Donald Trump stood by a comment he made in 2013 claiming that sexual assault in the military was something one could “expect” when women and men were allowed to serve together.
Responding to a question during the NBC News Commander-in-Chief Presidential Forum Wednesday night from an audience member whose daughter had opted not to join the military after learning about its issues with sexual assault, Trump called the assault rates a “massive problem.”
Moderator Matt Lauer followed up by asking the Republican about a tweet he had sent in 2013 that said: “26,000 unreported sexual assults [sic] in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”
“It is a correct tweet,” Trump said. “There are many people think that’s absolutely correct.”
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Trump’s tweet and subsequent defense of it ignore that both men and women in the military experience sexual violence. As the Washington Post’s Janell Ross explained, “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.”
“So does that mean this should have been expected, and the only way to fix it is to take women out of the military?” Lauer asked.
“It’s happening.” Trump answered. “No, not to kick them out, but something has to be happen [sic]. Part of the problem is nobody gets prosecuted.”
Trump’s solution to the problem was to “keep the court system within the military.”
“We have to come down very, very hard on that. … The best thing we can do is set up a court system within the military,” he said. “Right now, the court system practically doesn’t exist. Takes too long.”
Reports of sexual assault are handled within the military’s chain of command, as Vox’s Kay Steiger explained. “This, as many advocates have pointed out, can be a problem for those reporting because sometimes the victim’s assailant is his or her commander,” Steiger wrote in an article responding to Trump’s claim. “Victims can go above the commander, but there are strong disincentives to do so because victims fear retaliation and isolation from the unit.”
That’s why some, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), have proposed removing the process from the military’s chain of command.
There were more than 6,000 reports of sexual assaults involving service members as victims or subjects throughout 2015, of which roughly 5,200 counted service members as survivors, according to the Department of Defense’s (DoD) annual report on sexual assault in the military.
Many believe that instances of sexual assault in the military are vastly underreported, “potentially by as much as half at some bases,” according to a report released by Gillibrand.
A 2015 report from international advocacy group Human Rights Watch found that service members who report assault often face harsh physical and verbal retaliation from other service members and supervisors. Those threats including facing “friendly fire” and incidents of vandalism against sexual assault survivors.
The DoD charges that it “takes appropriate action in every case where it has jurisdiction.” However, few reports result in conviction.
Trump’s comments Wednesday are not the campaign’s only recent brush with controversy over sexual assault in the military. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway faced criticism in late August after comments she made in 2013 about women in the military during an appearance on PBS resurfaced.
“If we were physiologically—not mentally, emotionally, professionally—equal to men, if we were physiologically as strong as men, rape would not exist,” Conway said at the time.