Republican candidate Trump reverses stance on torture

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump softened his stance on torture on Friday, saying he would not order the U.S. military to break international laws on how to treat terrorism suspects, as the top U.S. military commander was asked to weigh in on his comments.

“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,” Trump said 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.”

In a Republican presidential debate on Thursday night, Trump indicated he might order the U.S. military to break the law on interrogation tactics, including waterboarding. Trump also suggested his willingness to target the families of terrorist suspects.

The exchange prompted Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a former 2016 White House contender and frequent Trump critic, to send Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a letter asking his thoughts on whether targeting relatives of terrorist suspects was legal under the laws of war and whether waterboarding or other more extreme interrogation techniques were legal for the U.S. military.

Dunford has yet to make a public response to Graham’s letter.

Waterboarding is the practice of pouring water over someone’s face to mimic drowning as an interrogation tactic. Critics say it is torture. Democratic President Barack Obama banned use of the method days after taking office in 2009.

Asked during the debate what he would do if the U.S. military refused to carry out such orders, Trump said, “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.”

“Can you imagine? Can you imagine these people, these animals over in the Middle East, that chop off heads, sitting around talking and seeing that we’re having a hard problem with waterboarding? We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding,” Trump said on the Fox News debate.

Reporting by Doina Chiacu; additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Tim Ahmann, James Dalgleish and Andrew Hay