The commander in chief tweet-declares a stunning change for military personnel, but it’s far from clear he can make it stick.
As fast as President Donald Trump upended the U.S. military on Wednesday morning by tweeting his intent to ban transgender Americans from the armed forces, he faced intense blowback from members of Congress, advocacy groups, and national security leaders calling the move discriminatory, unnecessary, and alarmingly out of touch with the military’s trend toward opening all jobs to Americans who qualify to serve.
The resulting uproar left the decided impression that Trump’s transgender troop ban was a short-fused decision that’s a long way from becoming a reality. An unusual and unofficial coalition of active soldiers, veterans, cultural conservative giants, and LGBTQ advocates denounced the ban and scrambled to figure out what effect Trump’s tweets would have on active duty personnel, now, and how they can stop an actual ban later. And a stunning same-day report by Politico revealed Trump’s decision may have been more about getting Congress to pass an unrelated bill with funds for the border wall, and less about military readiness, unit cohesion, and health care costs, as the White House later claimed.
It was another day in Washington where breakfast-time Trump tweets sent the federal government into crisis mode to figure out what the president meant for new policy and for the lives and families of potentially thousands of U.S. troops. With Defense Secretary Jim Mattis out of town on vacation, Trump tweeted:
- “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow......”;
- “...Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming.....”;
- “....victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”
By mid-morning, it was clear that no more than a few senior Pentagon staff knew about the decision before Trump’s tweets. By midday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the president and the Defense Department had no plan to implement a transgender troop ban, yet. By the end of the day, there were more questions than clarity. For example, would transgender troops be sent home from war zone deployments?
“That’s something that the Department of Defense and the White House will have to work together as implementation takes place and is done so lawfully,” said Sanders, at a press briefing.
Trump believes that “this is a very expensive and disruptive policy. And based on consultation that he’s had with his national security team [he] came to conclusion that it erodes military readiness and unit cohesion, and made the decision based on that,” she said.
Sanders said Mattis had been “immediately informed” of Trump’s decision on Tuesday. It’s unclear whether Mattis, any of the Joint Chiefs, or any other members of that team support those claims.
Implementing such a ban would require Trump to overcome key Republicans in Congress and, no doubt, challenges in the courts. It is even unclear just how many people might be affected were a ban to survive. The estimated number of transgender troops varies widely. A RAND Corporation study last year estimated the total between 1,300 and 6,600, and gay advocacy groups frequently cite up to 15,000. The numbers of troops approved for gender reassignment is believed to be in the low hundreds, according to RAND.
The status and legal rights of transgender troops has remained unresolved since the Pentagon lifted its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay service members in 2011. After officially opening military service to LGBQT Americans, and later opening all military jobs to women in June 2016, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter declared transgender troops also could serve openly, and said that the U.S. would pay for gender reassignment medical treatments. Carter gave the Defense Department one year to study how to implement the new policy. As the July 1 deadline approached, several Joint Chiefs of Staff asked for a one-year extension. Mattis granted them six months.
Carter was among the first to denounce Trump’s decision. The former secretary repeated a theme from his tenure: recruiting the best people for the U.S. military requires lowering arbitrary barriers.
“To choose service members on other grounds than military qualifications is social policy and has no place in our military,” Carter said, in a statement provided to Defense One. “There are already transgender individuals who are serving capably and honorably. This action would also send the wrong signal to a younger generation thinking about military service.”
One of Carter’s former Pentagon spokesmen, Carl Woog, tweeted, “Doubt @DeptofDefense can demonstrate discrimination is a lawful order from Commander in Chief. Burden is on them.”
Former Pentagon press secretary and retired Rear Adm. John Kirby, who wrote many of the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal speeches given by Adm. Mike Mullen, who was Joint Chiefs chairman at the time, by day's end filed a stinging, detailed rebuke of Trump's tweet and it's implications. Kirby, now an analyst for CNN, said Trump's decision "violates the covenant, as well the very contract, between recruits and the Defense Department. If we are to believe the president's statement this morning — which barred transgender troops from serving in "any capacity" — then it follows that every transgender soldier currently in uniform is in a state of limbo right now, uncertain whether or not they can continue their military careers."
"We should be better than this," said Kirby and co-author retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling.
A wave of congressional criticism, some from unexpected voices, flooded Washington inboxes. Conservative stalwart Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, tweeted, “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone. Transgender people are people, and deserve the best we can do for them. I look forward to getting much more information and clarity from our military leaders about the policy the president tweeted today.”
“They’re born that way. Why should we hold that against them,” Hatch said a bit later, MSNBC aired.
Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted, “Transgender Americans are serving honorably in our military. We stand with these patriots.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz, said in a statement Trump’s tweets were “confusing,” especially since the Defense Department already has decided transgender troops can serve openly. McCain said no policy change should occur until after the Defense Department completes its implementation study. McCain, more than anyone, likely has power to stymie the ban and quickly said there was no reason to expel active service members.
“Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving. There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military—regardless of their gender identity. We should all be guided by the principle that any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet the standards should have the opportunity to do so—and should be treated as the patriots they are,” said McCain.
Other Armed Services committee members were quick to criticize it as well. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the Senate’s Personnel Subcommittee, said she would introduce legislation to overturn the decision. Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., already had, filing an amendment to the House version of the defense authorization to prohibit funds from being used to implement the ban.
“This morning transgender service members put on their uniform and showed up for their military duties to be told by their Commander in Chief via Twitter that he doesn’t want them in ‘any capacity,’” Gillibrand said. “These service members are willing to die for their country, and this is an insult to their brave and honorable service.”
Rep. Jackie Spier, D-Calif., who represents parts of San Francisco, accused Trump of creating a “false military crisis” and called for an immediate reversal. “Though I am not surprised, I am dismayed and appalled by President Trump’s ignorance to bar transgender individuals from serving in our nation’s military. News flash, Mr. President – thousands of transgender troops already serve our country with pride and dignity. This hateful and discriminatory attack, announced through a series of tweets, is beneath the dignity of your office and on the wrong side of history.”
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., House Armed Services Committee ranking member, said, ““This announcement is an unwarranted and disgraceful attack on men and women who have been bravely serving their country. These service members are defending the United States around the world as we speak, and they have long done so with distinction. To prevent transgender people from joining the military and to push out those who have devoted their lives to this country would be ugly and discriminatory in the extreme.”
Iraq War veteran Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said, “When my Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq, I didn't care if the American troops risking their lives to help save me were gay, straight, transgender or anything else. All that mattered was they didn't leave me behind. If you are willing to risk your life for our country and you can do the job, you should be able to serve.”
The ranking Democratic member of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, of California, said, “The announcement by President Trump puts politics and catering to his extreme base ahead of the best interests of the military or basic principles of fairness and decency...I will join with my colleagues to use every tool at our disposal to reverse this baseless decision."
Advocates also harshly opposed Trump’s decision. The Palm Center, a leading voice during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, attacked Trump’s claim that the health costs for transgender troops were prohibitive for their service to the country. “This is a shocking and ignorant attack on our military and on transgender troops who have been serving honorably and effectively for the past year,” said director Aaron Belkin. “The Rand Corporation has estimated that the cost of medical care for transgender troops is approximately 1/100th of 1 percent of the military annual health care budget, or at most, $8.4 million per year. To claim otherwise is to lie about the data.”
“Today Donald Trump has proven himself as unpatriotic as he is unfit to serve as commander in chief. He has put a target on the backs of the more than 15,000 transgender troops proudly serving in our military,” said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin. “This heinous and disgusting action endangers the lives of American service members, undermines military readiness and makes our country less safe.”
Amnesty International’s Tarah Demant, director of Gender, Sexuality, and Identity, said, “Today’s announcement violates the human rights of all transgender Americans. It lays bare the president’s prejudice and underlines the fact that creating policy based on bigotry is becoming a dangerous and cruel pattern for President Trump.”
“It takes a brave and committed person to volunteer to defend this country, and every American that is able and willing to do so should be allowed to join the U.S. military,” said Smith, the House Armed Services Committee ranking member. “We will fight this decision, just like we fought ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and ultimately justice will prevail.”
Caroline Houck contributed to this report.