During a Republican primary debate in March, Donald Trump pledged under his presidency to use “interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding” on terror suspects, adding of military personnel who refused to commit war crimes under his command, “They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.”
At a different debate, Trump defended his stance to re-introduce a medieval torture tactic to the U.S. military because, “In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians…They’re Medieval times. I mean, we studied Medieval times. Not since Medieval times have people seen what’s going on.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) insisted in a CNN interview following Trump’s election victory that “Waterboarding isn’t torture.” Cotton seemed confident that the tactic would return to American anti-terror efforts because, “Donald Trump’s a pretty tough guy, and I think he’s ready to make those tough calls.”
Spencer Ackerman reports for The Guardian that a number of national security officials—the everyday machinery of the national security bureaucracy who are “formally apolitical and provide expertise and continuity across administrations”—are scared out of their wits over Trump’s unpredictable temperament and the potential that as president, he could make them complicit in civil liberties abuses or even war crimes. Ackerman cites one source who is uniquely terrified of Trump as commander-in-chief because he thinks the next president “does not understand the ‘tertiary consequences’ of decision-making on a global stage.”
Though the creeping accumulation of executive power is no secret to readers of Reason, it appears that many people who were all to happy to high-five over President Obama’s boast that he has a “pen and a phone” to issue executive orders are slowly coming to the understanding that Trump will enjoy those tools, as well.
To be sure, it was an Obama executive order that ended the official use of torture as U.S. policy, and he admirably went one step further and helped get a bill passed in Congress (overwhelmingly so, with a 91-3 vote in the Senate) that enshrined a ban on torture into the U.S. Army Field Manual.
The problem is, the Army Field Manual can be changed by the next Secretary of Defense under President Trump. Not only that, unlike Obama (and even President George W. Bush late in his presidency), Trump not only wants to keep the legal black hole known as the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay open, he wants to “load it up with some bad dudes.”
Whether Trump as president makes good on his promises to make U.S. military interrogations medieval again, we don’t yet know. But it could happen, and if it does, it could even be done legally.