The Elusive Trump Pivot on Torture

The incoherence of Trump’s shape‐​shifting policy proposals reflect that he is either hiding what he truly believes or simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.

June 30, 2016 • Commentary
By Nat Hentoff and Nick Hentoff
This article appeared on Cato​.org on June 30, 2016.

Someone entirely unfamiliar with American politics might think that a Trump Pivot is an exceedingly rare, seldom‐​seen bird; or, perhaps, an exotic flower that only blooms once every hundred years. TV commentators and newspaper columnists wait for the Trump Pivot to make an appearance with breathless anticipation. “Is this the pivot?” they repeatedly ask each other and their audience.

What they fail to realize is that waiting for Trump to make a permanent and meaningful pivot is as useless as waiting for an ouroboros to finish its meal. It’s not going to happen. Because Trump’s temperament and policies are in a constant state of rotating pivot — like the vanes of a windmill.

Trump’s conflicting statements on his plans for the use of torture by the U.S. military are a recent example of the rotating Trump pivot.

On March 3, during a Fox News debate, Trump said that he would order military commanders to torture terrorists and their families, even if that meant violating international law.

“They won’t refuse,” Trump said during the debate when asked about the legality of such an order. “They’re not going to refuse me, believe me. … If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”

On March 4, his campaign issued a written statement that Trump would not force military commanders to violate international law. Later that same day, Trump said he would still order the military to use waterboarding — an enhanced interrogation technique widely regarded as illegal torture under International law — adding that “(i)t has to be within the law, but I have to expand the law.” Trump has refused to explain how he would “expand the law,” other than to say, “I’ll work on it with the generals.”

But while Trump says he’ll “work on it with the generals,” the generals don’t seem to be willing to work on it with him.

Mark Hertling, who retired from the Army as a three‐​star general after 37 years of service, noted in an appearance on CNN that “the military has never done enhanced interrogation techniques.” Hertling said he was scared by Trump’s claim that he was sure military officers would not refuse his illegal orders on torturing civilians.

“It’s toxic leadership,” Hertling said. “Someone needs to remind Mr. Trump that the military is not his palace guards. They take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.”

In March, when pressed during a congressional hearing to respond to Trump’s comments on torture, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff firmly rejected Trump’s claim that torture was a viable strategic option in combating terror.

“Our men and women … go to war with the values of our nation, and those kind of activities that you’ve described, they are inconsistent with the values of our nation,” said Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford. “What you are suggesting are things that actually aren’t legal for them to do anyway.”

Michael Hayden, a retired four‐​star Air Force general and former director of both the CIA and the National Security Agency, told HBO’s Bill Maher: “I would be incredibly concerned if a President Trump governed in a way that was consistent with the language that candidate Trump expressed during the campaign.”

Hayden said that he believed military officers would refuse to follow Trump’s unlawful orders.

Following the Istanbul airport terror attacks, Trump has reverted back to his earlier stump‐​speech rhetoric on torture. He now says that he wants to use torture to level the playing field so the U.S. military can go toe‐​to‐​toe with ISIS on an equally vicious and violent footing.

“You have to fight fire with fire,” Trump said this week during a rally in Ohio. “We have to be so strong. We have to fight so viciously. And violently because we’re dealing with violent people viciously.”

Hertling had previously criticized Trump during a CNN appearance last year for “making very simplistic analogies, with almost comic book approaches to some of the more significant problems that our U.S. president will eventually have to face.”

Responding to Hertling’s criticism with his usual bombast, Trump claimed that he “was a better general” than the former Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe and the Seventh Army.

The longer Trump’s campaign continues, the more incoherent his policy proposals become. According to Time magazine, Trump is deliberately trying to sow confusion.

“Trump has dissembled, reversed himself and walked back previous policy commitments, revealing an increasingly hard‐​to‐​pin‐​down platform just weeks ahead of the Republican convention in July,” writes Haley Sweetland Edwards and Zeke J. Miller. “Trump appears to be betting that the confusion will allow him to appeal to all sides, while allowing him an out should the temperature of any one proposal get too hot.”

The incoherence of Trump’s shape‐​shifting policy proposals reflect that he is either hiding what he truly believes or simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Donald Trump has made a fortune by branding his name on everything from clothing and bottled water to office furniture and steaks. But he has been unwilling or unable to place the Trump name on a set of coherent policy proposals that demonstrate he has the knowledge, understanding and judgment to be president.

About the Authors
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York.