Photographer: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

Tweets Before Policy as Trump Bans Transgender Service Members

  • President’s tweets may have been deal-making on wall funding
  • Ban on transgender service goes further than House bills

First came the surprise tweets, then the confusion. Now, the Trump administration is scrambling to formulate the policy.

President Donald Trump’s announcement on Twitter early Wednesday that the U.S. military "will not accept or allow" transgender people to serve came with no concrete plan -- no time frame, no details of whom it would affect, and no explanation beyond 62 words in three tweets. The Pentagon was caught off guard. It directed questions to the White House, which itself had little to say. On Capitol Hill, key members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, who would typically get a heads up about such a move, also were blindsided.

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

“I think 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.

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.

Standoff Sidestep

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."

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 have come out on the losing end of disputes between the two sides.

Hartzler Amendment

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 earlier 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, the aides said.

Afterward, a group of conservatives, including Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan and Scott Perry, 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." 

Hatch’s Defense

"Transgender people are people and deserve the best we can do for them," Utah Senator Orrin Hatch said. He added a jab: "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.

It wasn’t immediately clear just how many active service members would be affected by a ban. A 2016 Rand Corp. 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 in 2014 alone, the Military Times reported.

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