On Thursday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford informed the military that the Pentagon would not implement a ban on transgender troops “until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance.” Until that point, Dunford wrote, there “will be no modifications to the current policy,” and “we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.”
About 15,000 transgender troops are currently serving openly in the United States military. In June of 2016, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that already-serving transgender troops could come out without fear of discharge. He also established a plan to let openly transgender people enroll in the military within one year. On Wednesday morning, however, Trump declared on Twitter that “the United States Government will not accept or allow” transgender individuals “to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” Trump’s proclamation raised the real possibility that the thousands of transgender troops in uniform might be purged.
But Trump made his announcement without consulting the Pentagon. He reportedly did not even discuss the issue with his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who has strongly supported open transgender service in the past. Trump’s sudden decision threatened to jettison years of careful planning and preparation on the part of the military. It also left military leaders in a lurch, caught between the president’s tweets and formal policy. The Navy has clarified that, at least for now, transgender troops may still serve and receive transition-related medical care; Dunford’s letter makes clear that remains official policy in every branch of the armed forces.
It is not surprising that the military would continue to adhere to settled policy until it is explicitly revoked. But Dunford’s careful wording indicates real discomfort with Trump’s declaration. By writing that “we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect,” Dunford strongly implies that Trump’s policy would entail treating service members with disrespect. And his follow-up—“As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions”—suggests that Trump’s tweets are a distraction. (His statement also makes clear that the sheer incompetance and communication breakdown we have come to expect from this administration is alive and well.)
The Pentagon is not defying Trump. But it is signaling its discomfort, and perhaps even irritation, with his abrupt attack on transgender individuals who simply want to serve their country in uniform. Mattis will soon have to decide whether to escalate this discomfort into concrete pushback.