Gaffe Track: Trump's Triad Travesty

Mike Blake / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The candidate: Donald J. “Yes, I’m Still Here” Trump

The gaffe: During the December 15 debate, moderator Hugh Hewitt asked Trump what his priority is in the nuclear triad. Trump ignored the question, warning against Syrian nuclear proliferation. Hewitt tried again. “I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” Trump managed to say, clearly having no idea what the nuclear triad is.

The defense: Yes, that’s what the question was about, defense. Even if Trump didn’t get that. (Marco Rubio picked up the baton, smoothly clarifying: “The triad is our ability of the United States to conduct nuclear attacks using airplanes, using missiles launched from silos or from the ground, and also from our nuclear subs’ ability to attack.”)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): James Fallows writes: “If realities mattered in this race, what Trump has just revealed would be fundamentally disqualifying ignorance for someone seeking a position of command responsibility.” That “if” is important. Back in the innocent days of September when we kicked off Gaffe Track, the first entry was about Trump botching a clever foreign-policy question from Hugh Hewitt. At the time, he was leading his nearest opponent by 14 points in the polls. Today? He leads by 17, and is enjoying his biggest overall polling numbers.

The lesson: If at first you don’t know foreign policy, there’s no compelling reason to try, try, triad again.