WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump abruptly announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military on Wednesday, blindsiding his defense secretary and Republican congressional leaders with a snap decision that reversed a year-old policy reviled by social conservatives.
Trump made the declaration on Twitter, saying that U.S. forces could not afford the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” of transgender service members. He said he had consulted generals and military experts, but Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, was given only a day’s notice about the decision.
After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
....Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
....victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
Trump elected to announce the ban in order to resolve a quietly brewing fight on Capitol Hill over whether taxpayer money should pay for gender transition and hormone therapy for transgender service members. The dispute had threatened to kill a $790 billion defense and security spending package slated for a vote this week.
But rather than addressing that narrow issue, Trump opted to upend the entire policy on transgender service members.
His decision was announced with such haste that the White House could not answer basic inquiries on about how it would be carried out, including what would happen to openly transgender people now serving on active duty; Of eight defense officials interviewed, none could say.
“That’s something that the Department of Defense and the White House will have to work together as implementation takes place and is done so lawfully,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said.
Still, the announcement pleased elements of Trump’s base, who have been dismayed to see the president break so bitterly in recent days with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a hard-line conservative.
Civil rights and transgender advocacy groups denounced the policy, with some vowing to challenge it in court. Pentagon officials expressed dismay that the president’s tweets could open them to lawsuits.
The ban would reverse the gradual transformation of the military under President Barack Obama, whose administration announced last year that transgender people could serve openly in the military. Obama’s defense secretary, Ash Carter, also opened all combat roles to women and appointed the first openly gay Army secretary.
And it represented a stark turnabout for Trump, who billed himself during the campaign as an ally of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
The president, Sanders said, had concluded that allowing transgender people to serve openly “erodes military readiness and unit cohesion, and made the decision based on that.”
Mattis, who was on vacation, was silent on the new policy. People close to the defense secretary said he was appalled that Trump chose to unveil his decision in tweets, in part because of the message they sent to transgender active duty service members, including those deployed overseas, that they were suddenly no longer welcome.
The policy would affect only a small portion of the approximately 1.3 million active-duty members of the military. Some 2,000 to 11,000 active-duty troops are transgender, according to a 2016 RAND Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon, though estimates of the number of transgender service members have varied widely, and are sometimes as high as 15,000.
The study found that allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military would “have minimal impact on readiness and health care costs” for the Pentagon. It estimated that health care costs would rise $2.4 million to $8.4 million a year, representing an infinitesimal 0.04 to 0.13 percent increase in spending. Citing research into other countries that allow transgender people to serve, the study projected “little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness or readiness” in the United States.
Lt. Commander Blake Dremann, a Navy supply corps officer who is transgender, said he found out his job was in danger when he turned on CNN on Wednesday morning. Dremann came out as transgender to his commanders in 2015, and said they had been supportive of him.
He refused to criticize Trump — “we don’t criticize our commander in chief,” he said — but said the policy shift “is singling out a specific population in the military, who had been assured we were doing everything appropriate to continue our honorable service.”
He added: “And I will continue to do so, until the military tells me to hang up my boots.”
The announcement came amid the debate on Capitol Hill over the Obama-era practice of requiring the Pentagon to pay for medical treatment related to gender transition. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., has proposed an amendment to the spending bill that would bar the Pentagon from spending money on transition surgery or related hormone therapy, and other Republicans have pressed for similar provisions.
Mattis had worked behind the scenes to keep such language out of legislation, quietly lobbying Republican lawmakers not to attach the prohibitions, according to congressional and defense officials.
But Trump was concerned that the transgender medical care issue could imperil the security spending measure, which also contains $1.6 billion for the border wall that he has championed, and wanted to resolve the dispute cleanly and straightforwardly, according to a person familiar with his thinking, who insisted on anonymity to describe it. That prompted his ban.
Republican congressional leaders were aware Trump was looking into whether taxpayer money should be spent on medical procedures for transgender service members, but had not expected him to go so far as to bar transgender people from serving altogether.
Trump and Republican lawmakers had come under pressure from Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian conservative group, and an ally of Trump. Perkins opposed the bill over spending on transgender medical costs and lobbied lawmakers to do the same.
“Grant repentance to President Trump and Secretary Mattis for even considering to keep this wicked policy in place,” the Family Research Council said in one of its daily prayers last week. “Grant them understanding, courage, and willpower to stand up to the forces of darkness that gave birth to it and wholly to repeal it.”
Opponents of allowing openly transgender service members had raised a number of concerns, including what they said was the questionable psychological fitness of those troops. They said the military was being used for social experimentation at the expense of national security.
“This was Ash Carter on his way out the door pulling the pin on a cultural grenade,” Perkins said Wednesday. “Our military leaders are saying this doesn’t help make us a better fighting force; it’s a distraction; it’s taking up limited resources.” Carter objected to the decision, for its effect on the military and on those considering joining.
“To choose service members on other grounds than military qualifications is social policy and has no place in our military,” he said in a statement. “There are already transgender individuals who are serving capably and honorably. This action would also send the wrong signal to a younger generation thinking about military service.”
While some conservative lawmakers, including Hartzler, praised Trump, the president drew bipartisan condemnation on Capitol Hill and outrage from civil rights and transgender advocacy groups.
“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,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He called Trump’s move “yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter.”
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, noted the irony of Trump announcing the ban on the anniversary of President Harry Truman’s order to desegregate the military. “President Trump is choosing to retreat in the march toward equality,” he said.
In June, the administration delayed by six months a decision on whether to allow transgender recruits to join the military. At the time, Mattis said the delay would give military leaders a chance to review the shift’s potential impact. Mattis’ decision was seen as a pause to “finesse” the issue, one official said, not a prelude to an outright ban.
The delay on recruits “was largely based on a disagreement on the science of how mental health care and hormone therapy for transgender individuals would help solve the medical issues that are associated with gender dysphoria,” Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during his reconfirmation hearing last week.
“I am an advocate of every qualified person who can meet the physical standards to serve in our uniformed services to be able to do so,” he said.
Mattis, a retired Marine, has not been a major proponent of allowing transgender people to serve in the military, in part because medical accommodations, including hormone injections, could open the Defense Department to claims from other people not allowed to serve, like Type 1 diabetics, who also need regular injections.
But Mattis and the Pentagon’s military leadership all seemed to have accepted that transgender peoples already serving in the military would be allowed to remain. A senior adviser to Mattis, Sally Donnelly, represented the Palm Center, an organization that advocated on behalf of the LGBT community in the military during the debate that led up to the Obama administration’s decision to allow transgender individuals to serve, defense officials said.
Trump’s abrupt decision will likely end up in court; OutServe-SLDN, a nonprofit group that represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the military immediately vowed to sue.
“We have transgender individuals who serve in elite SEAL teams, who are working in a time of war to defend our country, and now you’re going to kick them out?” Matthew F. Thorn, executive director of OutServe, said in an interview.Jeremy Peters and Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting.