WASHINGTON — President Trump’s Twitter announcement that transgender service members would not be allowed in the military drew a quick rebuke from an Iowa Republican who served in the Iraq war.
Sen. Jodi Ernst’s (R-Iowa) office issued a statement noting that as a veteran, the senator “served alongside fellow service members from all different backgrounds and parts of the country.”
“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,” the statement continued. “While she believes taxpayers shouldn’t cover the costs associated with a gender reassignment surgery, Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity.”
In a series of tweets this morning, Trump announced his decision on a review of new transgender service members that, at the end of June, Defense Secretary James Mattis said would take six months.
“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you,” Trump tweeted.
Asked at the White House briefing what would happen to currently serving transgender military members, including those serving abroad, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that would have to be worked out between the Defense Department and the White House. “I imagine the Department of Defense will be the lead,” she said.
Sanders said it was a decision “based on military cohesion” and brushed off questions about Trump’s past statements that he would be better for LGBT rights than Hillary Clinton. “I think the president has made clear he’s committed to fighting for all Americans,” she said.
Sanders said Trump tweeted the new policy instead of a press release or live statement because “he didn’t feel it was necessary to hold that decision” once he made it.
Mattis is currently on vacation. The Pentagon appeared to be caught by surprise, though Sanders said Mattis was informed after Trump made his decision Tuesday.
“We refer all questions about the president’s statements to the White House,” said Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis in a 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 in the military. We will provide revised guidance to the department in the near future.”
The Defense Department announced June 30 that Mattis “approved a recommendation by the services to defer accessing transgender applicants into the military until Jan. 1, 2018.”
“The services will review their accession plans and provide input on the impact to the readiness and lethality of our forces,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White at the time. The delay only affected transgender people aiming to enlist or commission, not transgender service members currently serve openly under the Obama-era policy.
A RAND Corp. study conducted for the DoD during the 2015 review process estimated there are 2,500 transgender service members currently on active duty and 1,500 in the reserves.
Axios reporter Jonathan Swan said an administration official told him that Trump’s announcement “forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin to take complete ownership of this issue — how will the blue collar voters in these states respond when senators up for re-election in 2018 like Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaign?” Sanders told reporters that only military implications were involved in the decision.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told CNN that “the current policy is a big tent for people who want to serve — you’ve got to remember, our military forces is a volunteer force.”
“I think you ought to treat everybody fairly and you ought to give everybody a chance to serve,” Shelby said, adding that he’d “like to see the wording” of Trump’s new policy.
“I’m sure we’ll have hearings on that in the Armed Services Committee and also in the Defense Appropriations Committee that I serve. We’ll go from there.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Trump’s statements “yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter.”
“The statement was unclear. The Department of Defense has already decided to allow currently serving transgender individuals to stay in the military, and many are serving honorably today. 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,” McCain said in a statement. “We should all be guided by the principle that any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet the standards should have the opportunity to do so — and should be treated as the patriots they are.”
McCain added that any decision is inappropriate until the DoD study announced last month is complete and “thoroughly reviewed by the Secretary of Defense, our military leadership, and the Congress.”
“The Senate Armed Services Committee will continue to follow closely and conduct oversight on the issue of transgender individuals serving in the military,” he vowed.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) added his thoughts in a statement: “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone. Transgender people are people, and deserve the best we can do for them.”
“I look forward to getting much more information and clarity from our military leaders about the policy the president tweeted today,” Hatch added.
Twelve days ago, 24 Republicans joined House Democrats to block an amendment to the defense reauthorization bill that would have eliminated transgender service members from receiving any medical services related to gender reassignment.
Existing service members deemed to be transgender by their doctors became able to fully transition through the military healthcare system under the 2016 policy. Asked if that included hormone therapy or complete gender reassignment surgery, then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that would depend on what doctors determine is “medically necessary.” After legally transitioning to their new gender, then a service member would wear the corresponding uniforms, use the corresponding housing and have to meet that gender’s fitness standards.
Mattis reportedly called Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) personally to ask that the lawmaker drop her defense bill amendment that would have blocked military coverage of hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery. Hartzler didn’t, but her colleagues shot the proposal down 209-214.
There are 18 countries, including the United Kingdom and Israel, where transgender service members are allowed to serve openly.