Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
Last May, then-White House counsel Don McGahn wanted to withdraw Gina Haspel's nomination for CIA director. McGahn told colleagues that Haspel's role in the CIA's controversial "enhanced interrogation" program could kill her in her Senate confirmation.
Driving the news: President Trump disagreed. Trump actually liked this aspect of Haspel's resume, according to three sources who spoke to the president at the time. In fact, Trump told aides that Haspel's support for "torture" or "waterboarding" (Trump uses these words interchangeably in his private conversations) was an asset, not a liability.
- Trump told advisers that he asked Haspel her opinion on whether waterboarding works. In Trump's telling, Haspel replied to him that she was "100%" sure it works, a source who spoke to Trump about it told me.
- "He seemed impressed with how sure she was about something so controversial," the source said. "That she did not bat an eye, did not sugarcoat it, that it works. When it comes to national security, she does not hesitate."
A CIA spokesperson declined to comment for this story, but pointed Axios to a section of Haspel's confirmation testimony in which she said the CIA "learned some tough lessons from that experience" interrogating suspected terrorists after 9/11.
- "Having served in that tumultuous time," Haspel told Congress, "I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart a detention and interrogation program."
- The White House and McGahn did not respond to requests for comment.
Why it matters: Trump has held the same views about war crimes and torture for years — and being commander in chief has not changed him. He believes that previous presidents have been far too eager to send Americans to war, but that once they've been deployed, these soldiers should be free to treat enemies brutally.
- Trump's views on this subject flared up again last week. He clashed with Pentagon brass when he cleared three soldiers who have been accused or convicted of war crimes.
- Pentagon leaders had privately argued that the president's intervention in these cases would undercut the code of military justice.
Trump has told advisers that the U.S. military became too politically correct under President Obama and that he wanted to unleash them to fight with "toughness," without these burdensome rules of engagement.
- Trump's immutable views on this subject have put him at odds with Pentagon leadership more than once. From the outset, Trump disagreed with former Defense Secretary James Mattis over the effectiveness of waterboarding.
- Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, captured the widespread concerns in a tweet earlier this year: "Absent evidence of innocence or injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don't take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously. Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us."
Behind the scenes: Sources close to Trump say the man who most closely reflects the president's views on warfighting is "Fox & Friends" host and veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars Pete Hegseth.
- Hegseth advocated vigorously for these soldiers accused of war crimes. He did so on television and in private conversations with Trump. Hegseth was so closely read in on Trump's plans that, as the NYT pointed out, he previewed them the week before Trump's announcement.
- Hegseth told the "Fox & Friends" audience that he'd talked to Trump and that "the president looks at it through that lens, a simple one, and important one ... the benefit of the doubt should go to the guys pulling the trigger."
- Trump tweeted this morning: "Thank you Pete. Our great warfighters must be allowed to fight. I would not have done this for Sgt. Bergdahl or Chelsea Manning!"
Go deeper: Read about Haspel's history with the CIA's enhanced interrogation, established after 9/11, in this Washington Post story.