As a retired military officer, I watched last night's Republican debate from Detroit (transcript here) with a special focus on which candidate is qualified to lead the military as commander-in-chief. I knew, of course, that Donald Trump had promised in the past to use torture against America's enemies (last night, he called them "animals"), that he would pursue and kill not only terrorists but their families (apparently because the families always know, according to Trump, what their father/brother/sister is up to, as if there are no secrets in families). Trump, in short, is an Old Testament "eye for an eye" man: if they behead us, we'll torture and kill them, end of story.
But Trump was put on the spot when he was asked what he would do if the U.S. military failed to carry out his unlawful orders. Instead of saying he wouldn't issue unlawful orders, that he would support and defend the U.S. Constitution, which as president would be his sworn duty to uphold, Trump boasted that the military would follow his orders no matter what.
America: those are the words of a dictator.
Here's what was said:
BAIER: Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists' families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they've been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders.
So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?
TRUMP: They won't refuse. They're not going to refuse me. Believe me.
BAIER: But they're illegal.
TRUMP: 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.
Our military does not follow blindly orders issued by "The Leader." Our military swears an oath to the Constitution. We swear to uphold the law of the land. We don't swear allegiance to a single man (or woman) as president.
Trump's performance last night reminded me of Richard Nixon's infamous answer to David Frost about Watergate: "When the president does it, that means it's not illegal." No, no, a thousand times no. The president has to obey the law of the land, just as everyone else has to. No person is above the law, an American ideal that Trump seems neither to understand nor to embrace.
And that disqualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief.
A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, William Astore blogs at Bracing Views.