WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that his defense secretary’s opposition to torture would override his own belief that enhanced interrogation “does work,” quietly giving ground after growing public concern about a return to Bush-era use of waterboarding and other especially harsh procedures.
Trump made his comments at a news conference during which he held firm on another controversy — trade and illegal immigration from Mexico. He said he said had a “very good call” with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto earlier in the day but reaffirmed his belief that Mexico has “out-negotiated and beat us to a pulp” on trade — and that would change.
“We’re no longer going to be the country that doesn’t know what it’s doing,” Trump declared.
Two issues — torture and the U.S.-Mexico relationship — dominated the new president’s brief news conference alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May after their meeting at the White House. That was Trump’s first meeting with a foreign leader after becoming president last Friday.
Since taking office, Trump has signaled a renewed embrace of torture in the fight against Islamic extremism. But he said he would defer to the views of his defense secretary, James Mattis, who has questioned the effectiveness of such practices as waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
“He has stated publicly that he does not necessarily believe in torture or waterboarding, or however you want to define it. … I don’t necessarily agree. But I would tell you that he will override because I’m giving him that power. He’s an expert. He called Mattis a “general’s general” whom he would rely upon.
The focus on torture has been renewed since The Associated Press and other news organizations obtained a copy of a draft executive order that signals sweeping changes to U.S. interrogation and detention policy.
The draft order, which the White House said was not official, also would reverse President Barack Obama’s effort to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — a place Trump has said he wants to fill up “with bad dudes.”
The draft orders up recommendations on whether the U.S. should reopen CIA detention facilities outside the United States. Critics said the clandestine sites have marred America’s image on the world stage.
Later in the day, the president traveled to the Pentagon, where he was sign a trio of executive actions, including one to halve the flow of refugees into the United Sates and stop all entries from some majority-Muslim nations. He also was to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and attend a ceremonial swearing-in for Mattis.
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