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Pentagon Pushes Back on Trump Changes to Transgender Policy

  • Joint Chiefs says will wait for formal White House guidance
  • Statement follows confusion in aftermath of presidential tweet

President Donald Trump’s hastily tweeted declaration that he’ll bar transgender people from serving in the military has run into the realities of Pentagon bureaucracy.

The Defense Department said Thursday there’ll be “no modifications” to its policy allowing transgender people to serve in the U.S. military until the Pentagon receives more formal notification from the White House. Trump announced the ban a day earlier, citing the additional medical costs and “disruption” having such troops would cause and prompting bipartisan rebuke.

“There will be no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance,” the office of Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford said in a statement. “In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.”

The statement, which omitted any endorsement of the president’s policy, will at the least slow Trump’s announcement -- made in a series of three tweets -- that he “will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” It also indicated that the Pentagon would require the White House to define the parameters of the president’s decision, and suggested that the move is a distraction from the military’s effort to fight multiple conflicts around the world.

“As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions,” Dunford’s office said in the statement.

Chaos and Confusion

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday the White House would work with the Defense Department and all relevant agencies. She said the president’s tweet represented an announcement of his intention to change policy, rather than a formal order.

“They are going to have to work out the details on how that all moves forward to lawfully implement that policy change,” she said.

But the Dunford announcement underscored the chaos and confusion stemming from the president’s frequent and surprising early-morning tweets, which in this case caught Pentagon officials and key members of Congress off-guard.

Trump made the decision Tuesday, notified Defense Secretary James Mattis (who’s on vacation this week) and other key administration officials overnight, and didn’t see any reason to wait on an announcement, Sanders said Wednesday.

“Sometimes you have to make decisions. And once he made a decision, he didn’t feel it was necessary to hold that decision,” she said.

Key members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, who would typically get a heads up about such a move, also were blindsided.

Standoff Sidestep

Officially, the move is about saving money on medical expenses related to gender-reassignment procedures -- even though the estimated costs add up to just a few million dollars annually -- and to strengthen the armed forces. In the president’s view, the presence of transgender people in the ranks “erodes military readiness and unit cohesion,” Sanders said.

But the move also defuses a congressional standoff over whether a forthcoming defense spending bill should allow the Pentagon to pay for gender-reassignment care -- and may ease approval of money for the president to build a border wall. Trump, in fact, went much further than social conservatives in Congress had sought, apparently banning transgender people from the military altogether.

Trump’s tweets also reignited the right just as some were cooling on him after his public bullying of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Breitbart News -- usually a Trump ally -- described Sessions this week as “a man who embodies the movement that elected Donald Trump president.”

Culture Wars

Treatment of transgender people has become a flashpoint in the U.S. culture wars as social conservatives lead fights in some states to require that students and sometimes adults use school and public restrooms corresponding to their gender at birth. Trump has attempted to thread a needle between the two sides. In his campaign, he cultivated evangelical voters while at the same time promising to “fight for” the gay and transgender community.

But so far in Trump’s presidency, it is gay and transgender Americans who’ve come out on the losing end of disputes between the two sides.

Socially conservative members of Congress contacted White House officials with concerns about Pentagon spending on gender-reassignment procedures after a defeat on the House floor, according to two Republican aides. An amendment offered to a defense policy bill by Representative Vicky Hartzler of Missouri this month that would have banned the Pentagon from paying for medical care related to gender transition failed by a vote of 209-214.

Mattis had called Harztler personally before the vote to ask her to withdraw the amendment.

Border Wall Funding

Afterward, a group of conservative lawmakers, including Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, told members of the Trump administration, including legislative director Marc Short, that some Republicans would have difficulty voting for a security spending bill with money for Trump’s border wall unless the restriction on gender-reassignment care was included, the aides said.

However, Trump took things a step further than they expected when he said in his tweet that he would ban military service by transgender people. Meadows, the chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, was surprised by the tweet, according to one of the aides, who was with him when he saw it and said he read it several times.

By Wednesday evening, House Republicans had concluded they no longer needed to debate inclusion of the Hartzler language in a spending bill.

Battle Lines

Even without much information about how Trump’s ban would translate to policy, the battle lines quickly came into sharp relief. Gay and transgender rights groups and Democrats roundly rejected the move, while socially conservative organizations with close ties to the White House celebrated it.

But in a surprise, some Republicans -- and not just moderate ones -- also publicly denounced Trump’s announcement.

“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,” Arizona Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “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.”

“Transgender people are people and deserve the best we can do for them,” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch said. He added, “I look forward to getting much more information and clarity from our military leaders about the policy the president tweeted today.”

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, who served in the Army for more than two decades, said she’s opposed to taxpayer funding for gender-reassignment surgery but believes that people who meet the military’s standards should be able to serve, regardless of gender identity.

Viagra Spending

It wasn’t clear how many active service members would be affected by a ban. A 2016 Rand Corporation study estimated the number of transgender individuals on active duty in the U.S. military at 1,320 to 6,630 out of a total of about 1.3 million service members.

The financial savings would be negligible within the $6 billion-plus military medical budget, let alone Trump’s $574.5 billion proposal for 2018 defense spending.

Care related to gender reassignment costs the Pentagon $2.4 million to $8.4 million annually, the larger number a little more than 0.1 percent of the military’s entire health-care bill. By contrast, the military spent $84 million on Viagra and other drugs for erectile dysfunction for active-duty troops, eligible family members and retirees in 2014 alone, the Military Times reported.

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