News & Politics

Trump Reverses Himself on Torture, Waterboarding

Donald Trump, who swore he would never backtrack on his promise to reinstitute waterboarding “and worse” of terrorists, released a statement to the Wall Street Journal repudiating that position, saying that he would never order American soldiers to violate international law.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said Friday he wouldn’t order the U.S. military to break international laws, addressing criticism from military and legal experts that his policies regarding torture and killing terrorists’ family members would violate the Geneva Conventions.

Mr. Trump, in a statement to The Wall Street Journal, said he would “use every legal power that I have to stop these terrorist enemies. I do, however, understand that the United States is bound by laws and treaties and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws and will seek their advice on such matters.”

He added, “I will not order a military officer to disobey the law. It is clear that as president I will be bound by laws just like all Americans and I will meet those responsibilities.”

That appears to be a reversal from what Mr. Trump said during Thursday night’s Republican debate in Detroit, when he stood by his earlier promise to do things that were a “hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding to terrorist suspects, as well as to authorize the military to kill family members of terrorists.

Asked Thursday night about making the military obey such orders, which would apparently be illegal, Mr. Trump said, “I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”

Former Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden said last week that the military would flatly refuse to obey orders to commit torture or kill family members of terrorists. Under international and U.S. law, soldiers are obligated to disobey illegal orders.

Michael Schmitt, director of the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College, said in an interview that ordering the military to torture terror suspects would violate Article 17 of the 1949 Geneva Convention, and that people who participate in torture—as well as their superiors and even the U.S. government—could face war-crimes charges for such behavior.

Ordering the military to kill the family members of terrorists falls under the legal definition of “collective punishment,” which is prohibited under the laws of war. “You may punish an individual for his or her violations of the laws of war, but you may not in any way harm others,” Mr. Schmitt said. He said it has been “universally agreed that it is unlawful.”

What should worry us more — that Trump was ignorant of international law to begin with or that he has now changed positions 180 degrees without explanation and without batting an eyelash?

Perhaps Trump wasn’t ignorant of international law. Perhaps he was perfectly willing to ignore it. Either way, it’s alarming.

I’m sure this about-face will hugely disappoint Trump’s bloodthirsty supporters who think we should bring back the rack to interrogate terrorists. But I doubt it will change their minds about their hero, who thinks that killing the children of terrorists is an acceptable policy for the United States of America to follow.