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Donald Trump backpedals on torture: Sign of a tactical shift?

Donald Trump's about-face on torture may be indicative of an emerging 'flexibility' on issues as the current primary frontrunner prepares for a general election in November. 

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    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds up a copy of The Economist during a campaign stop, Saturday, March 5, 2016, in Wichita, Kan.,
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A week that began with GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump calling himself a “unifying force” ended on Friday with Mr. Trump backing down from his insistence that, as president, he would order US military personnel to torture terrorist suspects.

As late as Thursday, Trump said that the Pentagon would follow his orders. Less than a day later, the New York billionaire told the Wall Street Journal that, if elected commander-in-chief, “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.”

The about-face is part of an emerging “flexibility” on Trump’s part as the current primary frontrunner surveys a general election landscape where his campaign would face major obstacles from Democrats, young people, and even many Republicans. Observers noted several instances this week where Trump shifted his tone to come off as less bombastic and, ultimately, more presidential.

"It remains to be seen whether an uneven debate performance on Thursday night, when his tendency to shift his positions was highlighted, will erode Mr. Trump’s support," writes Alan Rappeport in the New York Times.

Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist, told The Christian Science Monitor this week that he has noticed Trump tempering the “loud language” that has won him points for honesty and trustworthiness among many conservatives and independents.

That shift, Mr. Saunders notes, suggests a pivot toward a general election which Trump is likely to approach in “a hybrid politically correct/incorrect manner. He went hybrid [after his Super Tuesday] victories: He didn’t jump on anyone, he didn’t [insult] the press, he called himself a unifying force.”

Trump may be looking more seriously at how to build a broader coalition should he emerge the Republican party nominee.

While he has surprised many in the political world with his appeal and staying power, his core constituency remains narrow. He remains intensely polarizing within the Republican party: Trump is the top choice of 37 percent of Republicans but he's also ranked last by 22 percent of GOP primary voters. 

As of March 1, Rasmussen Reports had Trump trailing Hillary Clinton in a general election match up by five percentage points.

What’s more, although Trump helped to raise GOP turnout significantly on Super Tuesday compared with 2012, Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz says that the spike included Republicans trying to ensure he doesn’t get the nomination. And while Trump has bragged about his crossover appeal to Democrats and independents, exit polls suggested that the bulk of voters on Super Tuesday were traditional primary voters – not fresh faces.

“He’s not bringing in a whole bunch of working class voters as a proportion to the electorate, and when he keeps claiming that Democrats are coming over to vote for him, that’s not true, either,” says Mr. Abramowitz.

To be sure, Trump’s decision to flip-flop on his torture stance has irked some conservatives. But at least for now, the decision to adjust his stronger stances likely doesn’t carry much political risk. Five states hold primaries and caucuses on Saturday, and Trump leads the polls in all of them.

Changing his position on torture “isn’t flexibility … it’s abandoning a position he insisted he would never change,” writes Rick Moran on the American Thinker blog. “In recent days, Trump is showing signs of similar ‘flexibility’ on other issues like illegal immigration, the ‘wall,’ and Muslim refugees. But since many of his supporters don’t pay attention to day to day politics, it won’t hurt him with his core constituency.”

Trump’s torture assertions are part of a broader complaint against his candidacy – that he is fomenting authoritarian rule. After all, torture is against both US and international law. After 9/11, the US engaged in years of soul-searching over the legal definition of torture, and endured cruel and embarrassing images of prisoners mistreated at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

Trump had insisted as late as the last debate this week that he would not hesitate to order the military to carry out harsh treatment against terrorist suspects. “I’ve always been a leader,” he said Thursday. “I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”

But a bevy of military leaders have called Trump out on his stance, saying such a policy would make military personnel vulnerable to prosecution. Former CIA director Michael Hayden went further this past week when he said that the US military would flat out refuse to torture suspects or kill their family members, as Trump at one point warned he would do as President.

In his statement to the Wall Street Journal on Friday, Trump said, “I will use every legal power that I have to stop these terrorist enemies. I do, however, understand 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.”

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