In late July, President Donald Trump fired off a series of tweets that represented a dramatic shift in policy: transgender members of the military would no longer be allowed to serve, citing the need to focus on “decisive and overwhelming victory.”
The move took military officials and active servicemembers by surprise. In response, General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quickly told the military there would be no change in policy regarding the estimated 15,000 transgender servicemembers until the secretary of defense heard from the president.
The president’s Twitter declaration apparently stunned officials within the West Wing, as well. In fact, White House and Department of Defense lawyers had warned Trump against such a ban, fearing the backlash it would spark, Politico reported Friday evening. Trump, frustrated by their response, elected to tweet the announcement himself.
“The administration had no plan in place, but Trump told others they would have to ‘get in gear’ if he announced the ban first,” Politico reported, citing a White House official who spoke to Trump. “He also said the announcement would stop the lawyers from arguing with him anymore.”
The initial reaction to Trump’s proposed ban on transgender service members validates his lawyers’ reported concerns. A group of 56 retired admirals and generals warned that such a ban “would cause significant disruptions, deprive the military of mission-critical talent, and compromise the integrity of transgender troops who would be forced to live a lie, as well as non-transgender peers who would be forced to choose between reporting their comrades or disobeying policy.” They also rejected Trump’s tweeted claim regarding the prohibitive cost of supporting transgender servicemembers, citing research from the RAND Corporation and the New England Journal of Medicine that concluded the maximum cost of providing health care to transgender troops would be $8.4 million per year — one one-hundredth of a percent of the military’s health care budget.
Public support seems to be lacking, as well. Fifty-eight percent of respondents agreed that “transgender people should be allowed to serve in the military,” according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week. Just 27 percent of those surveyed said they believe transgender people shouldn’t be allowed to serve, while the rest were undecided.
On Friday, 53 House Democrats sent a letter to Dunford and Defense Secretary James Mattis expressing their “strong opposition” to Trump’s tweets, and urging the Pentagon “not to comply with any unconstitutional directive which may ultimately be issued.” The top Democrats on the House Armed Services and Judiciary Committees, Reps. Adam Smith (WA) and John Conyers (MI), organized the effort.
Such a policy may be forthcoming, according to the Washington Blade. Citing sources familiar with the effort, the Blade reported that Trump’s tweets regarding a ban on transgender service members was made into a “guidance” policy that met the approval of White House counsel on Friday night.
When and if an official policy does materialize, the legal case against such a ban would seem to be an easy victory for transgender people who choose to serve in the military. But as ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser notes, “a long tradition of judiciary deference on matters relating to the military and a Supreme Court that does not yet appear to have wrapped its head around trans rights” presents a significant obstacle.