The Slatest

The Prison at Guantanamo Bay Was Going to Stay Open Whether Trump Demanded It or Not

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA - OCTOBER 23: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.) A guard tower stands at the entrance of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, also known as 'Gitmo' on October 23, 2016 at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. military's Joint Task Force Guantanamo is still holding 60 detainees at the prison, down from a previous total of 780. In 2008 President Obama issued an executive order to close the prison, which has failed because of political opposition in the U.S.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
A guard tower at the entrance of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. John Moore/Getty Images

In his State of the Union address, President Trump announced that he had “just signed an order directing Secretary Mattis to re-examine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.”

This could mean a lot, or absolutely nothing.

President Obama, of course, signed an executive order immediately after taking office in 2009, ordering the closure of the detention facility, but it remains open, home to 41 detainees. Twenty-six of those are held in indefinite law of war detention and not recommended for transfer. The facility wasn’t going to be shut down any time soon.


Trump pledged on the campaign trail to load up Guantanamo with “bad dudes,” but no new detainees have been sent there since he took office. Trump did publicly mull sending New York City attacker Sayfullo Saipov to Gitmo, but then decided against it, or was at least talked out of it. The Trump administration has also not taken any steps to release any detainees from Guantanamo, including five men who have been recommended for transfer by multiple government agencies.


The executive order signed on Tuesday rescinds Obama’s order closing the base and states that the U.S. “may transport additional detainees to U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay when lawful and necessary to protect the Nation.” It also gives the secretary of defense 90 days to “recommend policies to the President regarding the disposition of individuals captured in connection with an armed conflict.”


Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has generally suggested that current U.S. detainee policies are fine. It was he who famously talked Trump out of reinstating the torture of terrorist detainees.

In December, Mattis became the first secretary of defense to visit Guantanamo since Donald Rumsfeld in 2002. But he didn’t visit the detention facility on the base or discuss detainee policy, instead emphasizing Guantanamo’s importance for humanitarian relief efforts and other naval activities. He’s spoken little about detainee policy during his first year in office.

Whether new detainees arrive in Guantanamo now appears to be largely up to “Mad Dog” Mattis, one of the few Cabinet officials whom Trump seems to generally defer to. As for those already there, they aren’t leaving any time soon. This shameful, costly, and unconstitutional chapter of the war on terrorism isn’t ending under Trump’s presidency, and barring some unforeseen change, may not end until the last of the “not recommended for transfer” detainees dies in Cuba.

Read more in Slate about the State of the Union.