of the nonprofit Pretrial Rights International. He represents two of an estimated 15 Americans held in Egypt: Mustafa Kassem and Ahmed Etiwy. Earlier this year, Vice President Mike Pence became the highest-ranking U.S. official to mention them in public. (Many families of Americans detained abroad choose to keep their identities hidden, often on the advice of U.S. officials who say a public outcry can hinder diplomacy.)
Capitol Hill pressure and anger over Cairo’s dealings with North Korea has pushed the Trump administration to withhold $300 million of the $1.3 billion military aid package Egypt receives from the U.S. annually. But the perception that Sisi will have an easy ride under Trump persists, and there’s little indication of consistent attention to the issue.
“The United States has enormous leverage with Egypt to secure the release of the Americans and the green card holders jailed there, and the only way that we will see all these cases resolved is for the White House to follow up on Pence’s comments,” said Genser, who also represents two U.S. permanent residents held without due process since last summer.
Turkey, whose autocratic leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has also received plaudits from Trump, is meanwhile holding American pastor Andrew Brunson and trying him before what his home-state senator, Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), has called a “kangaroo court.” While the president has mentioned that case repeatedly, his approach to helping Brunson so far has involved multiple steps aimed at pleasing Erdogan. The Trump team has discouraged congressional talk of sanctions against Turkey and encouraged Washington law enforcement to drop charges against Turkish security guards who beat protesters in the capital last year.
“Despite the fact that the Turks have an almost 100 percent track record of responding to sticks, we still feed them carrots,” a Senate aide told the Wall Street Journal last month. “It makes no sense.”