Donald Trump has long evinced a live-and-let-live attitude toward gay, lesbian, and transgender people. And so when President Trump abruptly announced, via Twitter, a ban on military service by transgender people, Washington was dumbstruck.
But Mr. Trump had political reasons to play that card. Foremost, the president needs a legislative victory, and by giving House conservatives what they wanted on transgender troops, he has paved the way for passage of a key military spending bill. That bill includes funding for the wall on the US-Mexico border.
A secondary benefit, Republican analysts say, is a boost to the morale of social conservative voters. Frustration has been rising over Trump’s inability to effect much of his agenda, and there’s concern that turnout could be low in next year’s midterm elections. Lack of enthusiasm by conservative voters could cost Republicans control of the House.
“The top issue is getting the defense budget through, and getting legislative wins. You’ve got to trade,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “This is a casualty of politics, not a casualty of Trump being anti-gay.”
Trump’s sudden announcement Wednesday was tempered a bit Thursday, when the nation’s top general announced that current policy would remain in effect until the secretary of Defense had received the president’s direction and had issued implementation guidance.
Short-circuiting Defense secretary’s review
The current, Obama-era policy on transgender military service has been in place only a year, and Defense Secretary James Mattis was in the middle of a six-month review of whether to allow openly transgender people to join the military when Trump made his pronouncement.
A 2016 Rand Corporation study estimates that out of 1.3 million active-duty US service members, between 1,320 and 6,630 may be transgender. Of those, an estimated 29 to 129 service members are likely to use “transition-related” health care each year, the report said.
House conservatives wanted a ban on the use of taxpayer money for sex-reassignment surgery and hormone therapy for transgender people – a minuscule share of the $790 billion defense spending package. Trump obliged, but went much further than lawmakers expected.
In his tweets, Trump said that he had consulted with “my Generals and military experts” in deciding on a transgender ban, but Secretary Mattis was reportedly given only one day’s notice.
This short-circuiting of Mattis’s review continued Trump’s pattern of taking action independently of his Cabinet secretaries – or of publicly crossing them, as in the case of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But six months into Trump’s presidency, this has become the norm.
Trump’s move on transgender military service “is just another indication of how exposed anyone is who works for him,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “Every morning you wake up in Trump’s service, you run the risk of being undercut or embarrassed.”
While Trump has satisfied some hard-line social conservatives with his outright ban on transgender service, he has also sparked pushback from many Republicans on Capitol Hill – including some who supported the ban on government spending for gender-transition health care.
Leading conservatives such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Sen. Joni Ernst (R) of Iowa, an Iraq War veteran, put out statements opposing Trump’s move.
“She believes what is most important is making sure service members can meet the physical training standards, and the willingness to defend our freedoms and way of life,” Senator Ernst’s spokeswoman said in a statement. “Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity.”
Ernst’s spokeswoman added that the senator does not support gender-reassignment surgery on the taxpayer dime.
‘This is the way he does policy’
One unanswered question is why Trump went for an outright ban on transgender service, instead of the narrower ban on government funding for transgender-related health-care costs.
Analysts were uniform in their explanation: It’s Trump being Trump. And it’s Trump trying to be the anti-Obama. He announces new policies because he can, leaving his subordinates to handle the process and legalities.
“This is the way he does policy,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a communications professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “He does have a firm belief in Twitter.”
When critics accuse Trump of not being presidential in his use of Twitter, he pushes back.
“My use of social media is not Presidential – it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL,” Trump tweeted July 1.
Ms. Jeffe sees Trump’s business background on full display in how he operates as president. “He’s a chief executive used to saying ‘Jump!’ and hearing someone say, ‘How high?” she says. “But that’s not the way policy works or should work.”
Jeffe also sees Trump flashing a “shiny object” at the media and the public in the hopes of deflecting attention from other issues. Certainly, the Senate’s struggle to pass health-care legislation is high on that list.
Staff writer Jessica Mendoza contributed to this report from Los Angeles.