The switch, indicated in a statement to the Wall Street Journal on Friday in which Trump said he understood that the US “is bound by laws and treaties”, came two days after prominent Republican national security and military figures published an open letter on the subject.
The letter stated “we are united in our opposition to a Donald Trump presidency” and adding that the authors were “obligated to state our core objections clearly”.
Those core objections included the statement that “[Trump’s] embrace of the expansive use of torture is inexcusable”.
The open letter also pointed to the question of whether the military would or could follow potential extra-legal orders made by a hypothetical President Trump without going through the secret process they use now to deem such actions legal.
The question of whether or how the military could follow a Trump’s orders came up at the Republican debate in Detroit on Thursday night. Trump said he was a great leader and “frankly, when I say they’ll do as I tell them, they’ll do as I tell them.”
He also said: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me,” and: “I’m a leader. If I say do it, they’re going to do it, that’s what leadership is about.”
But on Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had reversed that position. He would not order the military to do illegal things with the expectation that they would break the law to follow his orders, he said.
Trump told the paper he would “use every legal power that I have to stop these terrorist enemies”.
The statement continued: “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.
“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.”
Trump’s flip-flops were a major theme of Thursday’s debate and a major point of attack for his rivals. Fox News host Megyn Kelly even played three video clips showing Trump blatantly reversing himself on the war in Afghanistan, Syrian refugees and on George W Bush’s lying – or not – to get the US into the Iraq war.
Trump defended himself by saying that like all successful people he was “flexible”.