Trump reverses himself on torture

For months, Donald Trump has insisted that he would not back down on his pledge to reinstitute waterboarding "and worse" when interrogating terrorism suspects. 

After reiterating his position on torture during the GOP debate, claiming that American soldiers would carry out his orders to torture prisoners and murder the families of terrorists even though they were illegal, Trump issued a statement yesterday to the Wall Street Journal saying he would never order Americans to violate international law.

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 duringThursday 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.”

Trump claims he can be "flexible."  This isn't "flexibility."  It's abandoning a position he insisted he would never change.  In recent days, Trump is showing signs of similar "flexibility" on other issues like illegal immigration, the "wall," and Muslim refugees.  But since many of his supporters don't pay attention to day-to-day politics, it won't hurt him with his core constituency.

I have no doubt that if Trump actually wanted to torture terrorist prisoners, he would be able to find people to carry out his orders.  But many others would refuse – especially if he asked special forces to murder the families of terrorists.  There are plenty of honorable people in the military who would balk at carrying out clearly illegal orders.  That Trump finally recognized the dilemma he was putting the military in with his proposed policy is probably a relief to a lot of them.

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