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Opinion Policy by tweet: Trump’s transgender ban moves forward

Military flag bearers prepare to march in the 2017 San Diego LGBT Pride parade in San Diego on July 15. (David Maung/European Pressphoto Agency)

In 1952, President Harry S. Truman predicted that Dwight Eisenhower wouldn’t like being president. “He’ll sit here,” Truman said, “and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

It’s more than clear that President Trump feels the same frustration. In his old job, he could tell his underlings to do something — More gold-leaf wallpaper in that lobby! — and it would get done. But in his current job, he sees nothing but impediments to his will, whether it’s recalcitrant legislators, cumbersome institutions or pesky laws limiting his authority.

Today we’re getting more information on a case where a passing Trump whim has a chance of being straightforwardly translated into policy: a ban on transgender Americans serving in the military. But even there, we see how the president’s power is constrained.

At the end of July, Trump sent out a series of tweets announcing that he would be instituting such a ban, seemingly out of nowhere. The Pentagon leadership was completely blindsided, and before long, one military leader after another made clear in comments of varying explicitness that they thought such a ban is unnecessary and detrimental to the armed forces. Their official position was that they would take no action until they got more detailed guidance from the White House on how this is supposed to work.

Given that the military didn’t want the ban and it wasn’t something Trump had expressed any interest in beforehand, many hoped this was an initiative that would just disappear. Have you ever had a boss who issued ridiculous orders and you just slow-walked them in the hope that eventually he’d forget all about it? In this case it didn’t work out that way, and the policy change is moving forward, according to the Wall Street Journal:

The White House is expected to send guidance to the Pentagon in coming days on how to implement a new administration ban on transgender people in the military, issuing a policy that will allow Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to consider a service member’s ability to deploy in deciding whether to kick them out of the military.
The White House memo also directs the Pentagon to deny admittance to transgender individuals and to stop spending on medical treatment regimens for those currently serving, according to U.S. officials familiar with the document.
The 2½-page memo gives Mr. Mattis six months to prepare to fully implement the new ban, according to these officials.
Mr. Mattis under the new policy is expected to consider “deployability”—the ability to serve in a war zone, participate in exercises or live for months on a ship—as the primary legal means to decide whether to separate service members from the military, the officials said.

Without seeing the text, let alone whatever detailed policy Mattis produces, it appears that the key points are that 1) transgender people will be banned from joining the military, and 2) those currently serving may be protected. Given that there’s no reason to think that those currently serving are not “deployable” because of their gender identity, there wouldn’t be grounds to discharge them. But the devil will be in the details. Who will determine if a particular soldier or sailor is deployable? Their commanding officer? Will there be an appeal process? If the military implements this ban only grudgingly, could they make it so no one actually gets kicked out? If they are, what kind of discharge will they be given? The answer to that question has serious implications for their future career prospects.

We shouldn’t minimize the awfulness of this order, which is militarily unjustified and based on nothing but the bigotry of Trump and some of his supporters. Trump’s assertion that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail” was utterly ludicrous. According to a study by the Rand Corp., the medical costs associated with the few thousand transgender service members are between $2.4 million and $8.4 million a year, or about 1/1000th of 1 percent of the Pentagon budget. Another report by the Palm Center estimated the cost of removing transgender troops at $960 million, or more than 100 times the medical costs that Trump is supposedly concerned about. The truth is that transgender troops are serving honorably and capably, they make up a tiny portion of the military, and accommodating them is relatively simple and well worth the cost.

But this could wind up being one of the rare cases where Trump has an impulse and bleats it out on Twitter, and it actually winds up becoming policy. That makes it a rare exception — one that shows just how constrained Trump is in more general terms.

Even on the things that are important to him, nothing has been as easy as Trump hoped or believed. He thought he could get rid of the Affordable Care Act and replace it with “something terrific,” but that didn’t work out. He thought that by now he’d have built a big, beautiful wall on our southern border, and not only hasn’t it happened, he has been reduced to threatening to shut down the government if it doesn’t get started. (The promise that Mexico would pay for it has disappeared.) He thought he could renegotiate NAFTA and jobs would come streaming back to the United States, but that turns out to be a long and involved process that won’t produce the immediate gratification he was after. He has to deal with a Congress that won’t do what he says, policy questions that are more complex than he ever imagined and courts that keep getting in his way.

That’s not to say the administration isn’t accomplishing some things with its regulatory powers and administrative decisions, because it is. Scott Pruitt is turning the Environmental Protection Agency into an entity devoted to enabling as much pollution as possible. Ben Carson is gutting the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is working every day to undermine and sabotage the ACA.

But those are long-term projects that are more important to conservative constituencies than to Trump, and they don’t really create the kind of “winning” he’s after. What he’d love is to be able to wake up, issue an order and see it done by lunchtime. And that, it turns out, is not how the presidency works. But on the transgender ban, Trump seems to finally be succeeding in moving a policy forward by sheer force of tweet.