On the anniversary of Harry S. Truman’s desegregation of the military, President Donald Trump on Wednesday abruptly reversed the move to openly integrate trans service members. The announcement came in the form of a tweeted edict that was designed to appeal to the religious hard right, White House officials told The Daily Beast.
Trump claimed in his tweets that his decision was made “after consultation with my Generals and military experts.” Yet the announcement took some staff in the Pentagon, White House, and Capitol Hill by surprise. Trump also cited “tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail”—an argument undercut by the most reliable studies on the subject.
While Trump tweeted that he would no longer allow “transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” he did not specifically say what would happen to the estimated 4,000 transgender troops now serving openly in the active-duty military after the Obama administration lifted the ban on such service in 2016. Last month, Pentagon chief Jim Mattis had delayed a decision to allow transgender recruits.
It was unclear Wednesday if Trump’s stance against trans service “in any capacity” indicates that the few thousand out trans service members would be immediately forced to separate from the military.
‘Treat Me Like a Human Being’
Kendall Balentine transitioned two years ago after serving as a man in the Marines for eight years and in the Army for three. When she woke up to Trump’s announcement Wednesday morning, she said it felt like Trump had everything backward.
“Anyone who serves in the military has that commonality—they are willing to give the greatest sacrifice for our country—and now our government doesn’t want to give us the smallest concession to do that, to serve like anybody else,” she said. “He’s empowering people in the military to believe in something that’s not true.”
When Balentine talks to military peers and generals now after her transition, she said nothing’s changed because of her gender.
“They just treat me like a human being, that’s it. The interaction they have with me now is no different that the one they would have had with me when I was in the military,” she said. “When [Trump] makes a statement that he’s talking to generals, the generals exist in his head.”
Radha Iyengar, one of the authors of an influential Rand Corporation study on open transgender service, said that the total numbers of trans personnel and their impact on the military health-care system were low, but “the disruption comes from not having a clear policy process and interpretation of what this means, and we’ll have to see how [the Defense Department] implements to see how it affects the total force.”
Ashley Broadway-Mack of the LGBT family group American Military Partner Association called Trump’s decision “a horrifying, vicious attack on thousands of actively serving troops in the military who happen to be transgender…. This is unconscionable, and we are beyond outraged.”
‘We’re Trying to Figure It Out’
The tweeted edict caught some officials in the Pentagon and White House off guard. Hours after Trump’s tweet, the Pentagon still had on its website’s “Transgender Policy” page the assurance that “effective immediately, transgender Service members may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military solely for being transgender individuals.”
“We refer all questions about the president’s statements to the White House,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said in an emailed statement. “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. We will provide revised guidance to the department in the near future.”
“The Pentagon was made aware that new guidance would be coming down before the tweet went out,” a U.S. official said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
“We’re trying to figure it out,” a second official said, speaking anonymously to discuss the sweeping personnel change.
A knowledgeable congressional staffer said the Senate Armed Services Committee did not know the change was coming.
A staffer from the House Armed Services Committee said they were also surprised by the announcement and are “waiting for more information.” Both staffers spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the contentious issue.
The view from the Trump White House, even with the lack of official guidance, was a mix of cynical victory and expected defeat among the president’s top advisers.
“The President’s decision to ban transgender people from service in the U.S. military is a slap in the face to all of those who are created equal and deserve the opportunity to serve their nation,” said former Pentagon and CIA chief Leon Panetta in a statement emailed to The Daily Beast. “It has long been recognized that being a good soldier is not based on race, color, creed, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
Pence’s Hidden Hand
According to White House sources, Vice President Mike Pence has been pushing hard for this kind of policy shift in the military, as had senior officials such as chief strategist Steve Bannon.
The more socially liberal factions of Trump’s inner circle—including his family members and staffers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner—have been opposed to all the anti-LGBT initiatives of this administration. However, they quickly determined that their “political capital be spent elsewhere,” as one senior White House official characterized it, given that their advice on LGBT issues has been routinely overruled, if not overlooked, by this administration and President Trump.
Another White House official underscored to The Daily Beast how Trump’s latest announcement would play well “with his base” and social-conservative and Christian-right leaders, some of whom—including Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, who remains close with this White House—have advised the president and administration for months to pull the trigger on killing the Obama-era directive.
Another of those allies, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, said in a statement that he “applaud[ed] President Trump for keeping his promise to return to military priorities—and not continue the social experimentation of the Obama era that has crippled our nation’s military…[with] something as controversial as gender reassignment surgery.”
That’s a theme echoed by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Republican from Missouri, who unsuccessfully proposed a measure to block the military from paying for gender reassignment surgery. She claims that such surgeries can cost $1.35 billion over the next decade, at $130,000 per procedure plus follow-up hormone treatments and possible complications.
‘The President Is Lying About the Data’
Those estimates are contradicted by a Rand Corporation study, considered definitive by most in the field. It says the cost of transition-related medical care is between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually, somewhere between a 0.04 and 0.13 percent rise for the active-duty military health-care budget. Fewer than 0.1 of service personnel would seek care “that could disrupt their ability to deploy,” Rand found.
Aaron Belkin, director of the pro-trans service Palm Center, told The Daily Beast that Trump was “lying about the data” concerning the cost of trans health care.
“This is a return to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell [the policy that barred openly gay troops] following a year of honorable service & an extensive body of research that shows that inclusive policy helps the military,” Belkin said.
“The president is lying about the data. The Rand Corporation and The New England Journal of Medicine have both published studies that show the cost is at most $8.4 million a year, which is 1/100th of 1 percent of the military’s annual health-care budget. The president is returning us to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell on the basis of data he is lying about.”
Ironically, Trump’s new communications director Anthony Scaramucci tweeted in February that Trump is “most pro-LGBTQ rights @POTUS in history. Why’s that story not written in mainstream media?” Scaramucci, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and their communications staff did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast, or to questions concerning whether or not they were actually given a heads-up on Trump’s Twitter-announced trans policy reversal.
“While these brave men and women risk their lives for all of us, in every corner of the world, 24 hours a day, President Trump tweets out a disgraceful, discriminatory policy—backed by the country’s most extreme anti-LGBT hate groups—that will do nothing to make anyone safer,” said David Dinielli, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “This policy only serves to throw fuel on the fire of hatred and fear, making an already-vulnerable population even more vulnerable.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat who lost her legs in Iraq after her helicopter was shot down, said she didn’t care in that moment “if the American troops risking their lives to help save me were gay, straight, transgender or anything else. All that mattered was they didn’t leave me behind.”
Duckworth continued: “If you are willing to risk your life for our country and you can do the job, you should be able to serve—no matter your gender identity, sexual orientation, or race. Anything else is discriminatory and counterproductive to our national security.”