Trump Officials Make Conflicting Statements on Killing Americans

  • White House press secretary announced targeting would end
  • Second administration spokesperson says policy will remain

The Trump administration issued conflicting statements Tuesday regarding whether the military would ever target U.S. citizens alleged to be terrorists in overseas strikes.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that "no American citizen will ever be targeted" during his news briefing on Tuesday. He was contradicted hours later by one of his deputies, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said Trump would maintain former President Barack Obama’s policy permitting U.S. citizens to be targeted in strikes under certain circumstances.

"U.S. policy regarding the possible targeting of American citizens has not changed," Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

She cited former Attorney General Eric Holder, who said in a March 5, 2012, speech that killing a U.S. citizen in a foreign country would be lawful if the government decided that he posed an imminent threat, capturing him wasn’t feasible, and the strike would be conducted in a manner consistent with "applicable law of war principles."

The Obama administration’s legal memo was used to justify a 2011 strike that killed U.S. citizen and accused al-Qaeda strategist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, saying it was legal to target and kill a U.S. citizen if the person represented an active threat to the U.S. homeland.

Awlaki’s Daughter

Spicer didn’t respond to requests for clarification of his remark. His declaration suggesting that the U.S. had changed its policy came after NBC News reported that Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter, an American citizen, was killed by U.S. troops in a counterterrorism raid earlier this month in Yemen. It was the first such operation since Trump became commander-in-chief.

During his presidential campaign, Trump said that he would take a more aggressive approach to combating terrorists than Obama did. He has said the U.S. should reconsider interrogation techniques banned by Obama as torture. And he said in the campaign that his counterterrorism strategy would include killing the family members of suspected terrorists.

“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families -- when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he said on Fox News on Dec. 2, 2015.

But Huckabee Sanders suggested the girl’s death in Yemen was not intentional.

"The United States does not and will not deliberately target family members of terrorists," Huckabee Sanders said.

Spicer refused to confirm the details of the Yemen raid beyond saying that it yielded important information and resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen suspected al-Qaeda operatives and one U.S. service member. Trump called the family of the fallen Navy special forces operator, Chief Petty Officer William Owens, to express his condolences, Spicer said Monday.

— With assistance by Justin Sink, and Margaret Talev

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