I’m filing this away in a new mental category for Trump decisions that I call “Weird, But Good.” He’s going to go easy on Clinton for crimes she may have committed after he spent six months attacking her as “Crooked Hillary” and once told her to her face at a debate that she’d be in jail if he were president? That’s weird … but good in the sense that Trump’s obviously focused on the GOP’s policy agenda and isn’t as consumed with punishing his opponents as the worst caricatures of him would have you believe. He’s going to put Mitt Romney in the cabinet after Romney did everything he could to galvanize opposition to Trump during the campaign and argued at length that he’s grossly unfit for office? That’s weird … but good, in that Romney would make an excellent diplomat and his appointment would prove that Trump isn’t willing to let his wounded ego stop him from doing what he thinks is best for the country.
After pounding the table for a year and a half about how we need to stop coddling the jihadi bastards in our custody and bring back waterboarding, he has one chat with Gen. Mattis and suddenly he’s a skeptic of enhanced interrogation? That’s weird…
The president-elect’s turnabout on the need for torture as a tool in the fight against terrorism, which he repeatedly endorsed during the campaign, was remarkable. Mr. Trump suggested he has changed his mind about the usefulness of waterboarding and other forms of torture after talking with James N. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, who headed the United States Central Command.
“He said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’” Mr. Trump said, describing the general’s view of torturing terror suspects. He added that Mr. Mattis found more value in building trust and rewarding cooperation with terror suspects: “‘Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I’ll do better.’” He added: “I was very impressed by that answer.’’
Torture, Mr. Trump said, is “not going to make the kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.”
…but good, in that Trump’s obviously willing to change his mind based on evidence from an advisor he trusts, even if it risks tainting his “politically incorrect” brand. He’s made, or is on the verge of making, solid cabinet picks in Mike Pompeo, Mattis, and Romney, but smart picks and good advice mean nothing if he’s going to take the bullheaded authoritarian approach that he knows best and his cabinet’s there only to act on his impulses. If he’s capable of flipping on something like this, even if you disagree on the merits and believe waterboarding is worth reinstating, that’s an encouraging sign that he’ll be more open-minded in making decisions than many of us expected. And it’s also encouraging that he’ll have someone around him in Mattis (and maybe Romney) who’s willing to contradict him on an opinion he holds.
Although that still leaves you with a nagging question. Plenty of military figures, including David Petraeus, have criticized enhanced interrogation over the years. The argument that waterboarding doesn’t work reliably to produce useful intelligence has been well ventilated since this debate began under Bush. How did Trump miss all of that in forming the “waterboard the bastards” opinion that we saw during the campaign? If it was a simple matter of him not having heard the anti-torture argument from someone he trusts, like Mattis, he could have remedied that pretty easily by reaching out to people like Petraeus during or even before the campaign to get their perspectives. (He’s been a celebrity for 40 years. His calls would have been returned.) It’d odd that Mattis could flip him at this late date — especially when you remember that Trump did have an answer on the stump to people like Mattis who claim that waterboarding doesn’t work. His response was “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.” He backed enhanced interrogation as punishment for barbarians, not just as an intelligence measure. He even mocked Ted Cruz at his rallies for hedging on waterboarding, going so far once as to repeat (with fake concern) a woman in the audience who yelled out that Cruz was a “pussy” for hedging on it. Now, after a huddle with Mattis, it sounds like he’s not only given up on EIT as punishment, he may have given up on it altogether. Huh. Wait ’til Mike Pence finds out.
Does this also explain his sudden hedging on the Paris climate accord, incidentally? Did a trusted advisor pull him aside and make the case that it’s a decent deal, changing his mind just like that? That’s a risk you run with a president who’s not firmly anchored in ideology, and another way among many in which this won’t be a boring presidency. Tangentially, assuming he sticks with his new position that waterboarding isn’t worth the bother, this will also spare him a confrontation with Congress, where there’s bipartisan support for keeping waterboarding illegal. Right now, if I understand the law correctly, the relevant statute bans “torture” and requires interrogations to follow the practices laid out in the Army and Marine Corps Field Manuals. The manuals ban waterboarding of enemy prisoners but if they were updated to permit it, presumably we’d end up with lawsuits over whether waterboarding still qualifies as “torture” under the statute or not. (Whether CIA employees would agree to do it even if it were legal is another matter.) John McCain, who’s opposed waterboarding for years, warned Trump publicly a few days ago that he could expect a court fight over the legality of the practice if he tried to restore it. Looks like we won’t have to worry about that now, thanks to Mattis and Trump’s eleventh-hour conversion.