President Trump’s announcement on Wednesday morning that he had decided to ban transgender people from serving in the United States military in any capacity was stunning for multiple reasons, not least of which is that it appears to have caught the Pentagon by surprise with no plan to extricate the thousands of trans troops currently serving in the armed forces, including those in combat zones.
The proclamation, made by tweet, naturally, produced a flood of theories about the president’s motivations. Was he trying to distract attention from the investigation into his campaign’s Russia ties? Or from the slow motion train wreck that is the Affordable Care Act repeal process? Perhaps he had been sensing a softening in his base of support and wanted to announce a policy move that he thought many of his strongest backers would celebrate?
The answer, if a story out in Politico on Wednesday afternoon is to be believed, is even stranger than any of the explanations that were being floated earlier in the day. According to reporters Rachel Bade and Josh Dawsey, Trump’s decision to bar trans people from military service was made in order to preserve funding for the wall he has promised to construct between the United States and Mexico.
The story is one of Trumpian overreaction and run-of-the-mill transactions politics gone out of control.
With most of the media spotlight trained on the Senate’s effort to pass an ACA repeal bill the House of Representatives has been laboring to pass an appropriations bill that contains authorizations for the Pentagon, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and more. It also contains $1.6 billion in funding for new barriers along the Southwest border.
In a release expressing support for the bill on Tuesday, the White House listed the wall as one of its top reasons for backing the proposal. “This package is a strong step to fulfilling the President’s promise to put the safety of the American people first,” it said. “It protects us at home by providing for the construction of the border wall. The Administration strongly supports the Committee’s commitment to include the President’s border wall proposal, which is a critical element of the President’s strategy to secure the borders.”
But there was evidently a problem. House leadership was struggling with a relatively small but powerful number of members who objected to the previous administration’s order that transgender troops should be broadly accepted into the armed services. In particular, they objected to the idea that the federal government, through the health insurance coverage provided to service members, should pay for sex reassignment surgery for transgender troops.
The number of openly transgender troops serving in the military is relatively small, and the percentage of those who would seek sex reassignment surgery smaller still. The Rand Corporation, in a study released last year, estimated that the health insurance costs specific to transgender troops would amount to something between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually, or about 0.04 to 0.13 percent of what the Pentagon already pays for active duty soldiers’ health coverage.
Afraid that the objections of House members who did not want taxpayers paying for sex reassignment surgery would derail the bill, House leaders came to Trump and told him that the appropriations bill, which in addition to the wall funding also provided money meant to implement other promises from the president, was in trouble.
They wound up getting a little more help than they bargained for. Rather than a limited restriction on specific medical procedures being performed with government dollars, what they got was a series of presidential tweets that, taken together, articulated a complete ban on transgender people serving in the military at all.
“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,” Trump wrote. "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.”
Despite the president’s suggestion that his decision was reached with the full cooperation of military leadership, Department of Defense officials on Wednesday told reporters that they had received no advance notice that the announcement was coming and had no plan in place that would allow them to implement it.
At the White House, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was unable to answer many questions about the new policy, including how the White House would go about removing transgender troops who had already been told that they were welcome in the armed services. Some are stationed overseas.
Sanders eventually threatened to cut the briefing short if reporters continued to ask her about Trump’s transgender ban, and moments later, she did just that.
Whether the president’s apparently precipitous decision to make an announcement about a major military personnel policy via Twitter will earn him passage of his spending bill was unclear Wednesday afternoon -- lawmakers were still fighting it out in the House.
But it definitely earned him the antipathy of the LGBTQ community, which he had repeatedly promised to support and protect from bigotry during his campaign.