There’s a notion out there that, after talking with Gen. James Mattis, who might be the next secretary of defense, President-elect Donald Trump is suddenly opposed to waterboarding. In fact, this isn’t true at all.
The notion arose from a story in the New York Times about Trump’s hourlong meeting on Tuesday with the paper’s editors and reporters. The story stated:
On the issue of torture, Mr. Trump suggested he had changed his mind about the value of waterboarding after talking with Gen. James N. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general…
“He said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’” Mr. Trump said. He added that Mr. Mattis found more value in building trust and rewarding cooperation with terrorism suspects: “‘Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better.’”
“I was very impressed by that answer,” Mr. Trump said.
Torture, he said, is “not going to make the kind of difference that a lot of people are thinking.”
However, the full transcript of the session, which the Times published on its website, reveals a different bottom line. Trump is quoted as telling the same story about Mattis, adding, “I was surprised [by his answer], because he’s known as being like the toughest guy.”
But Trump then goes on, “And when he said that, I’m not saying it changed my mind.” (Italics added.) Let me repeat that: Contrary to the Times’ own news story, it is not the case that “Mr. Trump suggested he had changed his mind about the value of waterboarding.” In fact, he explicitly said the opposite. Right after that point in the transcript, a Times editor adds the following, in parentheses and italics: “(Earlier, we mistakenly transcribed ‘changed my mind.’)” Hence the misreporting and the as-yet largely unrecognized misunderstanding.
Trump goes on in the transcript: “Look we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we’re not allowed to waterboard. But I’ll tell you what, I was impressed by that answer. It certainly does not—it’s not going to make the kind of difference that maybe a lot of people think. If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that. But Gen. Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say.”
In short, Mattis exposed Trump to a different view of torture—a view, by the way, that most American generals and admirals hold. And, especially if he does appoint Mattis to his Cabinet, he might open himself to that view in making policy. However, Trump has not changed his mind on torture—which, since he enthusiastically supported it during the campaign, means he still supports it now.