So that’s all it took—one conversation with one general, and now Donald Trump suddenly isn’t going to bring back torture?
I’m glad he has changed his mind, if he has. But this is a WTF on so many levels, as are Trump’s other major reversals Tuesday—that maybe climate change does have a human element, and that he won’t put Crooked Hillary in jail after all.
It all raises the question: Can nastiness, idiocy, and hypocrisy add up to the right thing in the end?
WTF No. 1: What was Trump thinking back during the campaign when he said he was going to bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse”? Answer: Nothing. He’d clearly given the matter no thought whatsoever. He wanted the votes of the yahoo-American community, so he said the yahoo-American community thing.
Believe it or not, folks, politicians actually do think before they talk, usually. Dick Cheney and his crowd, they came up with a whole defense of torture, based on their interpretations of international law. They were twisted, sick interpretations, and yeah, they were almost certainly ex-post facto in the sense that Cheney said in essence to John Yoo, “We want to torture these people—find me the legal justification.” But it was a position.
Trump’s campaign pledge involved no thought at all. So he meets with James Mattis, who seems likely to be his choice to lead the Pentagon, and Mattis convinces him in a matter of minutes that torture doesn’t work, and that’s that.
WTF No. 2: Trump was reportedly surprised that Mattis rejected torture. Surprised? Has he read anything that military leaders have said and written about torture over the years—including Mattis himself, who in 2005 clearly identified torture as a war crime (“Marines do not torture or kill enemy prisoners of war or detainees”)? Why did I even bother to ask that? Of course he didn’t read any of this stuff. He hadn’t the slightest idea that military leaders oppose torture, or why.
What are anti-torture people to make of this? We were repulsed when we heard Trump say those things, and we were frankly more repulsed to hear them lustily cheered by thousands; the same people who put flag decals on their bumpers and say they love our troops, even as their pro-torture position would put those very soldiers in the position of being more likely to be tortured themselves, while they browbeat those of us who oppose torture as somehow being “soft on terror.” If Trump is truly breaking with that mind-set, I guess it’s all to the good, but it doesn’t really undo the ugliness he unleashed.
WTFs Nos. 3 and 4: The same basic questions apply to his climate change and Clinton reversals. On the former he’s now “open” to staying in the Paris Accords, granting there is “some connectivity” between human behavior and global warming. Here we learned less about how he executed this somersault. Was there a Mattis of climate science who explained some basic facts to him? Or did he know all along that he was lying during the campaign? Or did he just have no idea? I suspect here that he was lying, because he does develop coastal golf courses in the northern climes, and maybe some scientist warned him at some point that the 16th fairway was one day going to be submerged under the Irish Sea. But again, who knows?
It may be the Hillary stuff, though, that really takes the cake. First of all, the most astonishing aspect of this is the way the media have been reporting it. “President Trump has decided he will not pursue a criminal prosecution of Hillary Clinton...” No, you idiots! President Trump, like all presidents, has no power to decide who is and is not subject to criminal prosecution in this country. At least The Daily Beast story noted that the president doesn’t have this authority. Most outlets didn’t even bother, which represents a shocking acceptance of Trumpian presumptions about executive power. It pained me yesterday to be reduced to agreeing with Ann Coulter, who pointed this out on Twitter.
As for Trump, though: He made this promise to his voters at the second debate, and it seems obvious now that he never had the slightest intention of following through on it. It’s just something he, no doubt with Steve Bannon and Roger Stone and maybe Rudy Giuliani egging him on, came up with that sounded great in the moment—it would generate headlines, drive cable-news chatter, give some sastisfaction to the anti-Clinton set he was driving into a frenzy. He didn’t mean a word of it.
In all these cases, he said something out of ignorance or total cynicism or some combination of both; and now he’s withdrawing. And we can throw in a fifth case, his charming disavowal of white supremacists. Gee, he wonders, I have no idea how they could have gotten the idea that I was on their side!
In part I suppose he’s making these shifts because he now feels the weight of the office in a way he didn’t then. That’s the conventional—and generous—interpretation, and there’s probably some element of that going on.
But mostly it’s because he’s just a hypocritical person who believes, as we learned dozens of times over from all those contractors he stiffed, that his prior word means nothing. He said what he needed to say then because it was useful then. Now it’s not useful, so it’s as if he never said it.
It’s nice that in these cases, his complete lack of a moral core is moving him toward more moderate positions. But one of these days, when it suits him, it’ll move him back in the other direction just as fast.
And the final wonder is that anyone should be the least bit surprised by this. These qualities, so to speak, have been obvious in the man for a year or more. Many of us pointed them out regularly. And yet this is who America chose. I hope and pray his voters are bitterly disappointed within weeks. It’s exactly what they deserve.