White House Finds Solution to Transgender Military Ban: Delay, Then Let Mattis Decide

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Turning to “his generals” is one of Trump’s favorite moves. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Last month, President Trump decreed in a series of tweets that transgender people would be banned from serving in the U.S. military:

As it turns out, Trump actually hadn’t consulted with “his generals.” Defense Secretary James Mattis was given only a day’s notice, and was said to be appalled that Trump was announcing military policy on Twitter. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford told service members there would 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 guidelines.”

Now the White House has finally come up with the guidelines to back up Trump’s tweets, according to The Wall Street Journal. They give Mattis a great deal of leeway on how the ban will work, and six months to prepare to implement the new policy.

Officials familiar with the two-and-a-half-page memo said that Mattis will consider a service member’s “deployability” — meaning their ability to serve in a war zone or participate in a months-long mission overseas — as the primary legal means to decide whether they should be forced out of the military.

The memo also says openly transgender people should not be admitted to the military (which is the existing policy), and the Pentagon should stop spending on medical treatment for current transgender service members.

What that means in practice is unclear. A Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon last year estimated that there are 1,320 to 6,600 openly transgender service members currently serving. However, the study concluded that, each year, only 29 to 129 active service members would seek transition-related treatment that “could disrupt their ability to deploy.”

So would Mattis argue that all transgender service members fail to meet the deployability standard, or would he only kick out the several dozen service members currently receiving medical care for gender dysphoria? And what’s the justification for dismissing a transgender troop, but not the thousands of other service members who can’t currently head into a war zone?

“Transgender people are just as deployable as other service members,” Sue Fulton, the former president of Sparta, an organization for LGBT service members, told the Journal. “Other service members may undergo procedures when they are at home base, just as other service members schedule shoulder surgery or gall bladder surgery.”

Mattis appears to have little interest in devoting energy to the battle over transgender service members. The new ban reportedly stems from a fight among House Republicans over Pentagon-funded sex-reassignment operations. That threatened a spending bill that included money for Trump’s southern border wall, so Trump announced transgender troops would be banned completely — though that was far beyond what the lawmakers were pushing for.

The Defense Department spends far more on Viagra than it does on transgender services, and according to the New York Times, Mattis had been lobbying lawmakers to keep the ban on funding transgender treatments out of the bill. In June, Mattis delayed the July 1 deadline to begin admitting transgender recruits, which was set by the Obama administration, saying the Pentagon needed more time to assess the issue.

The Times reported that Mattis has reservations about allowing transgender service members, but like other Pentagon leaders, he seemed to accept that the issue had been resolved:

Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine, has not been a major proponent of allowing transgender people to serve in the military, in part because medical accommodations, including hormone injections, could open the Defense Department to claims from other people not allowed to serve, like Type 1 diabetics, who also need regular injections.


But Mr. Mattis and the Pentagon’s military leadership all seemed to have accepted that transgender people already serving in the military would be allowed to remain. A senior adviser to Mr. Mattis, Sally Donnelly, represented the Palm Center, an organization that advocated on behalf of the L.G.B.T. community in the military during the debate that led up to the Obama administration’s decision to allow transgender people to serve, defense officials said.

Legal experts say banning people from the military because they’re transgender is unconstitutional, and more than 50 senators, including several Republicans, blasted Trump’s decision. The first lawsuit over the transgender ban has already been filed, and many more are expected.

We’ll find out in the next few days if the memo is actually issued, but it looks like a winning strategy for the Trump administration. The president gets to tell his base (and Vice-President Mike Pence) that he banned transgender people from the military while pushing the most difficult decisions onto Mattis. The Defense secretary gets another six months to come up with a workable solution — and by then Trump might have forgotten about the issue, or the courts may have tied his hands again. Meanwhile, the transgender service members risking their lives to defend the country are left in limbo.

White House Solution to Transgender Ban: Let Mattis Decide