Our view: The president’s tweets kicking openly transgender people out of the military are unbecoming of a commander in chief
President Donald Trump's announcement-by-tweet that he will not allow transgender men and women to serve in the armed forces in any capacity was not about costs or military readiness. It was about bigotry and a willingness to put political expediency above respect for those who volunteer to sacrifice their lives for their country.
The decision to allow transgender people to serve openly in the military is a recent one and reflected the years-long evolution of the Obama administration toward full recognition that desire and ability should be the only qualifications to serve in any capacity in the armed forces. Mr. Trump's decision to reverse it, by contrast, appears to have come on a whim. The Pentagon had been studying the issue, with a report due in December, and officials reportedly were caught by surprise by the announcement, as were Republicans in Congress.
But the political context is clear. Mr. Trump was suffering on multiple fronts in the eyes of his base. His promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act continues to founder, and his open feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose hard-line stances on immigration and law enforcement offered reassurance to conservatives who doubted the president's bona fides, further diminished his standing with the right wing.
Ever the master subject-changer, Mr. Trump had an opportunity in a debate in the House of Representatives over whether the Pentagon should be required to pay for gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy for transgender troops. Social conservative advocacy groups had been rallying behind an amendment to a must-pass military spending bill offered by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican, to ban the practice. Mr. Trump's tweets — this policy was, apparently, important enough to warrant three — specifically cited "the tremendous medical costs" that allowing transgender service members would entail, along with the phantom menace of "disruption" in the ranks.
(That he announced the decision on the 69th anniversary of Harry Truman's executive order desegregating the military, another move critics at the time promised would produce "disruption" and hinder war-fighting efforts, is a mere ironic bonus.)
Even if we put aside questions of social justice, equal opportunity and respect for those who volunteer to serve, there are a couple of substantive problems with President Trump's analysis and a big political one.
The Rand Corporation last year issued a report assessing the impact of transgender troops serving openly in the military and found that, by and large, there wouldn't be one. Rand estimated that there are about 2,500 transgender men and women on active duty out of a total force of 1.3 million. Based on typical rates of gender reassignment surgery and private sector cost data, Rand calculated that providing that service might result in increased active duty military health care spending of somewhere between 0.04 percent and 0.1 percent, with at most a 0.1 percent disruption in potential deployment. Research from other countries with policies allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military found "little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness," the Rand report said.
All that is to say, President Trump's two stated rationales — the cost of health care and diminished operational readiness — are bunk.
As for the politics, President Trump himself noted during the campaign what a losing issue North Carolina's transgender bathroom ban was, telling Fox News' Sean Hannity it was "causing them some problems," adding, "they are losing business, and they are having people come out against." Indeed, even as Mr. Trump carried North Carolina, the state's Republican governor, Pat McCrory, who signed the bill, lost his re-election effort.
And the evidence suggests military service by transgender people is an even less certain wedge issue for Republicans; Ms. Hartzler's spending amendment failed, with 24 Republicans and all 190 Democrats voting against it. Republican reaction to Mr. Trump's move has hardly been laudatory, with some voicing quick opposition. Sen. John McCain said "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." A spokeswoman for Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, another military veteran, said essentially the same thing. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama said "You ought to treat everybody fairly and give everybody a chance to serve," and Sen. Orin Hatch of Utah said "I don't think we should be discriminating against anyone."
And not only is Mr. Trump wrong on policy and politics, he's very wrong on principle. The transgender community is small, marginalized and all too frequently the subject of ridicule and abuse. A just nation would stand in its defense. Mr. Trump attacks it in a misguided attempt at political gain. That is behavior unworthy of a commander in chief.
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