President Donald Trump recently claimed that his administration is a “fine-tuned machine.” So far, on LGBT issues, it’s behaved more like an old jalopy spewing smoke, inefficient and dangerous. The only question now: Who’s driving?
Twice now in the first month and change of the Trump presidency, LGBT advocates have endured days-long periods of anxiety while rumors of possible anti-LGBT actions leak from the White House.
The first rumor—that Trump would rescind President Obama’s 2014 executive order protecting LGBT federal contractors or institute a “religious freedom” executive order of his own—never materialized, with the White House stating that Trump is “respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights.”
The second—that Trump would roll back Obama’s 2016 guidance instructing schools that transgender students should be permitted to use restrooms matching their gender—turned out to be true, with potentially disastrous effect.
Both times, there have been reports of people within the administration undermining or resisting the anti-LGBT plans. First, Politico reported that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner worked to protect the Obama 2014 executive order.
More recently, The New York Times cited three Republican operatives who claimed that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos only agreed to withdraw Obama’s 2016 guidance at the threat of her job, under pressure from new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose confirmation was broadly opposed by civil rights organizations.
Even by the standards of the Trump administration, these have been messy periods, full of leaks to the press and rumors of infighting. But two sources with knowledge of the Trump administration’s inner workings during these periods—speaking on condition of anonymity—told The Daily Beast not to mistake the mess for an even split on LGBT issues within the White House.
Despite LGBT advocates’ fears that Vice President Mike Pence would lead an attack on their rights, it is Sessions, they say, who has had the most influence on LGBT issues—and on a president who seems personally agnostic on many of these questions.
The influence of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner on LGBT rights, these sources say, has been dramatically exaggerated—and other LGBT allies within the administration are at risk of getting steamrolled by the Sessions camp, as the DeVos dustup proved.
In response to questions about the Trump administration’s reported infighting on LGBT issues and its rescinding of the guidance for transgender students, White House spokesperson Kelly Love told The Daily Beast: “The President’s promise to be supportive and respectful of LGBTQ rights remains the same. The action yesterday returns power to the states and encourages an open and inclusive process to take place at the local level, which the Dear Colleague Letter failed to do.” (Press Secretary Sean Spicer has previously downplayed reports of infighting, claiming that DeVos was “100 percent” on board with rescinding the guidance.)
David Dinielli, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based organization which tracks political groups with extreme anti-LGBT views, is not at all shocked by Sessions’s reported role in this latest incident. Those groups have been pressuring the Trump administration to take action on what they perceive as an Obama-era overreach on social issues and Sessions has long enjoyed their support.
“It certainly is not a surprise that some of them—including the Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, [and the] American Family Association—have expressed such glee at this turn of events,” Dinielli told The Daily Beast, adding, “There’s no doubt that the pressure is coming from these groups, that it’s organized by these groups, and that people like Jeff Sessions respond to it.”
Dinielli worries that the public is still underestimating the damage that the Trump administration can do to LGBT rights—and overestimating the power of the few rumored allies in his circles.
“People have been bamboozled by this notion that, for example, Ivanka is some sort of maiden in shining armor—or in a glamorous gown—who along with her mild-looking husband is somehow going to protect us from what’s going on,” he said. “We know that’s not the case.”
Indeed, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have been silent on President Trump sending the transgender restroom debate to the state level, as Politico pointed out on Thursday.
Even DeVos, who reportedly resisted the move and released a lengthy statement pledging her support for “LGBTQ students,” told a cheering crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference the next day that the transgender guidance was “a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach.” And if DeVos did indeed oppose the rescinding of the guidance, that’s cold comfort to LGBT rights groups.
“She signed it,” Susan Sommer, associate legal director and director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal told The Daily Beast. “At the end of the day, she has to live with the fact that she signed it—and unfortunately, so do thousands of children.”
To find vocal critics of Trump’s latest move on transgender students, one would have to look outside of his inner circle at merely Trump-adjacent figures—and even then, it’s clear they don’t hold much sway.
And Jackie Evancho, who sang at the inauguration, asked Trump on Twitter to meet with her and her transgender sister Juliet. Spicer said during Thursday’s briefing, “Yeah, I think the president would be welcome to meet with her.”
There are some hints that Trump might be—as Spicer claimed—personally “sympathetic” to the situation of transgender children like Juliet Evancho. Trump once invited Caitlyn Jenner to use the Trump Tower ladies’ room and said that North Carolina should “leave it the way it is right now” instead of clinging to its anti-transgender law HB 2. But he quickly shifted to his current “states’ rights” position during the campaign.
And in the absence of stronger personal convictions on LGBT issues, Trump may feel bound to pay back social conservatives for his electoral victory, as the Associated Press reported, and he could be more inclined to align with an influential early supporter like Sessions over someone like DeVos, as sources indicated to The Daily Beast.
Gregory T. Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, remains optimistic about the Trump administration’s future on LGBT issues—and even about Jeff Sessions. (Log Cabin supported the Obama transgender student guidance and opposed it being rescinded.)
Angelo reminded The Daily Beast that the Trump administration team invited the LGBT conservative organization to draft a white paper in January on Obama’s 2014 executive order protecting LGBT federal contractors.
But when the decision to rescind the transgender student guidance came around, Angelo says that Log Cabin was only informed that day. “I was given several hours’ notice,” he said.
Asked if it worried him that Log Cabin was not as far inside the loop this time around, Angelo conceded that “it’s definitely a concern” but said, “If I am being an optimist, I’m seeing that Trump in some ways, I think, is trying to balance—at times in a clumsy way—an affinity for the LGBT community that he clearly has and placating an evangelical Christian constituency that largely propelled him to the White House.”
Many LGBT advocates feared that it would be Mike Pence who would champion that anti-LGBT evangelical viewpoint in the early days of a Trump presidency.
But the claim that the former governor of Indiana has kept a low profile during internal White House conversations on LGBT issues—as The Daily Beast’s sources indicated—would not be news to Angelo.
After facing widespread boycotts over Indiana’s infamous 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Pence has been burned by LGBT people and their allies before and he may not be eager to hop back in the fire.
“He knows firsthand the uproar that is unleashed when attacks against the LGBT community are committed, legislative or otherwise,” said Angelo. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a reluctance he would have to reliving those controversies on a far greater scale as the country’s vice president.”
Where the Trump administration moves on LGBT issues from here remains to be seen. With Jeff Sessions at the head of the Justice Department, many advocates remain fearful of his approach to LGBT civil rights. And because President Trump made a campaign promise to sign the First Amendment Defense Act—essentially a stronger, nationwide version of Indiana’s 2015 RFRA—LGBT people could still face discrimination by way of legislation.
Asked if Trump has any more executive orders in the works that would impact LGBT people, Love told the Associated Press this week that he does not.
But several early decisions in the Trump administration have been made by the president and a small groups of advisers with allegiances that can shift at any moment.
And when it’s not even clear who’s driving, it’s hard to say where the car is going.