All this unfolded several hours before Trump's original comment — made in a taped interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews — was even broadcast as part of a prime-time special.
So how the heck are the media supposed to characterize Trump's position going forward? How much weight should we give to the first stance he took, versus the second?
Trump has put us in this position before. In an interview on CNN last month, he repeatedly declined to reject the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, claiming not to know anything about him or white supremacists. Then he disavowed Duke and blamed a faulty earpiece for his original response to a question he supposedly didn't hear.
In November, Trump told NBC News that he would "absolutely" create a database of American Muslims. Then he said he never suggested such a thing (the reporter did) before settling on the explanation that what he really meant was a database of Syrian refugees.
If there is a method to this madness (and that is very much an open question), it seems to be this: Trump uses these reversals to set up oversimplified press accounts that he can easily criticize as unfair. This was especially true of his flip-flop on Duke. While the media fixated on his appalling refusal to condemn the notorious Klansman from the outset, Trump complained to supporters that journalists were ignoring his many subsequent repudiations.
"If you look on my Twitter account, almost immediately after the program, they were disavowed again," he said at a March 3 debate, referring to the KKK. "You know, it's amazing. When I do something on Twitter, everybody picks it up, goes all over the place. But when I did this one, nobody ever picks it up."
As I wrote this week, reporters do Trump a favor when they don't fully contextualize his comments and/or exaggerate them. They hand him an opportunity to cast himself as a victim of the "dishonest" media he constantly rails against.
On the abortion punishment remark, journalists would do well to prominently disclose Trump's swift retraction.
And the broader implication — which ought to be the real focus here, anyway — is that Trump appears not to stand firmly for much of anything. Yes, Trump said that he favors an abortion punishment, but does anyone think he would really crusade for such a law as president? What, besides that "big, beautiful wall," would he really crusade for?
The relentless questioning by Matthews that led to the punishment comment exposed, more than anything else, that Trump simply hasn't thought through his positions. He says he wants to ban abortions, with exceptions for rape, incest and threats to the health of the expectant mother — a common Republican stance. But how would the ban actually work? As Matthews pressed, it was clear that Trump hadn't given the particulars much, if any, consideration.
This is the story of the billionaire real estate magnate's light-on-policy, largely unprincipled campaign. This is the story that accounts of his abortion punishment flip-flop should tell.