Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump backed down Friday from claims that he would order the U.S. military to waterboard militants and carry out other acts that violate international law, as the top general in the U.S. military was asked to weigh on Trump’s previous remarks.
Trump, the Republican frontrunner, has said repeatedly that he wants to waterboard suspected terrorists, kill the family members of those who carry out terrorism and commit other acts that would leave U.S. troops with a quandary if Trump is elected: Do they follow the orders of their commander in chief, or the Uniform Code of Military Justice that governs their actions?
Sen. Lindsay Graham, (R.-S.C.), a frequent critic of Trump’s who withdrew from the Republican presidential race earlier this year, asked Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to weigh in on the issue in a letter Friday.
Graham did not mention Trump by name, but asked the general for his opinion on intentionally targeting the family members of terrorists, whether waterboarding and “other extreme interrogation techniques” are authorized and legal in the military, whether he would view orders to target children and other noncombatants as lawful, and what advice he would offer to service members who were issued such orders.
“One of the things I most admire about you is that your warrior spirit coexists with an ethical underpinning,” Graham wrote Dunford. “It makes you, and all who serve in the armed forces, the finest fighting force the world has known.”
Dunford could not immediately be reached for comment.
In a statement released Friday, Trump clarified that he will not order a military officer to disobey the law. If elected, he said, he will be bound by laws “just like all Americans” and will meet those responsibilities. He added that he feels very strongly about the need to attack and kill terrorist who target the United States and its people, and will not forget the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I will use every legal power that I have to stop these terrorist enemies,” Trump said. “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.”
Trump has made regular mention to waterboarding on the campaign trail, assuring his supporters that the will reinstate the practice along with other “tougher” interrogation techniques. He has been steadfast in his belief that those techniques are highly effective and has dismissed concerns about their legality under international law.
Trump was adamant on the matter Thursday night during the eleventh GOP debate, when moderator Bret Baier pressed on what he would do if U.S. service members refused to comply with his orders.
“They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me, believe me,” he said. “If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”
Trump also sought to draw a sharp distinction between himself and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.), who he accused of withering on the issue in a February debate. He made clear that he believed neither waterboarding nor pursuing the families of suspect terrorists was beyond the pale.
“It’s fine, and if we want to go stronger, I’d go stronger too because frankly that’s the way I feel,” Trump said. “Can you imagine, can you imagine these people, these animals over in the Middle East that chop off heads sitting around talking and seeing that we’re having a hard problem with waterboarding?”
“We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding,” he added.