Secretary of Defense James Mattis sent some mixed messages Monday when he stopped by the Pentagon newsroom to discuss President Trump’s intended ban on transgender personnel in the military—which the president announced via Twitter. At best, the proposal remains in limbo and is still being studied; at worst, it’s inevitably still coming.
The key takeaway Mattis revealed is that Trump has yet to actually issue anything other than a few tweets and public comments. “I am waiting right now to get the President’s guidance in and that I expect to be very soon,” he explained.
In the meantime, the military is continuing to study the issue, consistent with what Mattis announced when he agreed to delay the implementation of transgender recruitment by six months. The change to recruitment policy was initially set to take place July 1.”The policy is going to address whether or not transgenders [sic] can serve under what conditions, what medical support they require, how much time would they be perhaps non-deployable leaving others to pick up their share of everything,” Mattis said. “There’s a host of issues and I’m learning more about this than I ever thought I would and it’s obviously very complex to include the privacy issues which we respect.” The reference to “privacy” is not a good sign: it’s a talking point deployed by opponents of transgender equality.
Mattis seemed dismissive of the research that had already been done before his predecessor, Ash Carter, announced last summer that the ban on trans military service would be lifted—including a massive study by the RAND Corporation, one of the most respected military think tanks. “I’m not willing to sign up for the [Rand Corp.] numbers you just used, and I’m not willing to sign up for the concern any of [the transgender service members] have,” the secretary said. “And I’m not willing to prejudge what the study will now bring out.”
Mattis also noted that the decision has been impacted by the lack of political appointees overseeing personnel issues at the Pentagon. He wants to “get them in to be able to answer those questions” before the ban is implemented.
The secretary stood by comments made by General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who said that nothing would change until Trump actually issued guidance, and “in the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.” Mattis also said that his people were advising the White House, “but they write their own policy, of course.”
Besides his tweets, the only other comment Trump has made was at a press gaggle last week when he said that he’s doing the military “a great favor” by just implementing the ban and avoiding a “very complicated” and “very confusing” issue.
Asked about the haphazard way Trump announced the policy, Mattis defended the president. “You all elected—the American people elected—the commander-in-chief,” he said. “They didn’t elect me. So the commander-in-chief in our country, in our system of government, is elected by the people, and he has that authority and responsibility.”
In the meantime, thousands of transgender personnel, who are already serving and have not disrupted the readiness of the military, await news about the fate of their careers.