WASHINGTON -- It's not often that people admit to an audience of millions that they intend to break the law, but Donald Trump insisted in Thursday night's Republican presidential debate that he would force American soldiers to commit war crimes.
The Republican presidential front-runner has said before that he would order waterboarding and worse for terrorism suspects, and that he would kill the families of terrorists -- acts that violate U.S. and international law.
His policies prompted nearly 100 Republican foreign policy experts to sign an open letter saying Trump's stance was inexcusable.
But when asked how he would make the military carry out illegal orders to kill and torture people, Trump doubled down.
"They won't refuse. They're not going to refuse me. Believe me," Trump said.
That prompted Fox News moderator Brett Baier to protest: "But they're illegal."
Trump ignored that distinction, and tried to justify his position when he pointed to atrocities by extremist groups, calling them "these animals over in the Middle East."
He also stood by his intention to levy an extrajudicial death penalty on the families of suspected terrorists.
"They knew what was happening. The wife knew exactly what was happening," Trump said.
He never addressed the issue of committing crimes. And neither did Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was given the opportunity to rebut Trump. He merely accused the real estate tycoon of false machismo.
"I think the American people understand that yelling and cursing at people doesn't make you a tough guy," Cruz said.
UPDATE: 3 p.m. -- The outrage expressed by many Republicans may have gotten through to Trump, albeit a month after he first staked his claim to illegal counterterrorism strategies.
"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," he said. "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."
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee found Trump's latest disavowal unconvincing, and later on Friday called on him to explicitly reject torture and murder as tools of U.S. foreign policy.
“Although Donald Trump has now said that he would obey the law, he has yet to specifically disavow torture or killing the families of our enemies -- both of which he has advocated in the past and both of which violate the Geneva Conventions and our values. He cannot have it both ways -- will he abide by the laws of war and denounce these positions, or won't he?" said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) in a statement.
"Let’s be clear -- these are war crimes, no matter who is ordering them or carrying them out, whether a field commander, agency head, general, or the president," Schiff added. "Even in the midst of a heated presidential campaign, it’s the responsibility of all who believe in the rule of law and human rights to condemn these dangerous remarks.”