Donald Trump's Troubling Take on Inflicting Torture

A photograph of Specialist Sabrina Harman posing over the body of detainee Manadel al-Jamadi in Abu Ghraib prison, released May 19, 2004. Jacob Sullum writes that Donald Trump did not exactly promise not to torture people, especially given the comments he made while running for president. "I would bring back waterboarding," he said during a debate in February, "and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding." Charles Fredrick/reuters

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In an interview with The New York Times on November 22, Donald Trump retreated a bit from his campaign promise to torture terrorism suspects, attributing his second thoughts to a conversation with retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, former head of the U.S. Central Command:

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'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 Gen. Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say.

Related: Science Shows That Torture Doesn't Work and Is Counterproductive

Although Foreign Policy reporter Paul McLeary calls that "a stunning about-face," it is not exactly a promise not to torture people, especially given the comments Trump made while running for president. "I would bring back waterboarding," he said during a debate in February, "and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."

At another debate the following month, Trump said he expected military officers to carry out torture on his orders, even if it would be illegal: "They're not going to refuse me. Believe me." Trump defended torture not just as a way to extract information but as a way to exact revenge, as he explained at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, last November:

Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. I would approve more than that. It works.… And if it doesn't work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us.

Given that rationale, General Mattis's opinion about the effectiveness of torture is not necessarily decisive for Trump, which may explain why he told the Times, "I'm not saying it changed my mind." If "it's important to the American people," he said, "I would go for it."

A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Americans thought the "use of torture by our government could be justified against people suspected of terrorism to try to gain information about possible attacks in our country."

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted last March found that 63 percent of Americans though torture "against suspected terrorists to obtain information about terrorism" is "often" or "sometimes" justified. Neither survey asked about revenge torture.

When a prisoner is tortured for information, he may not actually be a terrorist, may not actually have the information or may not be willing to surrender it even under torture.

When a prisoner is tortured for revenge, there is a similar problem: He may have nothing to do with the injury for which revenge is sought. That may not matter to Trump, who also has said he would kill the relatives of terrorists to defeat the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), although it is not clear whether the main goal of such operations would be retribution or deterrence.

Retributive torture would be not just illegal but unconstitutional, violating the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments." Trump claims to have read the Constitution, but maybe he did not get that far.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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