President Trump + Military Drones = What, Exactly?

The president-elect has said he wants to continue with strikes against terrorists, but to what degree?


Gaetano Lo Porto/Ropi/ZUMA Press/Newscom

We have an incoming president who claims he will be less interventionist in foreign policy than President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but also promises he will "bomb the shit out of" the Islamic State in order to fight terrorism.

It would be logical to conclude that this would mean Donald Trump might be a supporter of the use of armed drones to take out suspected terrorists in foreign countries as a way of fighting ISIS without committing more troops. In other words: We would see Trump continue Obama's current drone strike policies.

But, in perhaps an example of how little concern about executive authority played in this election, Trump is not on the record for saying a whole lot about drones. The ISideWith site has Trump saying he supports drone strikes because he believes in using any tool to fight terrorism, but the story and video clip the site links to as a source does not actually have Trump declaring support for drones. The Center of the Study for Drones at Bard College examined what Trump and Clinton have said about drone use on the campaign trail. Here's what they published on Trump in October:

The Republican candidate and his advisers have made fewer direct references to military drone use than the Clinton team. Unlike Clinton, Trump has had no direct experience in coordinating drone strikes. Furthermore, and also unlike Clinton, Trump has only one known adviser—Gen. Michael Flynn—who has played a direct role in U.S. military drone operations in the past two decades. That being said, it is possible to extrapolate the rough contours of a Trump administration's policies governing drone use. Generally speaking, Trump has advocated a broad aerial campaign against ISIS that contrasts with the precision-centric targeted killing operations conducted by the current administration and advocated for by Hillary Clinton and many of her advisers. Trump's advisers hold mixed views on drones. Three Trump advisers—Rudy Giuliani, Michael Woolsey, and Gen. Flynn—have publicly criticized the use of drones for targeted killing. Trump supports the expanded use of military drones to patrol U.S land borders, and has called for an increase in military spending that would likely impact drone acquisition programs, though the plan largely focuses on the procurement of fighter jets and ships, and an increase in personnel.

Trump did, in a foreign policy speech in August, say he wanted to keep drones as part of his military strategy, but also wanted to capture "high-value targets," something that drone strikes often preclude.

Today CNN noted that Flynn, now Trump's pick for National Security Adviser, had previously criticized drone strikes because they "cause more damage than [they're] gonna cause good." But he's also criticized waterboarding as torture, a tool that Trump is openly embracing.

Now that Trump has won, there's a cascade of "What will Trump do with these drones?" stories, and this is because Obama implemented his drone procedures completely through executive branch policies, unchallenged and unsupported by Congress. "Unsupported" is probably the wrong word because silence can be seen as support. We had Sen. Rand Paul engage in a filibuster in order to get assurances that the administration wouldn't use drone strikes against U.S. citizens on American soil, and that's about the extent of it.

There has been very little interest otherwise in oversight of the administration's use of drones to kill suspected terrorists in foreign countries—particularly in countries like Yemen and Somalia where we aren't engaged in authorized military activity. The fact that drones have killed many civilians not involved in terrorism doesn't seem to have affected interest in using them.

It's difficult to speculate what Trump might do here. He may be less involved in some countries like Syria, but his call for more strikes against terrorists does make it seem as though drones would have to be on the table. Drones poll well with Americans undoubtedly because it looks as though we're fighting against terrorism without putting our own troops at risk. That seems to fit with the way Trump talks about foreign engagement. He is critical of direct military interventions that have put troops at risk without getting good results, like in Iraq and Syria. But he wants military strikes against terrorists. That seems to lead toward not only using drones but maybe even expanding them.

Post-election, Reason's Damon Root warned that Trump was going to inherit all the expansion of executive authority under Obama that Democrats allowed to happen. It seems likely that extrajudicial use of drones to assassinate suspected terrorists will fall within that category.

Also relevant, my review of The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program, from our December issue of Reason magazine, is now readable online.