Donald Trump has been trying to have it both ways on torture, insisting that "it works" while promising to follow the judgment of his cabinet. But White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer may have revealed the grim and frightening endgame when he told reporters that the plan is to figure out what works, then work on making it legal.
In a chaotic first week that has seen several starts and stops on a variety of issues, Donald Trump has been making headlines with his whiplash-inducing statements on torture. The White House has made efforts to distance itself from a draft executive order that would rescind President Obama's executive order banning torture, while Trump has given several television interviews in which he praised waterboarding specifically, and expressed his belief in the effectiveness of torture in general.
At the same time, he has said he will follow the lead of cabinet members like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. On Fox News' Hannity, though, Trump gave a clue as to how he could reconcile those positions (emphasis mine):
TRUMP: So waterboarding used to be used because they said it really wasn't torture. It was the one step slightly below torture. That's why waterboarding happened.
HANNITY: That's why it was legal.
TRUMP: Torture is real torture. OK, waterboarding is, I'm sure it's not pleasant, but waterboarding was just short of torture. When, you know, all of a sudden they made it torture. So, here's the story, look. I spoke with people the other day, who are in this world that we're talking about. They said, 'Absolutely, it works. Absolutely.' Now, General Mattis said that he doesn't intend to use it. I'm with him all the way. Do I believe it works? Yes, I do.
The bold subtext here is that waterboarding, which is definitely torture, should be legal, and despite Trump's insistence to the contrary or the White House's denials about that draft executive order, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made that subtext explicit. During a press briefing aboard Air Force One, Spicer gave away the game (from a pool report, via email from the White House, emphasis mine):
(on torture technique review) “He can review it through executive action…. He is going to look to the recommendations of people like Gen. Mattits and CIA director Mike Pompeo…. He’s willing to listen to their opinions on the effectiveness of some of those techniques on the results that they get. … The legality is that once you realize the effectiveness, then you can work within the law to ensure, whether it’s the manuals or the laws or the orders, reflect what the intent is.”
At that same briefing, Spicer also walked back his denial of that draft executive order:
On the draft EOs on black sites, and whether they came from the White House, he said "we are going to continue to look into that," but said he was clear that "they were not derived from White House sources."
He added: "Where they originated from were not White House originated documents" and that "there was a lot of input that we sought during the transition and several things were provided to us."
He said it was still his understanding that POTUS has not seen those documents. But he said that "there's a question of what he wants and whether or not those documents reflect his current thinking."
Trump abruptly scuttled the signing of an executive order that reportedly would have begun the fraudulent "voter fraud" investigation he has proposed, and has also thus far failed to deliver on a reported draft order effectuating his Muslim ban. Whether these delays are the result of chaotic incompetence or a response to outside pressure remains to be seen, but at least on the issue of torture, the fallback strategy is clear: Decide what is effective, which Trump believes waterboarding is, and do what you have to to make it legal.
If Trump delays his executive order on torture, it will not be because he has abandoned the idea. As Spicer clearly indicated, it will be so they can fine-tune their attempt to twist it into legality. That may sound familiar, but it is in no way comforting.
And as terrifying as this is, like so many of Trump's catastrophes, it is happening right out in the open.