How should Americans, the Pentagon, and the more than 2 million active duty and reserve service members interpret President Donald Trump’s order to purge the military of its transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines? Particularly when this unprecedented order—both a ban and a purge—was conveyed not via the deliberative and thorough interagency process culminating in an executive order, but rather through a series of tweets that some in the Pentagon initially believed might be an announcement of war?
First, it’s worth putting these tweets in their proper context. Trump’s trans tweetstorm began, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts,” leading many to wonder: With whom, exactly, did the president consult?
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I served in the Pentagon for over six years, ending the Obama administration as the chief of staff to Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning, where I was heavily involved in decisions related to taking care of the Army’s 1.4 million soldiers and civilians. I’ve seen up close how the White House and Pentagon are supposed to work together on high-profile policy decisions and announcements.
That’s not what happened here. According to the New York Times, when Trump refers to “my Generals,” he means a troika of two retired generals, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and incoming White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, as well as his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. But Mattis, who reportedly supports open transgender service, happened to be on vacation when Trump made his announcement. Also apparently out of the loop was Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who hastily issued an internal clarification that there would be “no modifications” to current Defense Department policy allowing transgender service, pending written “implementation guidance.” The day after the announcement, the Army’s top general, Mark Milley, admitted that he learned of the policy change via the media. It is clear that Trump did not actually involve our nation’s most senior military leaders in his decision. Instead, his decision appears to have been rooted solely in politics.
Perhaps Trump also consulted mid-level White House aide Sebastian Gorka, who explained to the BBC that Trump’s order was “out of the warmth of his consideration for [the transgender] population.” Gorka—a thin-skinned, loquacious former Breitbart contributor—has a “widely disdained” pseudo-academic background in counterterrorism but zero experience in military personnel matters, according to an official biography.
Whatever prompted it, Trump’s declaration has disturbing implications for the Department of Defense and America’s transgender troops. Trump tweeted that “The United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” This raises the question of whether he is even aware that transgender troops are already serving openly in the military now—and previously served for decades in silence.
If he is aware, and he truly wishes to root out and discharge all transgender troops, then the Pentagon is on the verge of a horrifying witch hunt—a phrase the president often uses, albeit imprecisely. Should Trump’s tweets be formalized into “implementation guidance,” the military will be tasked to delve into the private lives of our armed forces to identify trans troops—who were, just a year ago, encouraged to serve openly. Such a purge of transgender individuals from the ranks would represent an unprecedented attempt to socially engineer a military that is finally is open to all Americans who can meet its high standards.
Although Trump declared transgender troops a “disruption,” I can think of nothing more distracting or disruptive for a military at war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia than demanding that its leadership identify, locate, and discharge trans service members. The military has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars recruiting, training, and equipping these troops. Trump’s plan, if implemented, would impose real budget costs, undermining any insignificant savings derived by denying these service members medically necessary health care. Of course, Trump’s tweets are often not the definitive word on a subject. His staff may very well walk back these tweets, as they have done with so many others. And while Americans may have grown numb to Trump’s Twitter rants as deliberate distractions rather than substantive policymaking, the pernicious impact of this ban on good order and discipline, as well as unit cohesion, would be unfathomable and severe.
The U.S. military is the most professional in the world. Trump’s apparent ignorance of transgender Americans’ willingness to serve and sacrifice for their country is just a small part of his isolation, more broadly, from the military. The man who received five draft deferments does not understand the armed forces that he praises so bombastically.
I know firsthand that a military in which everyone has an opportunity to serve is stronger, more effective, and critically, more lethal. The history of the United States military has always been one of expanding opportunity on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Over the past few years, the Army has ensured that women could have any job for which they qualified, including once-prohibited roles in combat; opened service and set regulations to ensure that transgender soldiers were treated equally with dignity and respect; and wrote new policies to grant religious accommodations for uniform and grooming standards, so soldiers would no longer be forced to choose between adherence to their faith or service to their country.
So I’m optimistic that the backlash resulting from Trump’s trans tweets—even from members of his own Republican Party—might help our president learn one thing about the military: Inclusion and opportunity for all aren’t social experiments but rather fundamental and uniquely American values.
Trump’s tweets won’t turn the page from his reckless, scandal-filled first six months in office. Today, transgender members of the military are serving proudly here at home and are deployed across the globe. The real “disruption” is not transgender troops. It is a disengaged president undermining readiness by ordering the military to conduct a cruel and unjustified 21st century witch hunt.