With eye on general election, Donald Trump retreats on torture, immigration policies

WASHINGTON — retreated Friday from his promise that if elected president he would order the military to kill family members of militants who threaten the United States.

Trump’s campaign issued a statement quoting him as saying he would not order the military to take actions contrary to international or U.S. law.

But fewer than 24 hours earlier, in Thursday’s GOP debate, Trump stuck to his position on targeting family members of militants and on an expansive use of against captured militants. When a debate moderator asked him what he would do if the military refused to carry out such orders, Trump replied: “They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.”

The use of torture and the killing of civilians are barred by the Geneva Conventions, to which the United States is a signatory. Congress outlawed waterboarding and any so-called enhanced interrogation techniques after the administration of George W. Bush carried out such acts against suspected al-Qaida fighters. Members of the U.S. military are bound by duty and tradition to refuse orders they know to be illegal. This includes intentionally targeting civilian noncombatants.

The issue drew additional attention this week when more than 100 Republican defense and national security figures, including former senior Pentagon officials, issued a statement blasting Trump’s foreign policy positions and calling his embrace of the expansive use of torture “inexcusable.”

Defining when aggressive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding amount to torture is a matter of debate, but Trump had made clear that as president he would not hesitate to go beyond waterboarding.

“We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding,” he said at Thursday’s debate.

He also had defended his position on targeting the family of militants, which he first raised in a “FOX and Friends” interview last December. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”

On Friday, however, Trump reversed course.

“I will use every legal power that I have to stop these terrorist enemies,” the statement issued by his campaign said. “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. 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.”

Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty ImagesGeoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images Republican Presidential hopefuls Donald Trump, left, and Ted Cruz spar during the Republican Presidential Debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016.

With an eye on the general election, Trump has also backed off from some of the hardline rhetoric on immigrants that has fueled his presidential campaign, at least for the moment.

“Believe it or not, I’m a unifier,” Trump offered during a raucous rally Friday in suburban Detroit. “We are going to unify our country.”

Republican adversary Ted Cruz wasn’t having it. “Donald is telling us he will betray us on everything he’s campaigned on,” he said as he campaigned in Maine, one of five states voting in weekend primaries and caucuses.

Trump’s apparent outbreak of moderation on several fronts, including the most inflammatory one, immigration, comes after a dominant Super Tuesday performance that extended his reach for the Republican nomination and as GOP establishment figures stepped up to assail him.

In the rollicking Republican debate Thursday night, Trump retreated from a position paper on his website, saying he had swung in favor of more temporary H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers. His stance against that had been one of the few specific policies he had laid out.

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“I’m changing, I’m changing,” he said. “We need highly skilled people in this country.” Hours later, his campaign released a statement backing away from the new position, deepening the sense that Trump’s agenda may be less strategic than improvisational.

Cruz and others lashed out at Trump’s sudden embrace of flexibility on the central issue of his campaign. “Flexible is Washington code word that he’s going to stick it to the people,” Cruz said Friday.

Campaigning in Kansas, rival Marco Rubio said Trump has shown “constant movement” on the issue, a “pattern” the Florida senator says is “disrespectful to voters.”

“He finally took a position on … guest workers coming from abroad, and then as soon as the debate was over he changed back,” Rubio said in Topeka, Kansas. He added, “I think it indicates that this is a person who has spent zero time thinking about public policy.”

– With files from Steve Peoples and Jill Colvin

About Robert Burns, The Associated Press