Donald Trump, if you take him at his word, promises to illegally order military officers to torture captives and murder noncombatants, and somehow to force these officers to carry out such unlawful orders.

This sounds like hyperbole, but it isn't hyperbole. This is what he has said.

1. Donald Trump has made it clear he will torture people, which is illegal

Trump has said he would reinstate waterboarding (which many consider torture, but about which there is a debate). But he says he would go further and use techniques that are "so much worse." He justifies this by saying "Don't tell me it doesn't work — torture works. Okay, folks? Torture — you know, half these guys [say]: 'Torture doesn't work.' Believe me, it works. Okay?"

The only way to interpret that is as an endorsement of torture, which is outlawed by federal law, U.S. military rules and international law.

2. Donald Trump has made it clear he would kill the wives and children of terrorists, which is a war crime

About Islamic State terrorists' families, Trump said: "It's a horrible thing. They're using them as shields. But we're fighting a very politically correct war. And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. They, they care about their lives. Don't kid yourself. But they say they don't care about their lives. You have to take out their families."

When pressed on this, he said, "Frankly, that will make people think, because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families' lives."

The clear implication here is that he would kill the wives and children — many of whom are nearly slaves — of Islamic State terrorists.

3. Donald Trump has threatened that he may somehow force military officers to carry out these illegal orders

"If he were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act," Gen. Michael Hayden has said of Trump's plan to kill the families of terrorists.

"You cannot — you are not committed, you are not required, in fact you're required to not follow an unlawful order. That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict."

So moderator Bret Baier asked Trump about this at the Thursday debate. Here's the exchange:

BAIER: Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists' families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they've been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders. So what would you do, as commander in chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?

TRUMP: They won't refuse. They're not going to refuse me. Believe me.

BAIER: But they're illegal.

TRUMP: Let me just tell you, you look at the Middle East. They're chopping off heads. They're chopping off the heads of Christians and anybody else that happens to be in the way. They're drowning people in steel cages. And he — now we're talking about waterboarding.

[A few moments later]

BAIER: But targeting terrorists' families?


TRUMP: And — and — and — I'm a leader. I'm a leader. I've always been a leader. 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.

The clear implication, if Trump means what he says, is that if military officers do as the law — and their consciences — require them to do, and refuse to obey Trump's illegal order, he will somehow force them to. It's not name calling to say this is lawless despotism.

The option

It's entirely possible that Trump doesn't understand what he's talking about. Maybe he has no clue torture and the murdering of innocents is illegal. Maybe once someone explains that to him, he'll decide not to use those tactics. Maybe he didn't listen to Bret Baier's question and thought it was about officers illegally disobeying orders.

In that case, he's uninformed, ignorant, and way too confident in his own intelligence and knowledge.

That's the best-case scenario, and it's not hard to believe, considering (a) his ignorance of almost every other policy issue, and (b) a seeming pattern of not being able to understand basic questions.

So is Trump a despot or a fool?

Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on