It’s been nearly a year since President Donald Trump started pushing his desire to use torture in the war on terror. While on the surface this position has remained throughout his candidacy and now presidency, in reality he’s done an about-face. Today’s press conference in which he said he’d defer to General Mattis on the issue is a prime example of Trump caving — without wanting to admit he is caving. The bottom line is “enhanced interrogation techniques” have been deemed to be illegal by the UN Convention Against Torture that the U.S. has ratified. Further, many experts question whether they even work. On top of that, Trump’s very own Secretary of Defense remains firmly against using these techniques. It seems Trump is finally coming to terms with this reality (without wanting to admit he was wrong).
So let’s take a look at Trump’s crumbling stance.
In February 2016, Trump made waves by saying that “torture works,” and he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” This ignored a U.S. policy that banned waterboarding and a UN Convention Against Torture.
In March, he already started to give mixed messages. In a debate, he said that he would potentially order enhanced interrogation, and assured the moderator that the military was “not going to refuse me. Believe me.” But then the next day, perhaps realizing the legal issues involved, he said that his orders would have their limits, saying, “I will not order a military officer to disobey the law.”
Trump went back to his original stance later that month, in the wake of terror attacks in Brussels, but he threw in some qualifications. When asked what steps he thought were appropriate to get information regarding potential future attacks, Trump said he would want to change existing laws so that waterboarding would be permitted, and that he would do “a lot more than waterboarding” if he could get the law to allow it. Here, the future-President looked like he was sticking to his guns as far as believing that torture was good. However, he admitted that he might not be able to go as far as he’d like, although he gave the impression that he sure will try.
After the election, torture was still being discussed, but not necessarily in the most concrete terms. Vice President Mike Pence implied that all options were still on the table when he said in November, “[W]e’re going to have a president again who will never say what we’ll never do.” This was clearly meant to send the same message of torture being an option, but without flat out saying it.
Will Trump allow waterboarding? “We’re going to have a president who will never say what we’ll never do,” says Gov. Mike Pence. pic.twitter.com/GuFaQPXM8q
— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) November 20, 2016
Now, one week after Trump’s inauguration, the President talked about torture again, first in an ABC News interview with David Muir, and then again during a press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May. In both instances, Trump acknowledged that his own Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, says that torture doesn’t work. “I don’t necessarily agree,” Trump said. But still, despite claiming to believe that torture was a productive method of interrogation, Trump stated that ultimately, Mattis is the expert, and the decision would be his, even if he has to “override” Trump’s preference.
If you didn’t catch that, what Trump really said today is that he does not plan on using torture. At all. Sure, he may have repeatedly said that he disagrees with that philosophy, but that’s because he’ll never admit that he was wrong. By publicly putting the decision on Mattis, he takes himself out of the equation, thereby allowing him to say whatever he wants, knowing that it doesn’t change anything. It’s his way of putting on a tough face while tucking his tail between his legs.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.