PLYMOUTH, N.H. — Donald Trump, who has already proposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States, has injected another highly controversial subject into the presidential campaign debate on terrorism: harsh interrogation techniques.
Trump on Sunday repeated his statement in Saturday night’s debate that he would seek to employ harsher interrogation than waterboarding, which many critics define as torture. He defended the position in interviews and used the prospect of subjecting terror suspects to harsher questioning to whip up a crowd at a rally in Plymouth.
“How did you like my answer when I talked about waterboarding?” he asked as the crowd burst into loud applause near the start of a speech in Plymouth. “Waterboarding is OK. And if we could get much worse than waterboarding, that would be OK, too.”
The crowd again cheered loudly.
Trump has maintained his front-runner status in the GOP primary contest with proposals for mass deportations and building a wall on the Mexican border. He also wants to temporarily block all Muslims from entering the United States to prevent potential terrorists from slipping through US immigration safeguards. Now he has reintroduced America’s debate on aggressive questioning, and the fight over what constitutes torture, in the final days before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
Waterboarding came up in the debate sponsored by ABC on Saturday. When candidates were asked by moderators about their views, Trump said atrocities committed by the Islamic State warrant a strong response. “Not since medieval times have people seen what’s going on,” Trump said. “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
During an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Trump refused to say what he meant by allowing practices that were “a hell of a lot worse.”
“I’m not going to define it to you on this program,” Trump replied. “But I would be very much in favor of going beyond waterboarding.”
“It wouldn’t bother me even a little bit,” he added.
Waterboarding is a practice of simulated drowning that President George W. Bush’s administration authorized in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some US intelligence officials have asserted the practice helped prevent further attacks, but that remains in dispute. For many Americans and political leaders, it marks a dark chapter in recent US history.
During Bush’s second term, he banned the practice. President Obama, in one of his first acts after being sworn into office in 2009, issued similar bans on waterboarding and other forms of what many consider torture.
An Associated Press poll conducted in August 2013 found that Americans were almost evenly divided on whether torture could be justified with suspected terrorists. But the polling also found that Republicans are far more supportive than Democrats. Some 66 percent of Republicans supported the use of “harsh interrogation techniques” — compared with 53 percent of independents and 39 percent of Democrats.
Trump’s opponents have attempted to take a hard line on interrogation techniques, while not going as far as Trump.
Senator Ted Cruz said on Saturday night that waterboarding “does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture,” but added, “I would not bring it back in any sort of widespread use.”
Jeb Bush, whose brother’s administration was gripped in controversy over the issue, has said he would not rule out waterboarding.
Senator Marco Rubio largely avoided the question when asked during an interview on Sunday.
“We shouldn’t really be discussing specific tactics because it allows a terrorist — literally — to plan for how they’ll be interrogated,” Rubio said on ABC News’ “This Week.”
Trump has seized on angst among many Americans over terrorism and killings in the Middle East, as the Islamic State has broadcast beheadings. The casino and real estate mogul, at his rally Sunday, referenced James Foley, the kidnapped journalist slain by the Islamic State in August 2014. He grew up about 35 miles away in Wolfeboro, N.H.
“We are living in medieval times,” Trump told the crowd here. “There’s never been a time like this. I used to read in medieval times they’d chop your head off. Even in the wild west, you’d get shot. They’d shoot you, but they wouldn’t chop your head off. So now they chop your head off.”
“I said to myself, ‘Waterboarding is peanuts compared with what they’re doing,’ ” he added.
As those who attended his rally here began filing out of a gymnasium at Plymouth State University, many said they liked Trump’s message. It was clear. It was bold. He didn’t mince words.
“If the military uses waterboarding to get information, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Gene Meier, a 53-year-old from New Hampton, N.H., who is “80 percent sure” he’ll vote for Trump. “It’s not like they’re putting a finger in a trap and cutting it off.”
Nearby Faye Daley sat on a bench, smiling after seeing Trump for the first time.
“These other countries cut our heads off,” the 77-year-old from Bridgton, Maine, said. “Waterboarding is quite calm.”
But not far away was Will Hopkins, a 35-year-old US Army infantryman who fought in the Iraq War. He came to the rally hoping to press Trump on views that he thinks are Islamaphobic.
“It’s horrible. Torture is completely unacceptable. Torture is not in the spirit of what America means to me,” said Hopkins, an independent from Belmont, N.H. “It’s completely barbaric. It’s completely unacceptable. It’s completely un-American.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.