Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Ukraine’s Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak in Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug. 24, 2017.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Ukraine’s Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak in Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug. 24, 2017. U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

How Mattis May Get Himself in Trouble With Trump

The secretary of defense could run afoul of his boss if his review of the policy on transgender troops follows the facts to their conclusion.

Washington, D.C., has been especially sensitive to more signs of disloyalty from the president’s advisors ever since both the president’s chief economic advisor and his secretary of state very publicly and clearly broke ranks last week to criticize the president’s response to the violence in Charlottesville.

Some of that sensitivity has extended to the secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, and whether or not he was rebuking the president in an address to some troops overseas or when he held off on banning transgender troops for serving in the U.S. military pending a review.

With respect to the former, no, and with respect to the latter, yes—but not in the way that you think.

First off, the address Mattis gave to troops in Jordan was mostly the kind of stuff he has been telling troops for four decades. (If you haven’t seen it, watch it here.) The references to the ugliness in America right now were less seditious and more an acknowledgment of the things those troops in Jordan can see with their own damn eyes. They don’t need the secretary of defense to tell them what they saw in Charlottesville, but it is nice that Mattis—the CEO of one of the world’s largest and most diverse organizations—sees it as well.

Second, the secretary’s decision to postpone any hasty action on transgender troops seems fully supported by the guidance the secretary received from the White House itself. The president’s decision to roll back the restrictions on transgender troops serving, let’s be clear, is cruel and unnecessary: it was almost entirely unsupported by any of the key voices on defense policy within the president’s own party—including John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But the text of the order itself was unsurprisingly more nuanced and heavily caveated than the president’s initial tweets and gives a lot of leeway for the secretary to first carry out a review of the existing policy as he sees fit and to then make a recommendation to the president that might run contrary to White House guidance.

That’s where things get more interesting, because the secretary does seem intent on carrying out a careful review led by the department’s senior civilian leadership. And in the current climate, an evidence-based policy review would amount to a revolutionary act.

Jon Finer wrote one of the smartest and most prescient reflections on this administration for this magazine all the way back in January. The reason the president was spending so much time attacking both the media and the intelligence community, Finer argued, was that he was “taking on two institutions in American life that are traditionally charged with establishing the factual basis that inform national-security decisions––the press in its public discourse and the intelligence community behind closed doors in the Situation Room.”

Trump’s original tweets announcing a ban on transgender troops, of course, were grounded in arguments that had already been carefully and methodically dismantled in an exhaustive study by the Rand Corporation. The Rand Corporation is the home of four of the nation’s 42 federally funded research and development centers. At its worst, Rand—like many other think tanks—produces plodding and untimely reports that have no effect on policy debates. At its best, though, Rand and the other federally funded research and development centers serve as a kind of policy referee for the federal departments and agencies.

The Rand study on transgender troops was Rand at its best: a sweeping, multidisciplinary study that found transgender troops presented neither an obvious financial burden on the services nor a threat to unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.

Case closed, right?

Obviously not. This is an era when, as Finer could have predicted, following pessimistic assessments by the Congressional Budget Office on health care legislation, a common response by some Republicans is to slash the office’s budget and rely on friendly think tank research instead. It’s also an era when, if the intelligence community is telling you things you don’t want to hear on Iran, well, press them to draw different conclusions than the evidence would suggest.  

This is how Mattis is going to get himself into trouble. As an infantryman commissioned into the Marine Corps in the 1970s, his gut probably tells him what the president tweeted is correct: attempts to integrate transgender troops constitute unnecessary social engineering that could adversely affect combat performance.

The military’s most famous transgender soldier, it must be said, does not help here. As a June profile of Chelsea Manning in the New York Times pointedly noted, there has always been a contradiction at the heart of Manning. On the one hand, she has eagerly embraced one identity as a courageous truth-teller and whistle-blower. On the other hand, though, she was all too happy to allow her defense team to instead blame her actions on gender dysphoria. As Jamie Kirchick correctly argued this week, that selfish and cynical act slanders other transgender civil servants—and reinforces the basest prejudices of others.   

Thankfully, what Mattis’s head tells him could be another matter entirely. I have trouble seeing another rigorous study reaching conclusions much different than those of the Rand study. And Mattis will likely speak with and hear the testimony of actual transgender troops currently serving with honor and distinction. I suspect—and I deeply hope he does not prove me wrong—that Mattis will be a man humble before the facts. That—not any troop talks—could be what runs him afoul of his boss.