Is there a luckier politician in America than Donald Trump? Just as he starts to lose some altitude in the race, having to face a certain deluge of media scrutiny all day Sunday and Monday in the wake of the Super Saturday Ted Cruz boomlet, former first lady Nancy Reagan dies, suppressing the coverage of the presidential race and halting the momentum of the growing narrative of Trump weakening. He didn't plan this, of course, but it's a testament to his good luck and timing that it happened when it did. He needed something to change the coverage and this did very nicely.
On Saturday night, Trump had given one of the most desultory victory speeches of his short political career. He'd won Louisiana but lost the caucuses in Kansas and Maine to Ted Cruz and had a close call in Kentucky. Compared to the glorious win on Super Tuesday it wasn't much to brag about. But then a lot had happened in the meantime.
The establishment had sent out Mitt Romney to make a stirring speech apparently designed to keep everyone in the race long enough to deny Trump the needed delegate count going into the convention. (Romney seems to think it will be acceptable to the Republican rank and file for a candidate who didn't win the most delegates to get the nomination. Has he met any Trump voters?)
Trump didn't seem particularly phased by Romney's cri de guerre but it was clear that Marco Rubio's suicidal decision to roll around in the mud with Trump had left some marks. That comment about his "small hands" particularly got under his skin and he couldn't leave it alone when he debated Rubio, Cruz and Kasich on Thursday night on Fox.
Before a national audience Trump raised up his hands and said:
I have to say this, I have to say this. He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands. I have never heard of this. Look at those hands. Are they small hands? And he referred to my hands, if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee.
CNN's headline was "Donald Trump defends size of his penis." Later in the spin room he could be seen comparing the size of his hands with reporters in the room.
It was not a good night for Trump. Actually, it was a bad night for all the candidates. Rubio is permanently scarred by his decision to try to out-Trump Trump with insults, since it made him seem like a nasty teenager, which was the last thing the callow candidate needed. And Cruz was ... Cruz, unfortunately battling something unpleasant looking on his lip (which he ate) that made half the people in the country google "what that thing on Cruz's lip?" Kasich recited his resume in answer to every question failing somehow to recognize that nobody in the Republican party gives a damn.
But Trump fared the worst, coming in for the kind of scrutiny he hasn't faced before. And there was one answer that seemed to shock the moderators and the audience alike. Moderator Brett Baier noted that a number of foreign policy experts had written a letter that week saying that his "expansive use of torture" and the targeting of terrorists families is inexcusable and asked what he would do if the military refused to carry out such illegal orders. Trump replied:
TRUMP: They won't refuse. They're not going to refuse me. Believe me.
Let me just tell you, you look at the Middle East. They're chopping off heads. They're chopping off the heads of Christians and anybody else that happens to be in the way. They're drowning people in steel cages. And he -- now we're talking about waterboarding.
This really started with Ted, a question was asked of Ted last -- two debates ago about waterboarding. And Ted was, you know, having a hard time with that question, to be totally honest with you. They then came to me, what do you think of waterboarding? I said it's fine. And if we want to go stronger, I'd go stronger, too, because, frankly...
... that's the way I feel. Can you imagine -- can you imagine these people, these animals over in the Middle East, that chop off heads, sitting around talking and seeing that we're having a hard problem with waterboarding? We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding. That's my opinion.
BAIER: But targeting terrorists' families?
TRUMP: And -- and -- and -- I'm a leader. I'm a leader. I've always been a leader. I've never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they're going to do it. That's what leadership is all about.
BAIER: Even targeting terrorists' families?
TRUMP: Well, look, you know, when a family flies into the World Trade Center, a man flies into the World Trade Center, and his family gets sent back to where they were going -- and I think most of you know where they went -- and, by the way, it wasn't Iraq -- but they went back to a certain territory, they knew what was happening. The wife knew exactly what was happening.
They left two days early, with respect to the World Trade Center, and they went back to where they went, and they watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center, flying into the Pentagon, and probably trying to fly into the White House, except we had some very, very brave souls on that third plane. All right?
It's worth pointing out that Trump was saying these things long before the debate with Ted Cruz. He'd first answered the question the same way back on August on "This Week." After Paris and San Bernardino he added it into the stump speech with ever more lurid details:
Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I’d approve it, you bet your ass — in a heartbeat.
“And I would approve more than that. Don’t kid yourself, folks. It works, okay? It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.They’ll say, ‘oh it has no value’, well I know people, very, very important people and they want to be politically correct and I see some people taking on television, ‘well I don’t know if it works’ and they tell me later on, ‘it works, it works, believe me, it works’.
“And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they’re doing to us.”
When Trump called Cruz a pussy at a rally in Manchester, NH, it was because Cruz failed to enthusiastically endorse this form of torture in a debate. (In fact, Cruz cited the notorious John Yoo memo as justification for waterboarding in that debate, claiming that it isn't torture at all.) Trump believes that it is torture and that the United States should openly use it and admit to using it. In his view, the reason people do bad things in this world is because the United States is not "strong" enough, by which he means ruthlessly violent enough.
But really, why shouldn't Donald Trump believe this? The former Vice President of the United States goes on television and says he'd waterboard again "in a heartbeat," and claims that the decision to use it is "a no-brainer." And the likes of former CIA Director Michael Hayden getting on a high horse and superciliously telling Trump that he'd have to "bring his own bucket" if he planned to waterboard is especially rich considering his previous stances on the subject of torture. All these "foreign policy experts" acting shocked is just a little too little, a little too late. The cheering you hear from Trump's crowds whenever he talks about waterboarding shows just how normalized this sick behavior has become. Perhaps if some of these people had spoken up earlier ... or better yet, if some of them had not been complicit in doing it in the first place, Trump wouldn't think it's acceptable to b lithely cheer lead for barbarity on on the campaign trail.
Interestingly, the day after the debate, "someone" (we don't know who) apparently had a little chat with the Donald over his assertion that he could make the military obey an illegal order. (It would be very interesting to know the backstory on that.) He released a very un-Trumplike statement to the Wall Street Journal that sounded as if it had been dictated to him at gunpoint. He said that he understands "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.”
That would be a relief if we didn't already know that all it takes is for any president to seek a legal opinion from a hand picked war criminal inside your own administration. Still, this was probably done for the sake of diplomats, members of the military and others who have to deal with foreign governments who might not understand that we now stage our presidential campaigns like fake TV wrestling matches and they needn't start to plan just yet for the total collapse of the current world order.
But lest anyone think that Trump has lost his mojo, he made clear in his press conference that he thought this whole "bound by laws" thing is ridiculous. And he came on "Face the Nation" on Sunday morning to make it very clear where he stands:
JOHN DICKERSON (HOST): Let me ask you about your position on torture. When you and I talked last week you said that General Hayden was wrong when he said that military wouldn't follow you on the question of waterboarding and on the killing of terrorist families. In the debate you said "If I say do it, they are going to do it." You were talking about the military. Then on Friday you said, "I will not order our military to violate those laws." So what changed?
DONALD TRUMP: You never asked me about violating laws, in all fairness, we're talking about violating laws. I would say this, look. We have an enemy in the Middle East that's chopping off heads and drowning people in massive steel cages, ok? We have an enemy that doesn't play by the laws, you can say laws and they're laughing-- they're laughing at us right now. I would like to strengthen the laws so that we can better compete. You know, it's very tough to beat enemies that don't have any, that don't have any restrictions, all right? We have these massive restrictions. Now I will always abide by the law but I would like to have the law expanded. I would like to make --
TRUMP: Well, I'd like to -- I happen to think that when you're fighting an enemy that chops off heads, I happen to think that we should use something that is stronger than we have right now. Right now basically waterboarding is essentially not allowed as I understand it.
DICKERSON: And you would like it to be, if you could expand it.
TRUMP: I would certainly like it to be at a minimum -- at a minimum to allow that.
DICKERSON: Why do you think we don't have those -- why do you think we don't have waterboarding?
TRUMP: Because I think we have become very weak and ineffective, I think that's why we're not beating ISIS, it's that mentality.
DICKERSON: But you think people got rid of the law to be weak?
TRUMP: No. I think that we are weak. I think we're weak. We cannot beat ISIS. We should beat ISIS very quickly. General Patton would've had ISIS down in about three days. General Douglas McArthur -- we are playing by a different set of rules. We are -- let me just put it differently. When the ISIS people chop off the heads and they then go back to their homes and they talk, and they hear we're talking about waterboarding like it's the worst thing in the world and they've just drowned a hundred people and chopped off fifty heads, they must think we are a little bit on the weak side.
DICKERSON: The reason that waterboarding was -- a number of reasons, but one of them was because the worry was that if America does that then our soldiers, American hostages, will be treated even worse. That's the argument. What do you think of that argument?
TRUMP: They're doing that anyway. They're killing our soldiers when they capture them. I mean, they're doing that anyway. Now, if that were the case, in other words we won't do it and you don't do it, but we're not playing by those rules, they're not -- what, did somebody tell ISIS, look, we're going to treat your guys well would you please do us favor treat our guys well? They don't do that. We're not playing by -- we are playing by rules but they have no rules. It's very hard to win when that's the case.
DICKERSON: Isn't that what separates us from the savages?
TRUMP: No, I don't think so, we have to beat the savages.
DICKERSON: And therefore throw all the rules out.
TRUMP: We have to beat the savages.
DICKERSON: By being savages.
TRUMP: No, well -- Look, you have to play the game the way they're playing the game. You're not going to win if we are soft and they are -- they have no rules. Now I want to stay within the laws, I want to do all of that, but I think we have to increase the laws because the laws are not working obviously. All you have to do is take a look at what's going on. And they're getting worse. They're chopping, chopping, chopping, and we're worried about waterboarding. I just think it's -- I think our priorities are mixed up.
Once again, Donald Trump is simply eliminating the dogwhistle that other politicians have been using for years. When Dick Cheney euphemistically said it was "time to take the gloves off" it was understood he was talking about abandoning norms about civilized behavior that had been in force for decades. Torture was long known to be an unreliable way of obtaining information and the Bush administration's program did nothing to disprove that. It's only good for one thing -- conveying to the world that you are as savage as your enemies.
Trump has just stopped being "politically correct" and admits it out loud. If he keeps it up he might just snag his biggest endorsement yet: Dick Cheney himself.