WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he would ban transgender people from the US military, a move appealing to some in his conservative political base, but creating uncertainty about the fate of thousands of transgender service members.
The surprise announcement by Mr Trump, who as a presidential candidate last year vowed to fight for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, came in a series of morning Twitter posts. It drew condemnation from rights groups and some lawmakers in both parties as politically motivated discrimination, but was praised by conservative activists and some Republicans.
The administration has not determined whether transgender individuals already serving in the military would be immediately thrown out, a point the White House and Pentagon have yet to decide, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
A transgender ban would reverse Democratic former President Barack Obama’s policy and halts years of efforts to eliminate barriers to military service based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US Military,” Trump tweeted, without naming any of the generals or experts.
“Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail,” he said.
Ms Sanders said Mr Trump had “extensive discussions with his national security team” and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis was informed after the president made the decision on Tuesday.
“This was about military readiness,” Ms Sanders told a briefing. “This was about unit cohesion. This was about resources within the military, and nothing more.”
The Pentagon earlier referred questions about Mr Trump’s decision to the White House.
Critics said the health costs of caring for transgender service members were a tiny portion of the military’s healthcare budget and Mr Trump’s policy change was based on prejudice.
His action unleashed a torrent of legal threats from civil liberties advocates seeking plaintiffs willing to challenge the ban in court and sparked a protest by hundreds who rallied outside an armed forces recruiting station in Manhattan’s Times Square.
“We are in a crisis. This is a dark day for everyone,” Brad Hoylman, New York’s sole openly gay state senator, said as he addressed the crowd, which carried “Resist” signs amid chants of: “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Donald Trump has got to go.”
Mr Trump’s tweet caught some White House officials by surprise.
A senior administration official said Mr Trump had been determined to act for a while, but the question was the timing, with advisers split on whether to conduct reviews before announcing the move.
The announcement at least temporarily changed the subject in Washington, where Mr Trump’s administration faces investigations into his presidential campaign’s contacts with Russia and has struggled to win major legislative victories.
It was not the first time Mr Trump has targeted transgender people since taking office in January. In February, he rescinded protections for transgender students put in place by Mr Obama that had let them use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.
Senate Armed Forces Committee Chairman John McCain – the most prominent military veteran in Congress, who was a Navy pilot and prisoner of war during the Vietnam War – called Mr Trump’s announcement unclear and inappropriate until a Pentagon study on the issue is completed and reviewed by Mr Mattis, the military leadership and lawmakers.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council advocacy group, was among those praising Mr Trump, saying: “Our troops shouldn’t be forced to endure hours of transgender ‘sensitivity’ classes and politically correct distractions.”
Under Mr Obama, the Pentagon last year announced it was ending its ban on transgender people serving openly, calling the prohibition outdated.
The Defence Department had been expected to begin formally allowing transgender people to enlist this year. But Mr Mattis on June 30 approved a six-month delay in that step.
Transgender service members already number about 2,500 active-duty personnel, with about 1,500 more in the military reserves, according to
a RAND Corporation
think tank study cited last year by Mr Obama’s defence secretary, Ash Carter.
The House of Representatives’ top Democrat Nancy Pelosi noted that a Pentagon-commissioned study determined the cost of providing medically necessary transition-related care involving transgender service members would amount to about one-100th of one percent of the military’s healthcare budget.
The study put the cost at $2.4 million to $8.4 million a year of the more than $50 billion the Defence Department spends on healthcare.