In the latest debate, Donald Trump had doubled down on his threat to target terrorists’ families and engage in enhanced waterboarding, insisting that if he were commander in chief, the military would carry out his orders.
WASHINGTON — A sudden about-face on torture Friday by Republican Donald Trump suggested a post-primary pivot aimed at wooing general-election voters but also threatened to feed growing anxiety among conservatives that he’s too willing to negotiate away earlier positions.
Trump as recently as Thursday night doubled down on his threat to target terrorists’ families and engage in enhanced waterboarding, insisting that if he were commander in chief, the military would carry out his orders.
“They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me,” he said at the Republican debate in Detroit. “We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding.”
Even targeting terrorists’ families, moderator Bret Baier asked?
“If I say ‘Do it,’ they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”
But late Friday, Trump issued a statement reversing course.
“I will use every legal power that I have to stop these terrorist enemies,” he said in a statement. “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.”
To be clear, he said, “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.”
Trump had been under withering criticism for his pro-torture, pro-assassination-of-families doctrine. Military officials and foreign-policy experts have been criticizing Trump and raising the possibility of the U.S. military refusing to follow some of a President Trump’s orders.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said last month that military servicemen and women are “required not to follow an unlawful order” and that some of Trump’s rhetoric would be “in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict.”
Also, 70 Republican foreign-policy experts this week penned an open letter to Trump, warning that he “would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe.” They singled out his embrace of increased torture, calling it “inexcusable.”
The issue would have been complicated for rank-and-file members of the military, said James Weirick, a Marine retired lieutenant colonel and military lawyer. Any service member who disobeys an order that he or she deems unlawful bears the burden of proving that, he said.
Weirick said that Trump had only given “bumper-sticker statements” regarding the killing of terrorists’ families, leaving some gray area in how to interpret his remarks. For example, if a family member was killed while detained by the U.S. military, that would violate the law of armed conflict, Weirick said.
However, if a terrorist’s family was killed along with him in an airstrike on his home, that could be deemed acceptable collateral damage or reasonable if they provided material support to the terrorist, he added.
Changing position on torture was not Trump’s only switch this week.
Another was Trump softening his opposition to visas for more highly skilled workers, visas he once complained would “decimate American workers.” Trump said Thursday he was changing his visa position “because we have to have talented people in this country.”
Trump, meanwhile, decided to snub a major meeting of Republican activists and leaders after rumblings that protesters were prepared to demonstrate against him there. He pulled out of a heavily hyped speaking slot Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland, saying he will instead visit Kansas, a caucus state in which Sen. Ted Cruz is expected to perform well.
Trump will hold a rally and visit a caucus site in Kansas and then head to Florida, his spokeswoman said in a statement. “Because of this, he will not be able to speak at CPAC as he has done for many consecutive years,” said the spokeswoman, Hope Hicks. Both “Wichita” and “Kansas” were misspelled in the Trump statement.
Polls showed Trump likely to capture the Louisiana primary on Saturday, the biggest prize among five states holding contests this weekend.