Right from the start, last Thursday’s Republican presidential debate was a rowdy, vulgar, depressing spectacle. In the opening minutes, Donald Trump assured the (appallingly behaved) audience that there is “no problem” with the size of his, ah, manhood. (This was a reference to Marco Rubio’s campaign-trail joke about Trump’s “small hands.”) Charlotte believes that Trump’s genitalia comment marked “the lowest point in the annals of presidential debates.” It certainly epitomized the coarsening of the GOP race.
For me, the most disturbing moment of the debate came when Trump confirmed to Fox News host Bret Baier that, if elected president, he would indeed order the U.S. military to commit illegal acts, including torture and targeted killings of terrorists’ families.
“What would you do,” Baier asked, “if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?”
“They won’t refuse,” said Trump. “They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.”
In other words, the leading Republican presidential candidate vowed that, as commander-in-chief, he would pressure American servicemen to perpetrate war crimes.
Within 24 hours, however, Trump had reversed course, declaring in a statement to the Wall Street Journal: “I will not order a military officer to disobey the law. It is clear that as president I will be bound by laws just like all Americans and I will meet those responsibilities.” He pledged to “use every legal power that I have to stop these terrorist enemies,” but affirmed that “the United States is bound by laws and treaties and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws and will seek their advice on such matters.”
Then, over the weekend, he adjusted his position once again. Speaking with CBS News host John Dickerson, Trump said he “would like to strengthen the laws” regarding water boarding and torture — that is, he would like to make them less restrictive — so that America could “better compete” with terrorist groups such as ISIS. “It’s very tough to beat enemies that don’t have any, that don’t have any restrictions,” he explained. “We have these massive restrictions. Now, I will always abide by the law, but I would like to have the law expanded.”
Taken together, Trump’s remarks on torture and war crimes raise troubling questions about both his character and his credibility as a presidential candidate. For that matter, he also has a growing credibility gap on immigration, which has heretofore been his signature issue.
During and after last week’s debate, Trump was all over the place on immigration. When asked about his off-the-record interview with the New York Times editorial board — in which Trump reportedly indicated that he would show flexibility on immigration policy — he said he would not release the transcript, but added that his position was “not very flexible.” Okay.
Then Fox News host Megyn Kelly pressed him on high-skilled immigration, noting that the position on Trump’s campaign website is different from the position he took at the CNBC debate back in October. “I’m changing,” Trump told Kelly. “We need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can’t do it, we’ll get them in.” Asked to confirm whether he was “abandoning” his earlier stance, Trump said: “I’m changing it, and I’m softening the position because we have to have talented people in this country.”
Yet right after the debate concluded, Trump put out a statement that suggested his position had not changed:
Megyn Kelly asked about highly-skilled immigration. The H-1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay. I remain totally committed to eliminating rampant, widespread H-1B abuse and ending outrageous practices such as those that occurred at Disney in Florida when Americans were forced to train their foreign replacements. I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.
The distinction between H-1B visas for lower-wage guest workers and green cards for highly skilled immigrants is an important one, and more Republicans should make it. Yet it’s unclear whether Trump appreciates that distinction, or whether his post-debate statement was merely adviser-driven damage control.
It’s also hard to take him seriously as a critic of temporary-visa programs when, in the very same debate, he justified his hiring of H-2B guest workers at the Mar-a-Lago Club by saying that Americans “don’t want part-time, very short part-time jobs,” and that therefore “we have no choice but to do it.” In fact, as the New York Times has reported:
Since 2010, nearly 300 United States residents have applied or been referred for jobs as waiters, waitresses, cooks and housekeepers [at Mar-a-Lago]. But according to federal records, only 17 have been hired.
In all but a handful of cases, Mar-a-Lago sought to fill the jobs with hundreds of foreign guest workers from Romania and other countries.
Given Ted Cruz’s big victories in Kansas and Maine, along with his strong showings in Louisiana and Kentucky, it’s possible that Trump’s comments, behavior, and inconsistencies are (finally) catching up with him. It’s also possible that Cruz’s debate performance provided a real boost to his campaign. We’ll obviously know more about the state of the GOP race after seeing today’s primary and caucus results.