Opinion writer
In July 2017, a federal judge blocked enforcement of President Trump's three-month-old directive barring transgender troops from serving in the military. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

It is hard to think of any presidential act, before President Trump’s Twitter announcement Wednesday that he was banning transgender individuals from the military, that was so plainly designed to use the military as a pawn in a self-centered political stunt. The act was among the most cynical and irresponsible of his presidency,  designed to save the president from his own scandals. Never have we seen a president provoke such chaos in the military, acting with no regard for the welfare of the troops or the security of the nation, with no military justification whatsoever.

The immediate trigger seems to have been a hangup in funding for his useless wall unless right-wingers got to eliminate funding for gender reassignment surgeries from the defense budget; Trump impulsively responded — going well beyond the surgery issue to a complete ban. (Did he even know the military had a review process underway? Did the Freedom Caucus really pose a threat to a defense bill including funding for the wall? )

The irony is great. Trump used military readiness as an excuse to drum up vitriol, but it is his own action that distracts from military readiness, morale and focus on defeating the enemy. The Post reports:

As President Trump rolled out his decision to reinstate the ban on transgender people in the military, anonymous White House officials gossiped about what a tough spot they were putting Democrats in. “This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin to take complete ownership of this issue,” one told Axios. Another added that it would “be fun to watch some of them have to defend” having transgender soldiers.

It turns out they didn’t even need Democrats to do it; some high-profile Republicans were happy to. And while they and other senators were seeking answers Wednesday, the White House was providing basically none. The Pentagon was also reportedly in the dark when the announcement was made Wednesday morning.

Far from getting advice from military leaders to take this abrupt action, Trump blindsided them — and the entire military. Not just coincidentally, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was on vacation when Trump made his announcement. So, yes, again Trump lied.

As authoritarians are wont to do when they make gross errors, the Trump team refused to answer questions from a stunned press corps. The harried White House press secretary threatened to end the briefing if questions persisted. What a perfect demonstration of their inability to defend their own actions.

Trump may have been taken by surprise himself when a wide array of conservative Republicans, including veterans (e.g., Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa), condemned the move. Showing how little weight Trump carries, some of the staunchest hawks were the most upset. Trump received a swift kick from McCain in a fiery statement:

The President’s tweet this morning regarding transgender Americans in the military is yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter. … 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. We should all be guided by the principle that any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet the standards should have the opportunity to do so—and should be treated as the patriots they are.

As McCain pointed out, the announcement served no purpose other than to create confusion: “The Department of Defense is currently conducting a study on the medical obligations it would incur, the impact on military readiness, and related questions associated with the accession of transgender individuals who are not currently serving in uniform and wish to join the military. I do not believe that any new policy decision is appropriate until that study is complete and thoroughly reviewed by the Secretary of Defense, our military leadership, and the Congress.”

Trump’s selfish motivation was obvious. In hot water with the right wing and seeing the special prosecutor hot on his trail in the Russia-collusion/obstruction-of-justice investigation, he decided to appeal to the worst instincts and prejudices of his socially conservative base.  What a sorry comment on the outlook of these voters that Trump had to appeal to fear, prejudice and ignorance to gain the applause of his base.

And boy does Trump know his audience. The Concerned Women for America, a socially conservative advocacy group, issued a shameful statement praising the move. “The U.S. military has one job and that is to protect and defend the United States at home and abroad. Any policy that doesn’t make us safer or a better fighting force should be jettisoned. There is no right to serve in the military. Restrictions are already made based on many factors, including age and readiness to serve.” They betray their ignorance and prejudice; the only one making the United States less safe in this sorry episode is the president.

The incident reminds us that Trump’s impulsiveness and self-absorption make him incapable of thinking beyond his self-interest. He would disrupt our military, create havoc among active service personnel and their families, and lie that this was all the military’s idea — just to create another issue to distract from his political woes. The good news is that the ploy demonstrated the degree to which this sort of culture-war stunt has lost its potency; Trump and his cultist followers may be stuck in a time warp, but the rest of the country has moved on.

The incident is a reminder that Trump has no clue as to the awesome responsibilities of the presidency. His GOP enablers need to stop this outrageous stunt in its tracks — or lose any claim to be defenders of our military.