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In First TV Interview, President Trump Says Torture “Absolutely” Works

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During his first televised interview as president, Donald Trump openly embraced torture and waterboarding. “I have spoken, as recently as 24 hours ago, with people at the highest level of intelligence, and I asked them the question: Does it work? Does torture work? And the answer was 'Yes, absolutely,'” Trump said. We speak to Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center.

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

AMY GOODMAN: During the ABC interview on Wednesday that Donald Trump did with David Muir, he asked Trump about torture.

DAVID MUIR: Mr. President, you told me during one of the debates that you would bring back waterboarding—


DAVID MUIR: —”and a hell of a lot worse,” in your words.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I would do—what I would do—I want to keep our country safe. I want to keep our country safe.

DAVID MUIR: What does that mean?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When they’re shooting—when they’re chopping off the heads of our people and other people, when they’re chopping off the heads of people because they happen to be a Christian in the Middle East, when ISIS is doing things that nobody has ever heard of since medieval times, would I feel strongly about waterboarding? As far as I’m concerned, we have to fight fire with fire.

Now, with that being said, I’m going with General Mattis. I’m going with my secretary, because I think Pompeo is going to be phenomenal. I’m going to go with what they say. But I have spoken, as recently as 24 hours ago, with people at the highest level of intelligence, and I asked them the question: Does it work? Does torture work? And the answer was “Yes, absolutely.”

AMY GOODMAN: Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights?

VINCENT WARREN: Do not believe a word that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth, particularly with respect to this issue. There is zero chance that he spoke to high-level officials and they said torture works, because everybody knows that torture doesn’t work, particularly if you’re trying to get actionable, good, reliable information. Now, it might make the president feel better. It might make an angry president that is manufacturing an angry world feel better about his role in it. But it does not work.

And what—but I think what’s the most important piece here is that we are seeing what we saw just after 9/11, where folks will come out and paint this bleak world. They will manufacture facts that will then be the backdrop for what is essentially regressive policies. Torture is illegal under U.S. law. It’s illegal under international law. It does not matter how the president feels about it. It does not matter whether the president is interpreting his generals and his nominees to say, “Yeah, it’s probably a good idea, or at least we should think about it.” There is a blanket prohibition on it, and this country needs to abide by that. So, don’t believe that there is anyone, really, that is rational and sane and has anything to do with intelligence or has any knowledge of the law, that would say torture is a good thing that we should do, because it isn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. On Tuesday, he tweeted, “@POTUS can sign whatever executive orders he likes, but the law is the law–we’re not bringing back torture.” McCain further addressed the issue Wednesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: The executive order is circumscribed by the law that we passed prohibiting the use of torture. And even though the Army Field Manual can be reviewed, it still does not allow to return to the use of torture, including waterboarding. … I’m happy that General Mattis has spoken out against it, as has every—General Petraeus, you name them. Any military leader you respect have said we should not torture people. And I’m very confident that it wouldn’t stand a day in court if they try to restore that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, the group expressing its, well, deep concern over Donald Trump’s agenda.

KENNETH ROTH: Because Guantánamo is now there as an ongoing detention facility, it is an invitation for Trump to start refilling it, which I’m afraid Trump is determined to do. And it’s worth noting that, you know, one thing we expect, either today or later in this week, is an order from Trump to begin exploring or considering—or some kind of word like that—the resumption of CIA dark sites. Now, it’s interesting that this is going to be in an executive order, because these dark sites are supposedly super secret, you know, even though we all know about them. But the order that we’ve—you know, has been reported on, has the kind of obligatory caveat that, of course, we won’t use torture. But, you know, what’s the point of these black sites other than to use torture? That’s why they were created in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: And speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, addressed the issue of the possible executive orders to re-establish black sites, CIA prisons.

MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI: Well, I think that this would be a step backward. And I’m not alone in thinking that, that what he—the path he’s going down is wrong. It is not about our values as a country. And don’t ask me; just ask John McCain and others. Any reverting to that, again, does not support our values, but also endangers our people who are there, whether it’s, from a security standpoint, intelligence community or in the military. So, I just think that it’s wrong, and I hope that he will rethink it, and I hope he will listen to even some Republican leaders on this subject.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi. Vince Warren, should the Obama administration—should President Obama have gone after Bush administration officials involved with torture, actually had people tried, as CCR has tried to do over and over again? Would that have sent a stronger message?

VINCENT WARREN: It would have sent a much stronger message. And yes, President Obama absolutely should have done that. And there is some controversy around the question of should we be pursuing criminal prosecution for high-level Bush officials. But this is an example—one of the things we were saying at the time is that if we just do these things by executive order, if we just do these things by sort of a consensus-based discussion in a particular administration, it doesn’t deter future administrations from bringing torture back. And so that’s what we’re seeing.

Had President Obama sought to hold high-level Bush officials accountable, we would probably—or we might be in a different situation, at least that there would be a broader consensus that what was happening was wrong. And the question was—would be: What role did each individual have in it? It would make a stronger case to push back against President Trump. It’s similar to what we were—what Center for Constitutional Rights has done in the Supreme Court just recently. We had a case earlier in January where we were challenging Bush-level officials for rounding up Muslims in New York right after 9/11. The idea there is that if we can’t rely on the federal government to hold its own lawbreakers accountable, then it really falls to civil society groups, like the Brennan Center and CCR, to try to hold them accountable through any legal means that we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Last comment, Faiza Patel, on where you see this administration going and where you see the possibility, even with these executive orders, presidential memo, as just being a kind of arrows to a roadmap of what the president wants to do, but them being turned back by Congress?

FAIZA PATEL: So I think the president is doing pretty much exactly what he said he would do. I mean, you’ve got to give him credit for that. If you go back and you look at his campaign plan and you look at his campaign pledges, I mean, he’s delivering on what he said he would do. And that’s what makes me really scared, because a lot of people were saying, “Oh, well, he’s not really going to go that far. It’s not going to be that—as bad as you think it is.” And it is as bad as we think it is or as we thought it was going to be.

In terms of congressional action, I have to say, while I’m an optimistic person, I’m not too optimistic on that particular point. Much of what we expect from President Trump is being done under the immigration laws, where the executive traditionally does have fairly broad authority. You know, the other sort of basis for his actions seems to be national security, again another area where the executive is generally granted a fair amount of latitude. So I think we’re going to have to fall back on the courts and civil society together to be pushing back against these very extreme and very unproductive ways of addressing what is a genuine security threat. And I think that we will undoubtedly see litigation—hopefully Vince is ready with the papers soon—to be challenging some of these laws.

And I think that—you know, we are not in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and I think that’s something to remember. The president painted a scary picture of the world. And yes, in some senses, the world is a scary place. But if you look at the United States, you know, the number of terrorist attacks we have in this country, while each one is horrific, is really—does not result—do not result in huge numbers of fatalities. The numbers are quite low, especially compared to when you look at the number of deaths through gun violence. And we have a—we don’t have a terrorism emergency in the homeland that would warrant such an extreme reaction. And I’m hoping that the courts will also be receptive to the fact that this is not—this is not September 12th, OK? This is a long time after September 12th. And that they will see through some of the fluff that’s been put around these executive actions, to get at their true intent, which is nefarious.

AMY GOODMAN: Faiza Patel, I want to thank you for being with us, co-director of the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center. And Vincent Warren, thanks for joining us, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

When we come back, we will look at the immigration executive orders that President Trump has just issued in the last day. Stay with us.

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