President Donald Trump announced on Twitter on Wednesday that the U.S. military will not allow transgender individuals to serve “in any capacity,” reversing an Obama-era policy while sparking bipartisan criticism from some of the the nation’s most prominent lawmakers on military issues.
“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,” Trump wrote online, breaking his message up into multiple posts. “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.”
Under President Barack Obama, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter laid out a plan to shift Pentagon policy to allow transgender troops to serve openly. Last month, Defense Secretary James Mattis announced that the Pentagon would delay his predecessor’s order for six months in order to review the impact of the shift.
A Trump administration official said that the president’s decision to announce the military’s transgender policy shift was at least in part motivated by conservatives who had opposed government spending legislation that might put money towards transgender health services.
The official said White House chief strategist Steve Bannon played a role in pushing Trump to move ahead with the new policy, despite the ongoing Pentagon review.
The decision caught some critical stakeholders by surprise. Spokeswomen for both the House and Senate armed services committees said their respective committees were given no warning ahead of the president’s announcement on Twitter. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Wednesday’s press briefing that Trump made the decision on Tuesday after consulting with his national security team.
“Sometimes you have to make decisions and once he made a decision, he didn’t feel it was necessary to hold that decision, and they’re going to work together with the Department of Defense to lawfully implement it,” Sanders said during a line of questioning about why so much of the government’s national security bureaucracy, including the Pentagon, had been caught flat-footed by the announcement. The White House spokeswoman said the president had made a “military decision” that should not be interpreted as anything more.
“I’ll try to make this clear, this was a military decision. This was about military readiness. This is about unit cohesion. This was about resources within the military and nothing more,” a seemingly exasperated Sanders said before informing the White House press corps that she had nothing else to add on the topic and would end the press briefing if there were no more questions on other subjects.
A Republican lawmaker who asked not to be named said Mattis had essentially removed himself from the transgender debate, preferring instead to focus on getting Pentagon appointees confirmed. “He already had one hot potato in his hands and he didn’t want another,” the lawmaker said.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department was referring all questions about Trump’s statement to the White House. “We will continue to work closely with the White House to address the new guidance provided by the Commander-in-Chief on transgender individuals serving the military. We will provide revised guidance to the Department in the near future,” he said.
Davis had said on Monday that Mattis was on “personal travel,” this week, but said he would be “plugging in to several meetings back here remotely.” Sanders said during the briefing that Trump had informed Mattis of his decision on Tuesday.
When Carter first announced in June of last year that the military would allow transgender individuals to serve openly, he declared that “Americans who want to serve and can meet our standards should be afforded the opportunity to compete to do so.” Carter cited RAND Corporation research showing that roughly 4,000 transgender individuals were serving in the military as either active duty service members or reservists at the time and that there would be “minimal readiness impacts from allowing transgender service members to serve openly.”
The RAND report also estimated that the policy shift toward openness would cost between $2.4 million and $8.4 million a year, less than a 1 percent increase in annual active-duty health care spending.
Carter issued a statement on Wednesday blasted the “social policy” that Trump laid out with his short announcement.
“Quality people in uniform are what make our military the finest fighting force the world has ever seen. I continue to maintain that what matters in choosing those who serves is that they are best qualified,” he said in a statement published by CBS News. “To choose service members on other grounds than military qualifications is social policy and has no place in our military. There are already transgender individuals serving capably and honorably. This actions would also send the wrong signal to a younger generation thinking about military service.”
It was not immediately clear what impact, if any, Trump’s announcement would have on transgender members of the military currently serving openly. Carter’s announcement last summer allowed transgender troops to begin serving openly immediately without fear of medical discharge or being otherwise separated from the military because of their gender identity. Carter’s order put a 12-month delay on new transgender recruits joining the military, a review period that the Pentagon extended last month through the end of the year.
At Wednesday’s White House briefing, Sanders had little to offer in the way of logistics or details as to what the president’s pronouncement might mean for transgender troops currently serving. Asked how the new policy might be implemented and if transgender members of the military currently serving around the world would be immediately recalled, Sanders said only that “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.”
Some Republican lawmakers quickly criticized Trump’s new transgender policy, or his way of delivering the announcement.
In a statement to the Des Moines Register, a spokeswoman for Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a Senate Armed Services Committee member and a retired lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, said that while the senator “believes taxpayers shouldn’t cover the costs associated with a gender reassignment surgery, Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded the opportunity.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who made a dramatic return to the Senate this week after being diagnosed with brain cancer, said in a statement that Trump’s social media post “is yet another example of why major policy should not be made via Twitter.” He called the president’s statement “unclear” and said any shift in policy before the end of the Department of Defense’s review is not appropriate.
“We should 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,” McCain said in his statement. He was joined in his criticism by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who served in the Air Force and the South Carolina Air National Guard, Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who said in a statement that “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone. Transgender people are people and deserve the best we can do for them.”
Democrats were even more direct. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a frequent foe of Trump in his role as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, wrote on Twitter that the president’s “anti-trans pronouncement is ugly and wrong. Discrimination isn’t patriotic — allowing all who love this country to serve, is.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) released her own statement, calling Trump’s decision “cruel and arbitrary” that shows a lack of “loyalty to the courageous men and women in uniform who risk their lives to defend our freedoms.” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, called Trump’s policy shift “an unwarranted and disgraceful attack on men and women who have been bravely serving their country.”
“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,” Smith’s statement said. “We will fight this decision, just like we fought ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and ultimately justice will prevail.”
Advocacy organizations including GLAAD, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign were all quick to denounce Trump’s move.
“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,” HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement released by his organization. “This heinous and disgusting action endangers the lives of American service members, undermines military readiness and makes our country less safe. It is also the latest effort by Trump and Mike Pence to undo our progress and drag LGBTQ people back into the closet by using our lives as political pawns.”
Meanwhile, Brad Carson, who served as acting undersecretary of defense for personnel in the Obama administration, called it “unprecedented to roll back a civil rights protection.”
Carson, a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, oversaw the Pentagon’s decision last year to take steps to ultimately allow transgender troops to serve openly – an implementation plan that Mattis had delayed for six months in June pending additional review.
He said that while issues such as medical care and housing for transgender troops were still being grappled with, there was widespread support among the top brass for ensuring the estimated 15,000 transgender troops in the ranks could serve openly.
When he asked the chiefs of the four military branches if they believed transgender troops should be barred from service, Carson recalled in an interview Wednesday, “everyone said no.”
“There was no support for this idea that you would drum out the transgender troops.”
He called Trump’s move “personally tragic for the transgender troops and professionally damaging to the organization” and predicted an immediate and nasty court battle over the decision.
“The transgender community is likely to prevail.”
Matt Thorn, the executive director of advocacy group OutServe-SLDN, said the president’s “pseudo-policy-by-Twitter” shows a “blatant disregard for transgender service members.”
“We are committed to transgender service members,” Thorn said. “And we’re going to start by taking the fight to Donald Trump in Federal Court.”
Trump’s announcement is the most recent in a string of moves that opponents have said curtail the rights of transgender individuals. Last February, Trump rescinded protections instituted by former President Barack Obama that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms at their schools that corresponds with their gender identity.
The announcement also comes during what the White House has dubbed “American heroes week.”
The moves seemingly contradict a campaign promise Trump made last June, also on Twitter, where he wrote “thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary [Clinton] brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.”
The president’s more open stance on transgender issues during the campaign helped, at least in part, to earn him the support of perhaps the most well-known transgender celebrity, Caitlyn Jenner, who has said she voted for the president last November and delivered a speech at an event that coincided with the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
In an interview last summer with NBC’s “Today” show, Trump said that “there have been very few complaints” about a system in which individuals “use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate.” He said in the same interview that Jenner could use whatever bathroom she wanted inside Trump Tower, an offer the celebrity took him up on a week later in a video posted to Facebook.
Wednesday afternoon, Jenner recalled Trump’s promise to the LGBT community that he would “fight for you,” writing on her Twitter account that “there are 15,000 patriotic transgender Americans in the US military fighting for all of us. What happened to your promise to fight for them?”
Bryan Bender, Josh Dawsey, Eliana Johnson, Jacqueline Klimas, Rachael Bade and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.
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