Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump arrives for his election night rally at the New York Hilton Midtown in Manhattan, N.Y. on Nov. 9, 2016.
Photo by Andrew Kelly/Reuters

After touting support for torture, Trump gets a new perspective

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) appeared at an international security forum over the weekend, where he pushed back against the idea of Donald Trump bringing back U.S.-sanctioned torture. “I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do or anybody else wants to do. We will not waterboard. We will not torture,” McCain said to applause. “My God, what does it say about America if we’re going to inflict torture on people?”

A day later, Vice President-elect Mike Pence was asked to respond on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” and the Republican wouldn’t commit to following the law. “We’re going to have a president again who will never say what we’ll never do,” Pence said.

And what, pray tell, does Donald Trump himself have to say about this? The president-elect sat down with the New York Times yesterday, and was asked where he stands on torture. Trump’s response departed a bit from his previous posture.
“So, I met with [retired General James Mattis], who is a very respected guy…. I met with him at length and I asked him that question. I said, ‘What do you think of waterboarding?’ He said – I was surprised – he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’ He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’

“And I was very impressed by that answer. I was surprised, because he’s known as being like the toughest guy. And when he said that, I’m not saying it changed my [mind]. Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we’re not allowed to waterboard. But I’ll tell you what, I was impressed by that answer. It certainly does not – it’s not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think. If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that. But General Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say. I thought he would say – you know he’s known as Mad Dog Mattis, right? Mad Dog for a reason. I thought he’d say ‘It’s phenomenal, don’t lose it.’ He actually said, ‘No, give me some cigarettes and some drinks, and we’ll do better.’”
Imagine that. Trump assumed military leaders would agree with him on torture, only to actually have a conversation with a retired general who knows what he’s talking about.

What will be interesting is whether or not Trump moves forward with his torture plans anyway.

Remember, Trump went further than any major-party nominee in U.S. history when touting his support for torture. As a candidate, he dismissed the Geneva Conventions as “out of date,” vowed to “take out” terrorists’ families, and when asked in February whether or not the United States would “chop off heads” of detainees under Trump’s policy, he didn’t answer directly.

Perhaps most importantly, Trump argued during the GOP primaries that he wanted to torture suspected terrorists even “if it doesn’t work” in producing valuable intelligence, because “they deserve it anyway.”

And with this in mind, I’m glad Trump had a conversation about this with Mattis. I’m also glad Trump now believes torture is “not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think.”

The question, however, is whether or not the president-elect intends to torture people without regard for its efficacy.