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Story highlights

Trump's position seems to have shifted dramatically in less than 24 hours

During Thursday night's debate, Trump reaffirmed his willingness to target the families of terrorists

(CNN) —  

Republican front-runner Donald Trump moved to staunch scathing criticism of his national security views on Friday, executing an abrupt about-face by declaring that he would not order the U.S. military to violate international laws to fight terrorism.

After advocating the killing of terrorists’ families and the benefits of waterboarding, Trump reversed course after condemnation from former cabinet members, lawmakers and intelligence and military officials, some of whom denounced him as “utterly unfitted to the office” of president.

Others suggested that the military would be within its rights to refuse to obey those orders.

But in a statement Friday, Trump said that he understands “that the United States is bound by laws and treaties” and that he would “not order our military or other officials to violate those laws and will seek their advice on such matters.”

He added, “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.”

The statement was first reported in The Wall Street Journal.

Katrina Pierson, a Trump spokeswoman, said the candidate had been misunderstood.

“He realized they took him literally, that’s why he put out the statement,” she told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.” “What he’s saying is that he wants to go after them with the full force of everything we have.”

Neither the statement nor the campaign’s explanations were enough to quell the bipartisan uproar.

The lead Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, said that while Trump “has now said he would obey the law, he has yet to specifically disavow torture or killing the families of our enemies.”

“Let’s be clear,” Schiff said in a statement Friday, “these are war crimes, no matter who is ordering them or carrying them out.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, released a letter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, on Friday asking for his thoughts on the legality of Trump’s stance.

“What impact would this policy have on our war effort?” he asked.

Defense experts condemn Trump

Trump’s position seems to have shifted dramatically in less than 24 hours.

During Thursday night’s debate on Fox News, Trump reaffirmed his willingness to target the families of terrorists and supported the use of waterboarding, implying a willingness to use torture.

“We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding,” he said.

His previous endorsement of these tactics had drawn condemnation from former defense and intelligence officials.

Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen told CNN Thursday that “the notion that we would attack and kill the families of terrorists is something that contravenes everything the United States stands for in this world.”

Cohen warned that if the military carried out these orders, they could face a Nuremberg-like trial, saying, “we have to be concerned about that you have an order given by the commander in chief which violates every sense of law and order, international law and order, that would make any of those who carried out that dictum such to be a violation of the international criminal code.”

And former CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden, speaking of Trump, told HBO this week that “if he were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act.”

“You are required not to follow an unlawful order. That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict,” Hayden said.

CNN analyst and retired Army Major Gen. James “Spider” Marks agreed, telling CNN Friday, “You are required to follow orders but you are also required to think, to use your judgment. And if an order is illegal you can’t go down that path. You cannot follow that order.”

Trump had initially dismissed this line of criticism and during the debate told the moderators that the military would indeed carry out his orders.

“They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me,” Trump said.

Trump’s earlier statements were among those that prompted a group of more than 100 leaders in the Republican foreign policy and national security community to write an open letter Wednesday condemning Trump and pledging to oppose his presidential candidacy.

They called his stance on torture “inexcusable” in the letter, first posted Wednesday night on the website warontherocks.com.

The authors of the strongly worded letter included Michael Chertoff, the former director of Homeland Security, Robert Zoellick, the former president of the World Bank, and dozens of other former Republican presidential administration officials and conservative think tank members.

Speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper Friday night, Hayden applauded Trump’s reversal but was still left with nagging questions.

“I was quite heartened to see it,” Hayden said before asking, “What was the worldview that prompted those statements in the first place?”

CNN’s Elise Labott, Jim Acosta, Noah Gray, Jeremy Diamond and Theodore Schleifer contributed to this report.