"I have a concern about the rape of women in our armed forces. As president, what specifically would you do to support all victims of sexual assault in the military?" he asked.
Trump unleashed some verbal space filler about this issue amounting to a "massive problem" before getting around to his real answer. A Trump administration would keep any prosecutions of such cases out of the hands of civilian authorities and in the military courts — a system that Trump, puzzlingly, seemed to say did not exist.
"And the best thing we can do is set up a court system within the military. Right now, the court system practically doesn't exist. It takes too long," Trump said.
This is how sexual assault in the military is managed now. This would also be the same court system that outspoken opponents of internal military prosecutions, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), point out have allowed the problem to fester. The current system allows commanders to both decide whether charges should be brought against military personnel and unilaterally overturn sexual assault convictions rendered in military courts. Multiple victims have also reported that they were punished and their military careers ruined or forcibly ended after reporting a sexual assault.
Trump offered little in the way of insight into how, under a Trump administration, this approach would function differently, better support victims of sexual assault or reduce the frequency with which rapes occur. There was, however, a vague reference to a need to strengthen the military court system and speed up the prosecution process.
Then, in what proved to be a rare moment of semi-direct confrontation and almost fact-centered follow-up, host Matt Lauer raised the content of a 2013 tweet Trump dispatched on the same matter.
Trump's response: "Well, it is — it is — it is a correct tweet. There are many people that think that that's absolutely correct. ... And, by the way, since then, it's gotten worse. [The solution is] no, not to take them [women] out, but something has to ... happen. Right now, part of the problem is nobody gets prosecuted."
In both 2012 and 2015, the Pentagon released reports showing that more than half of all service members who reported experiencing some form of unwanted sexual contact, including sexual assault, were men. And most of these men said they had been assaulted by men.
Lauer, in keeping with his general approach at Wednesday night's forum, did not say that. He also did not say anything along the lines of "Mr. Trump, that is not what the tweet you just described as 'correct' says." (There is also another tweet that Trump wrote and sent the same day that is worth noting here. It reads: "The generals and top military brass never wanted a mixer but were forced to do it by very dumb politicians who wanted to be politically C!")
Lauer's colleagues at NBC and MSNBC spent much of the night claiming that "truth squadding" was not among his duties. However, what was left hanging in the air unchallenged, unchecked and utterly untruth squadded after Trump pronounced his tweet correct then modified the meaning in real time, was an idea that Trump — and it would seem that at least some of the 12,860 people who liked or retweeted Trump's message — appear to believe.
That would be the ancient canard about the proximity of men and women creating the risk of sexual assault. Therefore, like the toxic chemical reaction that follows the combination of ammonia and bleach, sexual assault can be prevented by simply keeping men and women apart.
Complex problem, simple solution. Fact-free reasoning. Classic Trump. Only now, Trump's retrograde thinking on this issue has become a national security concern. At minimum, if women and men in the military feel unsafe, unsupported in the event of sexual assault — and some, like the daughter of the man who asked Trump the question, deem it unwise to join — then isn't it quite likely that the military will lose the services of individuals with talents and skills it needs?
Trump's Wednesday night update of the logic displayed in that tweet told American voters only that under a Trump administration, the military's justice system would be strengthened in unspecified ways and the prosecution process put on a shorter course. However, this would do nothing at all to challenge the attitudes of military personnel about sexual assault, a factor that those Pentagon reports found loomed large in everything from the decision of victims to report crimes; to those critical choices soldiers make about whether to intervene, stand aside or participate in sexual assault; and the way that the military responds to crimes reported.
Trump's generally outmoded, often eyebrow-raising thinking on women has been on display before. The ways in which this thinking might also influence a Trump administration's policies and priorities have also been laid bare. Most recently, Trump suggested that the solution for a woman being sexually harassed in a civilian workplace would be to go out and get a new job.
There's nothing remotely fair nor balanced about allowing Trump or anyone who heard or agreed with Trump's notions about the best methods to prevent sexual assault in the military to go unchallenged. The truth matters, as does that still unanswered question the veteran raised on behalf of his daughter and the 10,400 military men and 8,500 women a 2015 Pentagon report found had been subjected to unwanted sexual contact.
Trump's tweet was dangerously wrong and his thinking unreasonably out of date. As a man who opted to run for public office, he ought to be answerable at all times for the inaccuracy of his ideas and the policies that voters have every reason to believe he would follow.