WASHINGTON — Transgender individuals could be kicked out of the military and banned from enlisting under a policy change announced by President Donald Trump on Twitter Wednesday morning.
Trump appeared to completely reverse policy put in place last year by President Barack Obama that allows open service of transgender individuals and funding for gender reassignment surgery.
This announcement came as a shock to the “vast majority” of Pentagon leaders who had no idea the policy change was coming, a government official said.
The Pentagon was working feverishly Wednesday morning to determine what the tweets mean for service members and determine the way ahead. For example, what sort of guidance should be provided to unit-level commanders regarding the men and women under their responsibility? Does a tweet make policy, or does it need to be further codified before the policy can be enacted, such as officially recording it in the Federal Register?
And potentially most importantly, what does the policy mean for the thousands of transgender men and women service members already serving who have identified themselves in the months since the Obama administration welcomed them to serve openly?
“We refer all questions about the President's statements to the White House,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters.
“We will continue to work closely with the White House to address the new guidance provided by the commander-in-chief on transgender individuals serving the military,” Davis said in a statement. ”We will provide revised guidance to the department in the near future.”
The president’s tweets suggested that military readiness was a key concern.
“After consultation with my generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” Trump said in the morning tweets.
“Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”
Mattis was on leave this week on personal travel, Davis said. Newly installed Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan was "in the seat," Davis said, but Mattis was expected to call into key meetings.
The White House did brief just a few senior Pentagon officials on the president’s planned tweets before they went out, said a U.S. official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity. But the “vast, vast majority of people knew nothing about it,” the official said.
The official did not know whether Mattis knew ahead of time about the tweets.
The government official said the Pentagon’s current policies allowing transgendered servicemembers to serve remain in effect as the department conducts its review.
The move comes just a few weeks after Defense Secretary James Mattis delayed a policy allowing the enlistment of transgender recruits into the military pending a six-month review of military policies. That review was not announced to be covering transgender troops already serving openly.
Transgender service members who are already in the military have been able to serve openly since last year, when former Defense Secretary Ash Carter ended the ban. Since Oct. 1, transgender troops have been able to receive medical care and start formally changing gender identifications in the Pentagon's personnel system.
Outside rights groups have estimated that about 15,000 transgender individuals are already serving in the ranks. They’ve also attacked Mattis’ delay as a discriminatory step that will make the military less safe.
The RAND Corp. has previously estimated the cost of health care services for transgender troops at close to $8 million a year, a small fraction of the $600 billion-plus Pentagon budget.
But conservatives on Capitol Hill have attacked the policy in recent weeks as an unnecessary expenditure and a potential threat to military readiness.
Officials at OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which provides legal assistance to LGBT troops and recruits, called Trump’s announcement “pseudo-policy-by-twitter,” and said the news is part of a pattern of “blatant disregard for transgender service members.”
“The disruptive burden to the military comes from indecision in a White House which itself is not focused on victory if it’s targeting service members,” the group said. “The readiness, effectiveness, and lethality of the Armed Services comes from the commitment of our troops — not the vagaries and bigotry of exclusionary policies.”
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, an advocacy group for transgender service members, blasted Trump’s comments as “creating a worse version of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” which banned gay troops from talking about sexual orientation while serving in the military.
“As we know from the sad history of that discredited policy, discrimination harms military readiness,” he said. “This is a shocking and ignorant attack on our military and on transgender troops who have been serving honorably and effectively for the past year.”
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.