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Donald Trump Wants to Commit War Crimes and Neocons Still Think He’s Too Moderate

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Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s campaign has come under fire from high-level military officials, including former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who has said if Trump were elected president, it is possible U.S. military officials would refuse to follow his orders. Trump has pledged to reinstate forms of torture, including waterboarding, and other practices he said were “so much worse.” He has also repeatedly called for killing the family members of terrorists—a practice that violates the Geneva Conventions. We speak with Zaid Jilani, staff reporter at The Intercept, who argues the pledges Trump made about torture are “flatly illegal,” but past presidents have also disobeyed and disavowed international law. His new article is “Neoconservatives Declare War on Donald Trump.” We also speak with Mychal Denzel Smith, Knobler fellow at The Nation Institute and a contributing writer for The Nation magazine.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. This is the biggest primary caucus day of the year, of this presidential campaign. Democrats and Republicans each will vote in 11 states. Democrats will also vote in American Samoa. We’re talking about Donald Trump in this presidential election. Last year, he faced criticism after a town hall in New Hampshire when, during a Q&A, one of his supporters stood up and said President Obama is a Muslim and not even an American, and asked when the United States could get rid of Muslims.

DONALD TRUMP: OK, this man. I like this guy.

TRUMP SUPPORTER: I’m from White Plains. Amen, OK? We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one.


TRUMP SUPPORTER: You know he’s not even an American. Birth certificate, man.

DONALD TRUMP: We need this question; this is the first question.

TRUMP SUPPORTER: But anyway, we have training camps brewing where they want to kill us.


TRUMP SUPPORTER: That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?

DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things. And, you know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Mychal Denzel Smith of The Nation, and, as well, we’re bringing into the conversation Zaid Jilani, a staff reporter at The Intercept whose new piece is headlined “Neoconservatives Declare War on Donald Trump.”

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Zaid, talk about what exactly—who you’re referring to and what it means to declare war on Trump.

ZAID JILANI: Well, there’s definitely a faction of the Republican Party who has basically held, you know, the foreign policy of the party hostage for, I’d say, maybe at least 15 or 20 years. I mean, we’re not talking about the realists that were—the realists that were in charge under the George H.W. Bush administration or the Reagan administration. Instead, we’re talking about folks that came in under George W. Bush—you know, the Elliott Abrams, the Dick Cheneys of the world, the Paul Wolfowitzes and Donald Rumsfelds of the world. And, you know, these folks, they just don’t trust Trump. I mean, Trump denounced the Iraq War as a mistake, as actually a war based on lies, right before the South Carolina debate. And yet he was—you know, he won that primary. He won it, actually, resoundingly. And then, you know, at another point, he declared that the United States should be neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a position that would go in line with sort of the old mainline, realist Republicans, but certainly doesn’t have a place in the current Republican Party. He was denounced angrily by Rubio and Cruz. And apparently it has done nothing on his approval ratings and has done nothing on his electability.

So it’s not surprising now that we see a lot of sort of mainline neocons, people like Robert Kagan, Max Boot—we saw the Emergency Committee for Israel start running ads against Donald Trump—and a lot of big neocon funders, like Paul Singer, who was mentioned in your intro piece, one of the vulture funders—a lot of them are pouring money into Marco Rubio’s campaign, pouring money into attacking Donald Trump. And it’s really not doing that much. And it really raises the question: Do Republican voters really want a really angry, bellicose, militaristic foreign policy? You know, are they as extreme in that arena as portrayed? And the answer is that they may actually not be. You know, it may be that Donald Trump, on this one issue, happens to be more moderate than the rest of the elected officials in his party and that voters are rewarding that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you know, Zaid, it was interesting in South Carolina, a state that really adores George W. Bush and who stumped for his brother, Jeb Bush, who was in the South Carolina race, when, in that Republican debate in Greenville last month, Trump denounced the Iraq War, calling it “a big, fat mistake.”

DONALD TRUMP: The war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right? Now, you can take it anywhere you want. It took Jeb—it took Jeb Bush, if you remember, at the beginning of his announcement, when he announced for president, took him five days. He went back. It was a mistake, it wasn’t a mistake. Took him five days before his people told him what to say. And he ultimately said it was a mistake. The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives. We don’t even have it. Iran is taking over Iraq, with the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Obviously, it was a mistake.


DONALD TRUMP: George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is an ad, produced by the Emergency Committee for Israel, which alleges Trump supports dictators. The ad started airing this weekend.

JAKE TAPPER: The world would be better off with Saddam Hussein—

DONALD TRUMP: Hundred percent.

JAKE TAPPER: —and Gaddafi in power?

DONALD TRUMP: A hundred percent. … I’m looking at Assad and saying maybe he’s better than the kind of people that we’re supposed to be backing. … And I think Russia can be a positive force and an ally. … But, you know, whether you like Saddam Hussein or not, he used to kill terrorists.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was an ad from the Emergency Committee for Israel. So, Zaid Jilani, continue to talk. And what is the Emergency Committee for Israel?

ZAID JILANI: Well, the Emergency Committee for Israel was formed under the first term of the Obama administration, basically by a group of neoconservatives. You know, Bill Kristol is on their board. Their funding is secret. It’s a dark money group; it’s a 501(c)(4) group. So we don’t know exactly who funds it. But we do have some knowledge that a number of hedge funders, pro-Israel folks are behind it. And basically, the group was formed to punish people who they view as insufficiently pro-Israel. You know, they went after very—they went very aggressively after Representative Walter Jones, who famously coined the phrase “freedom fries” but later turned against the war and is actually a very good antiwar congressman today. And I think now they’re going after Trump for the same reason. They just don’t trust Trump. They’re not thinking that Trump is on board the idea that, hey, everything Israel does is perfect, that he will, you know, maybe, perhaps, threaten war with Iran, that he will intervene in Syria. They just don’t trust him to do any of those things, because he’s talking a lot of ideas that right now are just not—outside the neoconservative orthodoxy.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Michael Hayden, comments made about Donald Trump by the former NSA and CIA director, General Michael Hayden. He was speaking Saturday on HBO’s Bill Maher.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: I would be incredibly concerned if a President Trump governed in a way that was consistent with the language that candidate Trump expressed during the campaign. … “We’re going to do waterboarding and a whole lot more, because they deserve it.” … Let me give you a punch line. All right? If he were to order that, once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act.

BILL MAHER: What? Oh, well, that’s—that’s quite a statement, sir.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: It’s a violation—

BILL MAHER: I thought the whole thing was, you have to follow orders.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: You cannot—you are not committed. You’re not required.


MICHAEL HAYDEN: In fact, you’re required not to follow an unlawful order.


MICHAEL HAYDEN: That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Zaid Jilani, were you surprised by Michael Hayden’s comments?

ZAID JILANI: Well, I mean, let’s be clear here: The Bush administration did order waterboarding, and they did—and a number of things that were illegal, and, you know, the military and the intelligence apparatuses did follow those orders. So, you know, perhaps it’s a matter of Trump is sort of more obnoxious in his rhetoric, he’s more obnoxious sort of in his personality—there’s no doubt about that. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Hayden believes that, you know, the apparatus wouldn’t obey the orders under him. But, I mean, I think that we should be very clear here, that people are trying to pin a lot of things on Trump that, honestly, have become a big part of the Republican Party over the past 15 or 20 years. We had lots of candidates who wouldn’t categorically disavow waterboarding, including Ted Cruz, you know, who—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, actually, we have the New Hampshire debate. This was what Donald Trump had to say about waterboarding.

DONALD TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you what. In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians. We have people chopping the heads off many other people. We have things that we have never seen before—as a group, we have never seen before what’s happening right now. The medieval times—I mean, we studied medieval times. Not since medieval times have people seen what’s going on. I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was Donald Trump in an earlier debate. Zaid Jilani?

ZAID JILANI: Well, you know, obviously, he can’t do that. I mean, the pledges that he’s making are obviously flatly illegal. You know, it may be that he’s trying to get these applause lines out before an audience that apparently doesn’t understand that the United States cannot torture, that there are both international and domestic laws that are against torture, and particularly waterboarding. And I don’t know what he would be referring to when he says “worse.”

AMY GOODMAN: It didn’t stop President Bush. We don’t—

ZAID JILANI: Well, and I think—and I think that’s—

AMY GOODMAN: We don’t know what happens at black sites, so it does matter what a president’s view is.

ZAID JILANI: Well, and I think that’s the wider problem, is that we’ve already had a president who basically disobeyed international law and disavowed international law on this issue. And the question is, with the president that comes after Obama, if they’re going to roll this back and if they are going to start utilizing waterboarding and other forms of torture. And that could be Marco Rubio, and it could be Ted Cruz, as well. You know, there have been a number of people in the Republican Party who have flatly refused to disavow this practice.

AMY GOODMAN: I think most all of them did. But, Mychal Denzel Smith, how do you mesh what he is saying here in foreign policy with his views at home around the Ku Klux Klan, around building a wall, around Mexicans as rapists and murderers, around banning Muslims from coming into the country?

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Yeah, so, the idea that he’s still appealing to an electorate, even though he seems more moderate on foreign policy, based on the mainstream Republican ideology, is because he still appeals to that racist base. Right? He’s hitting all of the right notes. He’s talking about waterboarding, but he’s not just talking about waterboarding, he’s talking about waterboarding specifically Muslims, our most recently racialized group. He’s talking about banning Muslims from entering into the country.

And he doesn’t—like Zaid is saying, he doesn’t fit too far outside of what a Marco Rubio or a Ted Cruz represents in that realm. The problem here is Trump’s rhetoric. It is that it is so vile and that it is reinvigorating the idea of racism as a legitimate political ideology that we should take seriously and that should be a part of our body politic. It was going away from the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater and Ronald Reagan and sort of the coded language, and now we’re laying it all bear. Trump is throwing the veil off. He’s using the exact language that I think a lot of these Republican candidates wish they could use, but because they’ve been trained to be more savvy politicians and appeal to that base without explicitly doing it, they haven’t been. But now Trump is here and saying all of the things that they’ve wished they could have said for years. That’s why the rise of the tea party was such a phenomenon, was because they were saying, “We don’t want to hide this anymore. We would like to essentially be the people that we are, and that is racist.” And so, the frightening thing is that Donald Trump has opened up this space in which now we’re having a conversation not just on the merits of the politics, but on the rhetoric and what he represents in terms of a regression for the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, and I want to thank you both for being with us. Mychal Denzel Smith writes for The Nation. His latest piece, “Trump’s Racism Didn’t Scare Me. Now It Does.” And Zaid Jilani, who writes for The Intercept, joining us from Washington, we’ll link to your piece, “Neoconservatives Declare War on Donald Trump.”

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