WASHINGTON – A sudden about-face on torture by Republican Donald Trump on Friday suggested a post-primary pivot aimed at wooing general election voters but also threatened to feed growing anxiety among conservatives that he’s too willing to negotiate away earlier positions.
Trump as recently as Thursday night doubled down on his threat to target terrorists’ families and engage in enhanced waterboarding, insisting that if he were commander-in-chief the military would carry out his orders.
“They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me,” he said at a GOP debate in Detroit. “We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding.”
Even targeting terrorists’ families, moderator Bret Baier asked?
“If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”
But Trump issued a statement late Friday reversing course.
“I will use every legal power that I have to stop these terrorist enemies,” he said in a statement. “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.”
To be clear, he said, “I will not order a military officer to disobey the law. It is clear that as president I will be bound by laws just like all Americans and I will meet those responsibilities.”
Trump had been under withering criticism for his pro-torture, pro-assassination-of-families doctrine. Military officials and foreign policy experts have been sharply criticizing Trump, and raising the possibility of the U.S. military refusing to follow some of a President Trump’s orders.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said last month that that military service men and women are “required not to follow an unlawful order” and that some of Trump’s rhetoric would be “in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict.”
Also, 70 Republican foreign policy experts earlier this week penned an open letter to Trump, warning that he “would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe.” They singled out his embrace of increased torture, calling it “inexcusable.”
Changing position on torture was not his only switch this week.
It came after Trump also softened his opposition to visas for more highly skilled workers, visas he once complained would “decimate American workers.” Trump said Thursday he was changing his visa position “because we have to have talented people in this country.”
All of it comes as Trump this week started openly altering his message to appeal to a general election audience beyond the GOP base as he emerged from Super Tuesday voting with victories in 10 of 15 states and a growing lead in the delegates needed to win the Republican nomination. In his Super Tuesday victory remarks, he called himself a “unifier,” and offered kind words for rival Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Many conservatives fear, however, that it’s all part of a move toward a general election campaign and potential presidency in which he’d abandon tough stands he took to win the primaries. Trump’s resume troubles many conservatives who see the GOP as already too willing to cut deals with Democrats and betray conservative principles.
“I think the concern is he’s not as true a representative of things he’s saying. The question is, is it campaign posturing?” asked George Urban, 39, a Charlottesville, Va., business owner attending a conservative political conference in suburban Maryland this week.
Trump badly needs to “show us a platform that addresses the principles of the Republican Party,” such as support for lower, more fair taxes and gun rights under the Second Amendment, said Scott Jennings, a Louisville-based Republican consultant.
Instead, what conservatives see is someone without a clear path they can follow.
At one point in Thursday’s debate, for example, Trump was shown discussing Afghanistan. He said the United States made a “terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place.” He also said, “I’ve never said we made a mistake.”
Trump was shown supporting America welcoming refugees from Syria, then saying otherwise.
He insisted he has a “very strong core,” but added, “I’ve never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible, who didn’t have a certain degree of flexibility.”
In order for Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton, he has to inch away from being too identified with hardcore conservative ideology.
So far, he’s been able to attract voters from different ends of the Republican political spectrum. In Virginia Tuesday, exit polls showed that while he won among conservatives, he finished second to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., among moderates.