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FACT CHECK: Clinton On Ground Troops; Trump On Sexual Assault In The Military

Andrew Harnik/AP

At a candidate forum Wednesday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump explained their policies on ground troops, fighting ISIS and other issues related to the military. We’ve recapped five key moments here and more deeply examined two claims, one from each candidate, below.

The claims: Clinton vowed to refrain from putting troops on the ground in Iraq, while Trump claimed that a court system to prosecute sexual assault in the military “practically doesn’t exist.”

1. Clinton And Troops On The Ground

The Claim

“We’re not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again.”

The Question

Clinton vowed on Wednesday that the U.S. would never make another deployment of troops to Iraq, or send a force to Syria, as part of her plan to defeat the Islamic State.

Is that a promise she could keep as president?

The Short Answer


The Long Answer

Clinton has outlined a policy on ISIS that would pick up where President Obama’s policy left off. Today, there are about 5,000 American troops in Iraq and several hundred deployed to northern Syria. They include special operations forces who are helping the Kurdish, Arab and other indigenous fighters, plus advisers, support troops and others. The White House doesn’t count them as “ground troops,” and evidently neither does Clinton, but they are serving close to the combat zone.

U.S. service members have been killed as part of the fight against ISIS both on the ground and as part of the ongoing U.S. airstrikes. They’ve also found themselves in potential peril from airstrikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes, which are operating in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar Assad. The Pentagon issued a stern warning to Damascus and Moscow to keep their aircraft well clear of where American troops in Syria are working on the ground to support indigenous forces in the fight against ISIS. American fighter aircraft have also tried to warn off Syrian and Russian warplanes.

Clinton’s promise about “ground troops” appeared to echo Obama’s opposition to using large numbers of American forces to get into direct combat with ISIS. So although American special operations troops are helping Iraqi commanders plan their operations, and American pilots are flying overhead to spot targets or attack them, and American artillery is shelling ISIS positions, none of them count as “ground troops” under this construction.

The U.S. has spent about $9 billion on the fight in Iraq and Syria since August of 2014, according to the Defense Department. American warplanes, both drone and human-piloted, have conducted about 15,000 airstrikes in both countries.

Clinton said Wednesday at the forum, held in New York and televised on NBC, that defeating ISIS was her “highest counterterrorism goal,” and that she wanted to do it with “air power” and “with much more support for the Arabs and Kurds who are in the fight … we have to squeeze them.” Clinton also promised that if she’s elected she’ll order what she called “an intelligence surge,” which she said would involve helping U.S. intelligence agencies collect more information and distribute it “more quickly down the ladder” to state and local law enforcement agencies, in hopes of preventing terror attacks.

Credit Evan Vucci/AP
Trump at Wednesday night's candidate forum.

2. Trump And Military Sexual Assault

The Claim

"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."

The Question

A court system "practically doesn't exist" for cases of sexual assault in the military, Trump said Wednesday, and there "are no consequences" for attackers.

Is that so?

The Short Answer


The Long Answer

Sexual assault is one of the toughest problems for the military services today, one they have struggled to address under scrutiny from Congress. A former service member at the NBC forum asked Trump on Wednesday how he could reassure a daughter interested in joining the military and Trump acknowledged that sexual assault is a "massive problem."

The Pentagon has to set up a "court system within the military," Trump said. One today "practically doesn't exist ... Right now, part of the problem is nobody gets prosecuted. You have reported and — the gentleman can tell you, you have the report of rape and nobody gets prosecuted. There are no consequences. ... Look at the small number of results. I mean, that's part of the problem."

Trump was also asked about a tweet from 2013 in which he noted the rash of sexual assaults and wrote "What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?" He said he didn't think the answer was to take women out of the military. President Obama has opened all jobs in the military services to women, including aboard submarines and in frontline combat roles.

The military has its own longstanding justice system, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in which alleged attackers are tried and sometimes convicted and punished. There were more than 6,000 reports of sexual assault according to the Pentagon's most recent report, a number slightly down from a year before but part of a steady growth in reports over the past several years.

Defense officials say the increased numbers reflect new confidence by victims that their cases will be taken seriously, but skeptics in Congress and outside advocates say that sexual assault is badly under-reported inside the military and that deep cultural issues mean the Pentagon isn't doing enough to fix it.

The Pentagon fought a political battle with critics in Congress, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who wanted to take sexual assault cases out of the military units where they took place and assign them to outside prosecutors. The commander of an Army brigade or an Air Force wing couldn't be objective and would tend to protect alleged attackers, Gillibrand and allies said. But the Pentagon said that preserving commanders' ability to handle discipline was essential to keeping units effective, and ultimately members of Congress did not adopt Gillibrand's proposals.

The Pentagon's most recent report on sexual assault found that of the cases that proceeded to courts martial, about 76 percent resulted in a conviction.

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