Where did that come from?
President Trump’s announcement on Twitter this morning that as commander in chief he will “not accept or allow” transgender individuals to serve in the US military in any capacity seemed to come out of nowhere.
Between the health debate roiling at the Capitol, Trump’s ongoing attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and questions surrounding North Korea’s ability to fire an intercontinental nuclear missile in less time than we thought, it seemed like an odd moment to introduce yet another controversial topic to the daily discourse.
The Trump administration had previously set a deadline of December to announce whether it plans to scrap the Obama-era policy to recruit transgender Americans into the military. And Trump’s decision to jump the gun on that policy announcement had opponents steaming and Washington insiders scratching their heads. Let’s talk through three theories that might explain his timing.
1. The president was trying to create a distraction
Trump has been known to fire off a provocative tweet as a way of redirecting the news cycle. And what better way to distract than to bring up a highly controversial issue, seemingly out of nowhere. But if that’s what Trump is trying to do here, one has to wonder which of the many news stories he’s trying to deflect attention from. The problem with this theory? Trump also tweeted about the two biggest stories of the week — the Senate health care debate and his rocky relationship with Sessions — so far today.
2. He was putting political pressure on Democrats (and trying to ease it off the GOP)
The health care debate has put those Republicans up for reelection in a tough spot. Every procedural vote is being closely watched by districts — and opponents — back home. The president might have thought it was time to put Democrats on the hot seat.
When journalism startup Axios asked the White House about the transgender military announcement, an unnamed official explained, “This 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 reelection in 2018 like [US Senator] Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaigns?” The point here is that the presence of transgender people in the military is controversial. Forcing Democrats to take a public stand on the issue could hurt those in culturally conservative states and that might have been exactly what Trump was thinking. Who knows whether that’s right, but the White House sure wants us to think so.
3. He was playing to his base, trying to reassure conservatives rankled over the Sessions treatment
Some conservative figures, including the influential Breitbart News website, have been pushing back on the way that Trump has been repeatedly attacking Sessions, whom they view as one of the administration’s strongest conservatives — a true believer who is finally in a position to see through a number of conservative causes. The smear campaign just hasn’t sat well with them. So a surprise move on an issue important to that base might be a subtle way for Trump to signal that he is delivering on what they want.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp.