President-elect Donald Trump swallowed his pride and met with reporters, editors and columnists yesterday from a paper that he absolutely despises and lambasts for unfair campaign coverage: the New York Times. Perhaps he came to the conclusion that snubbing the country’s most influential newspaper isn’t a particularly smart thing to do politically. It certainly isn’t the kind of behavior that Americans expect of their president, unless of course we’re talking about Richard Nixon and his all-encompassing paranoia about the East Coast press.
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But whatever his reasons, Trump rode over to the Times‘ headquarters in midtown Manhattan and spoke with them for about an hour. After 18 months of seeing the man campaign on the trail, win the election, and assemble his cabinet and national security team, we shouldn’t be surprised anymore about Trump’s malleability. If there is an ideology that Trump subscribes to, it isn’t liberalism, conservatism, neoconservatism or libertarianism, but pragmatism. Depending on the circumstances, he’ll change his mind on any subject known to man. Ideological conservatives have seen this trait and shuddered at the thought of Trump ditching his promises to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, tear up the Affordable Care Act, shred the Iranian nuclear agreement and prosecute the Clintons for financial malfeasance. Many other people in America, however, see this as a virtue; the average American doesn’t give a damn about political ideology.
with the New York Times wasn’t any different. But on one issue in particular, civil liberties advocates, humanitarians and law abiding citizens will be heartened to hear that the President-elect is no longer gung-ho about pursuing a morally bankrupt policy: torturing detainees in U.S. custody to elicit information. We can all thank James Mattis, the former Commander of CENTCOM and the frontrunner to be the next Secretary of Defense, for drilling home a message to the President-elect that everybody else tried — but failed — to get him to acknowledge: torture is not only against domestic and international law, it doesn’t work.
As Trump told the Times, he was surprised that Mattis argued against the effectiveness of torture techniques like waterboarding (I suppose he assumes that every gruff-looking general in uniform has a bucket of water ready to go). But he was also impressed by the answer that Mattis gave: “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better.” In other words, ‘Mr. President-elect, don’t listen to the folks who designed the program. Listen to the military professionals that detain and interrogate prisoners for a living.’
In hindsight, it’s concerning that it took this long for Trump to accept the concept that waterboarding isn’t a smart policy for moral, diplomatic, humanitarian, and legal reasons. If Trump weren’t so busy holding grudges with the press and obsessing over how the cast of “Hamilton” treated his vice president-elect, he might have asked the lawyers on his transition team to delve into the legality of the entire torture program. It would take literally minutes for them to determine that torture is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, to which the U.S. is a party, and was banned by Congress last year, courtesy of Sens. John McCain and Diane Feinstein.
It is now against the law for any U.S. government employee to employ interrogation tactics that are not explicitly included in the Army Field Manual. Forbidden techniques no doubt include waterboarding and most of the other aspects of the George W. Bush-era torture program. And, lest we forget, there is a reason why President Obama’s Justice Department withdrew Bush-era legal justification for the torture program: it was a shoddy piece of legal analysis that defined the word “torture” so narrowly that it was virtually impossible for U.S. interrogators to go over the line without deliberately killing the prisoner.
Trump’s comments are encouraging, and if Gen. Mattis is indeed tapped to be SecDef, civil libertarians can be confident that at least one well-respected member of the cabinet will fight tooth-and-nail against the resurrection of waterboarding. It’s just concerning that it took this long for the president-elect to buy into this wisdom.