Top Trump Officials Find Themselves at Odds With President Over Draft Torture Order

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President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis at the 58th Presidential Inauguration parade in Washington, January 20, 2017.
President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis at the 58th Presidential Inauguration parade in Washington, January 20, 2017.Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Senior officials in the Trump administration were surprised to find out through the media that the President was considering allowing the use torture in investigations, according to reports that came out on Wednesday evening. Politico reported that Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo were "blindsided" and "stunned" to learn that Trump's aides were drafting an executive order that would require the CIA to reexamine the use of torture techniques that haven't been implemented in recent years. 

Yahoo News also reported that Pompeo, who had expressed his opposition to the use of torture during his confirmation hearings, "was never consulted" about the draft executive order that would open the door for torturing detainees who are suspected of terror connections. According to Yahoo, the CIA director first found out about the impending text after it was published on Wednesday by The New York Times. 

Pompeo spoke out forcefully against the use of torture during his confirmation hearings. On January 12, he was asked by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) if he would approve the use of torture if confirmed as CIA director. "Absolutely not," Pompeo replied. "Moreover, I can’t imagine I would be asked [to do that]." This reply was one of the reasons that 15 Senate Democrats, among them Feinstein and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), eventually voted in favor of his appointment. 

Mattis, for his part, told Trump at their first meeting shortly after the election that he opposes torture techniques like waterboarding, and that he believes they are not effective. Trump said at the time that he was surprised to hear this from Mattis, who as a general in the United States Army earned himself the nickname "Mad Dog" for his toughness and combative approach. The New York Times published a story in early January chronicling Mattis' years-long efforts to end the use of torture by U.S. forces.

If the Trump administration moves forward with the proposed executive order, both Mattis and Pompeo would face a difficult situation in which they would have to fulfill a presidential order they vehemently opposed and saw as possibly illegal. On Wednedsay, Senators from both sides of the aisle signaled that they would oppose any attempts to impose such a policy on the defense and intelligence communities.

"The President can sign whatever executive orders he likes, but the law is law," said veteran Republican Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is famous for having endured torture while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) said he intends "to hold nominees, including Director Pompeo and Secretary Mattis, to their sworn testimony to follow the law banning the use of enhanced interrogation techniques." Warner is the senior Democrat on the Senate's Intelligence Committee. 

Two former officials, who had worked with Mattis in his previous role in the military, told Haaretz that they believed he would do everything in his power to convince Trump not to go along with such directives. "He is not the kind of person who would just accept this silently," one of them explained. Trump could also face internal opposition from Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who is also a former general. During his own confirmation hearing, Kelly spoke against the use of torture, saying: "I don't think we should ever come close to crossing a line that is beyond what we as Americans would expect to follow in terms of interrogation techniques." 

The president addressed torture in an interview with ABC News, stating that he "absolutely" believes torture is efficient and that he had heard so explicitly from people he spoke to within the CIA. Trump made similar comments about torture, and waterboarding in particular, during the election. Last night, however, he added that despite his belief that torture was efficient, he would ultimately defer on this issue to Mattis and Pompeo. Whatever Trump eventually does, it seems like Mattis, Pompeo and Kelly could find themselves clashing with members of Trump's White House staff over the matter.

Torture was only one of the issues on which Mattis and Pompeo took a different position than Trump during their confirmation hearings. Both of them offered a tougher line on Russia, describing it as a major threat to the United States and expressing full support in the intelligence community's assessments on the Russian interference in the last U.S. election. Mattis also created headlines by stating that despite the Trump administration's intentions to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he officially remains loyal to the current American policy, which doesn't recognize Jerusalem as the Jewish state's capital. As far as he's concerned, he said, the Israeli capital is Tel Aviv.

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