President Trump’s announcement on Twitter on Wednesday morning that he is reinstating a ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. armed forces came as a surprise to a lot of people. Most notably, it seemed to come as a shock to the Pentagon, which was already moving forward, albeit slowly, with plans to lift the ban.
White House officials are openly conceding that the move was motivated by electoral politics. Vice President Mike Pence and chief strategist Steve Bannon had reportedly been pushing the policy shift,and Politico reported that the president made the decision to resolve a congressional squabble in order to secure funds for his border wall. The rollout of the new policy itself was very odd, betraying a striking lack of effort to pretend this was anything other than a unilateral White House move.
The Pentagon press office was unaware that this decision was coming and referred questions about it to the White House. The previous transgender policy is still on the department’s website. The Senate Armed Services Committee was reportedly caught by surprise, too, which raised the ire of committee chairman Sen. John McCain, who called it “unclear” and “yet another example of why major policy announcement should not be made via Twitter.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis reportedly was consulted on the decision, but it’s hard to know what form that consultation took, particularly since Mattis is currently on vacation this week.
Just three weeks ago, Mattis announced that he was giving military commanders another six months to review whether allowing transgender people to enlist would impact military readiness. (Transgender troops already serving were not affected by the review.) If Trump were actually making this decision in consultation with “my generals,” as he claimed this morning, why wouldn’t he wait until December when that review will be complete?
This isn’t the first time that it’s seemed like wires have gotten crossed under the Potomac between Trump’s White House and Mattis’ Pentagon. Most egregiously, there was the incident in April when White House officials, including the president himself, indicated that a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier group was steaming toward North Korea as a show of force, when in fact it has headed in the opposite direction as part of a routine training mission.
In June, Trump lashed out against Qatar and suggested the U.S. supported a Saudi-led boycott of the country at the same time that Mattis—along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—were purposefully taking a neutral stance on the dispute between ostensible U.S. allies. (Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.)
Trump has boasted of giving military commanders wide latitude to make decisions and openly said that he doesn’t want to be bothered with the details of military strategy he doesn’t understand. This conveniently allows him to take credit for military successes while passing the buck to the generals when something goes wrong.
The bigger problem is that Trump is making decisions on military and national security policy, but often for nakedly political reasons and without giving a heads up to the military itself. That was the case on Wednesday, and without that military input it’s impossible to predict how this decision will be implemented, and what’s its impact will be.