As President Donald Trump launches airstrikes against Syrian airfields, opening the possibility of further conflict in the Middle East — it’s worth pausing to recall his campaign promises to commit war crimes.
On the campaign trail in November 2015, then-candidate Trump said he would approve the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture to punish suspected terrorists. “Would I approve waterboarding?” Trump told a cheering crowd. “You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. I would approve more than that. It works — and if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us.”
Trump then threatened in December 2015 to kill the families of suspected terrorists, and to conduct warfare otherwise would be “fighting a very politically correct war.”
He doubled down on those remarks later that month during a Republican presidential debate, after a college student asked whether his threats would violate the Geneva Conventions — which prohibit the deliberate targeting of non-combatants. “I would be very, very firm with families,” Trump said. “They may not care much about their lives (but) they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.”
He again vowed to “bring back waterboarding” during a GOP debate in March 2016, and he threatened to go beyond the illegal torture practice. “I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” Trump said. “In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians. They’re Medieval times. I mean, we studied Medieval times. Not since Medieval times have people seen what’s going on.”
Trump insisted a few weeks later that he would not order military personnel to commit war crimes, saying he understood the president was bound by law — but he then boasted that military leaders would be forced to obey his commands. “I’ve always been a leader,” he said. “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.”
In his first presidential interview, Trump strongly backed the use of torture, which he believes “absolutely” works as a method to gain intelligence. “I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence, and I asked them the question, ‘Does it work? Does torture work?'” Trump said in January. “And the answer was, “Yes, absolutely.” Experts disagree, however, and torture is banned under international law.
The day after his inauguration, Trump told a gathering of CIA agents that the U.S. should have kept Iraq’s oil after invading the country and toppling Saddam Hussein — which would be prohibited under the Hague Conventions. He told a group of airline industry leaders the same thing a couple of week later. “We’ve spent $6 trillion in the Middle East,” Trump said. “We have nothing, and we have an obsolete plane system, obsolete airports, obsolete trains, we have bad roads. We’re going to change all of that folks. You’re going to be so happy with Trump. I think you already are.”
It’s not clear why, but Amnesty International officials believe the sharp increase suggests the Trump-led military coalition has not taken adequate steps to protect the lives of civilians during airstrikes.