Defense hawks on and off Capitol Hill are growing increasingly alarmed at the prospect of Donald Trump as commander in chief.
These mostly Republican hawks say the GOP front-runner’s bombastic remarks about torturing terrorists and killing the family members of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters would violate the Geneva Conventions. And Trump’s vow to “bomb the s---” out of ISIS-controlled oil fields could have unintended consequences, they say.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general, has suggested that U.S. military commanders could simply ignore a President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE if he tried to follow through with some of his campaign promises.
Retiring Rep. Scott RigellScott RigellSpanberger's GOP challenger raises over .8 million in third quarter Ex-Rep. Scott Taylor to seek old Virginia seat GOP rushes to embrace Trump MORE (R-Va.), a Marine Corps Reserve veteran who represents a military-heavy district based in Virginia Beach, penned a scathing letter Tuesday urging fellow Republicans to dump Trump. He warned that the billionaire businessman lacks the “judgment, temperament and character” to be commander in chief.
And Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Air Force Reserve pilot who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, vowed he would disobey Trump’s orders if they violated the law.
“When you say you might have to go after family members of terrorists, when you say torture would be OK even if it doesn’t work — this is the rant of a dictator, not the rant of a guy running for president of the greatest country in the world,” Kinzinger, who had supported Jeb Bush before the former Florida governor dropped his bid in February, told The Hill.
“We have to follow lawful orders, not unlawful orders. If Trump gives an order like he spouts on the campaign trail, just to try to look like Mr. Tough Guy, we just won’t follow them.”
Despite growing doubts from the defense community, Trump has dominated the GOP presidential race through Super Tuesday and appears to have the inside track on the party’s nomination. With zero military experience, he easily dispatched GOP rivals including Bush, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — all of whom served as commander in chief of the National Guard in their states.
In part, Trump has succeeded by being more aggressive than his competitors. His calls to waterboard and torture ISIS fighters and carpet-bomb their cash-generating oil facilities have been met with wild cheers and applause on the campaign trail.
President Obama, Trump says, has simply been too soft on terror.
“I would bomb the s--- out of them,” the celebrity real estate mogul said at a campaign rally last fall. “I would just bomb those suckers. I would blow up the pipes. I would blow up the [refineries]. I would blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.”
A Trump spokesman did not return emails seeking comment for this story.
Top defense leaders on Capitol Hill said they haven’t been paying much attention to the heated campaign rhetoric. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told The Hill he’s been focused on his job leading the powerful House Armed Services Committee, while Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrNC Republican primary key test of Trump's sway The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill Senate votes to end debate on T infrastructure bill MORE (R-N.C.) argued that there’s a rich history of campaigns saying “outlandish things.”
“It’s happened before. It will happen again,” Burr said.
But one Trump remark that’s raised eyebrows among defense hawks is his repeated claim that “torture works.” If he’s elected president, the New York tycoon said he’ll bring back waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques that Obama banned upon taking office in 2009. Torture is also outlawed under the Geneva Conventions, which established how prisoners of war should be treated.
“The idea of bringing back waterboarding and ‘a hell of a lot more,’ was the phrase he used, to me is at odds with the Geneva Conventions. It’s at odds with the lessons learned in the wake of a series of world wars where people said, ‘We’ll never go here again.’ It’s at odds with prisoners of war like John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE,” said GOP Rep. Mark Sanford, a Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails The Memo: Like the dress or not, Ocasio-Cortez is driving the conversation again Ocasio-Cortez defends attendance of Met Gala amid GOP uproar MORE backer who served as governor of the pro-military state of South Carolina.
While he said a bombing campaign against ISIS is something that “deserves further review,” Sanford called Trump “a guy who doesn’t seem to focus on collateral damage” even though that’s what “breeds terrorism.”
During a congressional dinner last week, another South Carolina Republican, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right GOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization MORE, suddenly became somber in the middle of a comedy routine as he turned his attention to Trump.
“I don’t think he understands what makes America great. I know I’m supposed to be funny, but I’m not really happy about where the country is right now,” Graham, a 33-year veteran of the Air Force and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the hundreds of people in the audience. “I could make a million Donald Trump jokes, and I have, but our party and our country is going to have to up its game.”
In recent days, another GOP presidential rival, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right GOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization MORE, has been making the case in interviews and on the campaign trail that America’s national security is at risk if
voters hand Trump the White House.
“He is wholly unprepared to be president of the United States,” Rubio said in an interview with CBS. “We’re about to turn over the conservative movement to a person that has no ideas of any substance on the important issues, the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual.”
Republican defense hawks aren’t alone in attacking Trump — pro-defense Democrats are taking their shots as well.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine Corps veteran who saw combat in Iraq, said Trump’s defense of torture is a reflection of one simple fact: that the reality TV star has never served in the military, let alone the government.
“It just is a very naive view of war that is based mostly on bravado and not on strategic goals,” Gallego, a member of the Armed Services Committee, told The Hill. “It is a clear policy under the Department of Defense that we do not torture, and for any leader or so-called leader to advocate torture is extremely dangerous.”