By Paul Schindler
In a rapid-fire series of three tweets this morning, President Donald Trump announced his intention to bar transgender Americans from serving openly in the military.
At about 9 a.m., tweeting on his personal account @realDonaldTrump, the president wrote: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow……,” then, “…Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming…..,” and finally, .”…victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”
The announcement marked a sharp u-turn from the policy announced on June 30 of last year by the Obama administration’s defense secretary, Ash Carter, who said that open service by transgender enlistees would roll out in stages over the following year. When the anti-gay Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was overturned in late 2010, the military spent nearly 10 months preparing for the transition to open service by gay and lesbian service members.
The first clear sign that the Obama/ Ash plan might be turned back came when Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced on June 30 — one day prior to its planned final implementation — that he was giving military leaders another six months to evaluate how transgender service would affect the “readiness and lethality” of the armed forces.
In recent months, as well, some conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill have tried to block transgender service, suggesting either an outright ban or a prohibition on funds spent on medical expenses for transition-related care. That second idea was recently defeated in a close vote in the House. The measure’s sponsor, Missouri Republican Vicky Hartzler, had claimed that medical costs associated with open transgender service would total $1.35 billion over 10 years.
In fact, in a study completed last summer, the RAND Corporation, a think tank that works on military-related policy issues, had estimated the annual incremental cost at between $2.4 and $8.4 million annually, a fraction of Hartzler’s claim. Rand estimated that out of 1.3 million service members there are currently between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender soldiers.
Those personnel presumably are now at risk for harassment and discharge under Trump’s new policy.
The Rand report, commissioned by the Department of Defense, stated that “only a small portion of service members would likely seek gender transition-related medical treatments that would affect their deployability or health care costs,” and estimated that each year between 30 and 140 new hormone treatments would be initiated a year and between 25 and 130 gender transition-related surgeries would be utilized.
Focusing on the question of “readiness,” RAND noted that in 2015 there were 102,500 non-deployable soldiers in the Army alone, 50,000 of them technically in active service, while transgender service would add only 10 to 130 to the number of personnel with reduced deployability.
RAND reported that 18 nations — including Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia — allow open transgender military service.
Responding to Trump’s tweets, Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, an independent research institute that focuses on issues of sexual minorities in the military, wrote, “The President is creating a worse version of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ As we know from the sad history of that discredited policy, discrimination harms military readiness. 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. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen stated yesterday, their service must be respected. The Rand Corporation has estimated that the cost of medical care for transgender troops is approximately one ones-hundredth of one percent of the military annual health care budget, or at most, $8.4 million per year. To claim otherwise is to lie about the data.”
When he announced the Obama administration’s intention last year to move toward open service, Carter said, “The Defense Department and the military need to avail ourselves of all talent possible in order to remain what we are now — the finest fighting force the world has ever known. We don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who can best accomplish the mission. We have to have access to 100 percent of America’s population. Although relatively few in number, we’re talking about talented and trained Americans who are serving their country with honor and distinction.”
Trump’s action today marks the administration’s second attack on the transgender community. In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reversed an Obama administration policy that schools receiving federal funding must protect transgender students from discrimination, including in their access to private facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.
Ironically, Trump’s decision to throw red meat to the right this week comes as he is facing criticism from leading conservatives for his attacks on Sessions, whom he is blaming for the continued investigations into Russian interference in the election and any ties to the president’s campaign. Just hours before Trump issued his tweets, the Human Rights Campaign sent out an advisory pointing to an article in Foreign Policy reporting that Vice President Mike Pence has been working with congressional Republicans to block implementation of open transgender service.
What remains unclear in the wake of Trump’s tweets is how they will be received by military personnel who have worked for the past 13 months to implement the changes Carter announced. Mattis’ statement this past June 30, in focusing not on implementation questions but rather on fundamental issues of “readiness and lethality,” suggests that he perhaps was second-guessing decisions already settled by the Defense Department under Secretary Carter. But that is not certain, and it bears keeping in mind that the Pentagon, when contacted about Trump’s tweets, referred calls to the White House, though a spokesperson said the Department of Defense would “work closely with the White House to address the new guidance provided by the commander-in-chief” and would “provide revised guidance to the Department in the near future.” How on board with the president “his” generals are on this issue remains an open question.
One of the leading authorities on the military in Congress, Republican Senator John McCain, who spent six years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict and chairs the Armed Services Committee, criticized Trump’s abrupt policy shift offered without any explanation, saying, “The president’s tweet this morning regarding transgender Americans in the military is yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter.”
Veteran Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch was also critical, as were innumerable Democrats in Congress.
New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader, said, “We must be clear-eyed about the threats to our civil rights and unified in opposition to any and every attempt to erode them. I will fight tooth and nail against any policy that discriminates these patriots and erodes the capability of our military.”
Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, cited the ironic historical significance of the day Trump opted to announce his transgender military position.
“On this very day in 1948, President Harry Truman signed the executive order desegregating the US military,” Pelosi said in a written statement. “Sixty-nine years later, President Trump has chosen this day to unleash a vile and hateful agenda that will blindside thousands of patriotic Americans already serving with honor and bravery. It is a cruel and arbitrary decision designed to humiliate transgender Americans who stepped forward to serve our country… This morning’s tweets reveal a President with no loyalty to the courageous men and women in uniform who risk their lives to defend our freedoms.”