Endorsing apparent war crimes, Trump abandons all subtlety

As a candidate, Trump ran on a platform that endorsed explicit war crimes. As a president, Trump is abandoning all subtlety on the issue.
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By Steve Benen

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump made little effort to hide his affinity for war crimes. As regular readers may recall, the Republican dismissed the Geneva Conventions as “out of date,” vowed to “take out” terrorists’ families, and when asked whether the United States would "chop off heads" of detainees under his administration's approach, he wouldn't answer directly.

Trump also 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.” He went on to promise to restore waterboarding practices -- Trump called it a “minor form” of torture -- he also vowed to bring back "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."

For reasons I've never fully understood, it was around this time that some political observers concluded that Trump was the presidential candidate who could be trusted to show careful restraint on national security issues.

Once in office, Trump acted in support of accused war criminals, intervening in their cases in defiance of military leaders' wishes, and dismissing charges against Americans accused of deadly brutality. It led The Atlantic's Adam Serwer in November to describe the president as "a war-crimes enthusiast."

Over the weekend, Trump abandoned all subtlety on the matter.

President Donald Trump on Saturday warned Iran that if it retaliates for the killing of one of its top leaders, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, it will face U.S. attacks on 52 targets, a number he said was symbolic.

The president tweeted that the number of targets matched the number of hostages held by Iran in 1979, when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held for 444 days.

As the Associated Press reported soon after, "Targeting cultural sites is a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural sites."

Asked about this yesterday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, "We'll behave lawfully. We'll behave inside the system." The cabinet secretary added, "The American people should know that every target that we strike will be a lawful target."

By late yesterday, however, Trump was rejecting Pompeo's line and arguing largely the opposite.

In unscripted comments to reporters aboard Air Force One, the president said, in apparent reference to Iranians, "They're allowed to kill our people. They're allowed to torture and maim our people. They're allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we're not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn't work that way."

Trump added in a tweet that he's prepared to "fully strike back" against Iranian retaliatory measures, "perhaps in a disproportionate manner." That, of course, also wouldn't be legal under international law.

I can appreciate why none of this seems especially surprising. Presidential candidates who run on a platform of war crimes tend to become presidents who embrace war crimes. For that matter, Trump has repeatedly shown a blithe indifference toward the rule of law and the concept of legal limits, so it stands to reason that he'd be similarly unconcerned about the constraints of international law.

But the predictability of madness does not make it any less outrageous.

What's less clear, at least for now, is what would happen in the event the president delivers illegal orders to U.S. military leaders.

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