The Cable

Trump Blindsides Pentagon in Transgender Policy Shift

Just weeks after the Pentagon chief launched a new study on the issue, POTUS announces transgender ban

US President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base  in Maryland on July 3, 2017. 
Trump and his family were returning to Washington, DC after spending the weekend at his Bedminster, NJ golf club.
 / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on July 3, 2017. Trump and his family were returning to Washington, DC after spending the weekend at his Bedminster, NJ golf club. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that transgender people would be barred from serving in the U.S. military “in any capacity,” catching the Pentagon off guard and provoking outrage among rights advocates.

Defense officials deflected questions about the president’s surprise decision delivered via tweets, which herald a major policy shift for the Pentagon that is still struggling to fill dozens of empty civilian policy positions six months into the new administration.

In a sign of the confusion caused by the move, Pentagon officials initially declined to speak about the policy shift. Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis eventually released a statement admitting the Defense Department has no plan to deal with the policy reversal, and “will provide revised guidance to the Department in the near future.”

Trump’s tweets did not say what would happen to transgender troops currently in the ranks. But he said that after consulting with “my Generals and military experts,” the government “will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”

The Pentagon referred all questions to the White House.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who just weeks ago delayed accepting new transgender service members into the armed services for six months until the issue of providing health care and services could be studied further, is on vacation this week, and it is unclear if he knew about president’s announcement.

One year ago, then Defense Secretary Ash Carter lifted the ban accepting transgender service members into the force. Since then, there have been no public reports of indiscipline or social issues within the ranks of the military that would cause concern. Soon after Trump’s election in November, LGBTQ groups began expressing concern over what it might mean for recent gains and the ability to serve openly.

On Tuesday, FP reported exclusively that Vice President Mike Pencea social conservative who has often opposed gay and transgender rights initiatives– has been working his longtime contacts on Capitol Hill in recent weeks to reverse the year-old Pentagon policy of funding transition procedures for transgender service members.

Trump’s announcement Wednesday marked a stark contrast to his campaign rhetoric, when he made a point of reaching out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community despite the discomfort it caused among some rank-and-file Republicans. He even mentioned gay rights in his speech at the Republican national convention.

Various studies estimate the number of transgender service members currently in uniform is relatively small. A RAND study puts it at about 2,500, and the cost of providing medical care for their gender transitions about cost about $2.4 million to $8 million a year, a tiny fraction of the $600 billion defense budget.

The reaction to the president’s Tweets was swift.

“Today, on the anniversary of President Harry Truman’s order desegregating the United States Armed Forces, President Trump is choosing to retreat in the march toward equality,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “This was a divisive political move that exposes the President’s lack of faith in the professionalism of our Armed Forces.”

Republican Sen. John McCain, who leads to Senate Armed Services Committee, took a more measured approach, saying only that the statement was “unclear,” and “any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving…and should be treated as the patriots they are.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, called the announcement  “an unwarranted and disgraceful attack on men and women who have been bravely serving their country….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.”

 

Photo Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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