Playing Transgender Politics

Posturing, not policy.

On Wednesday morning, at 8:55 a.m., President Trump tweeted: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow…” Many in the Pentagon wondered if he was announcing military action against North Korea, which, according to new intelligence estimates, is set to field a nuclear-tipped ICBM as early as next year. Not until nine minutes later was the suspense lifted with another presidential tweet: “…Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”

Alarm in defense circles soon turned to befuddlement: Why was Trump making this announcement? And why now? There was no immediate indication that the president had consulted with Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is on vacation, or notified other senior military leaders. The Pentagon referred all inquiries to the White House. When pressed for details, the White House had none. “That’s something the Department of Defense and the White House will have to work out,” a spokesman told reporters.

So the president is tweeting first and then leaving it to someone else to work out the actual policy he just announced.

This is all the odder because Mattis had committed to a comprehensive, six-month study, not due to be finished until December, of whether the military should accept new transgender recruits. Several GOP congress members, meanwhile, had introduced legislation to prevent the military’s health insurance plan from paying for gender reassignment surgery (which costs ten times less than what the military spends annually on erectile dysfunction medications—$84 million). What Trump announced is far broader—a ban not only on new transgendered recruits or on future gender reassignment surgeries but also a ban on existing transgendered personnel.

The only comprehensive study on transgendered service personnel, conducted by Rand last year, found that roughly 2,450 are currently serving and that they have a “minimal impact on readiness and health care costs.” “The limited research on the effects of foreign military policies indicates little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness,” Rand reported. “Commanders noted that the policies had benefits for all service members by creating a more inclusive and diverse force.”

The leadership of the Defense Department is certainly not agitating to boot out transgendered personnel who serve honorably and bravely. In fact, they’d rather not deal with this issue at all. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, spoke for many, especially younger military personnel, when he said, “Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving. 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.”

So why would President Trump, out of the blue, issue a momentous policy pronouncement for which there is no pressing need and no preparation? It is hard to explain this other than to suggest that it is Trump’s way of distracting attention from the multiple crises besetting his presidency—from his bizarre feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions to his inability, so far, to pass health-care legislation through a Republican-controlled Congress. Trump’s attacks on Sessions, a favorite of his nationalist-conservative base, have been especially costly, leading even longtime allies such as Newt Gingrich to criticize him.

The transgender ban is a symbolic way to try to stay in the good graces of the religious right and to simply change the subject. Indeed, Zeke Miller of Time tweeted: “White House official tells me admin[istration] is thrilled media is focusing on transgender service member issue.”

This may be good politics, but it’s bad policy. If Trump really cares about enhancing military effectiveness, rather than simply grandstanding for his populist rooting section, he would focus on repealing the sequestration act that, as Sen. Tom Cotton noted, makes defense budgeting arbitrary and unpredictable. Trump also needs to work with Congress to simply increase the defense budget to make up for years of neglect. But that would require the kind of heavy legislative-lifting in which the president has shown no interest.