Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill on Sept. 26. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

The Pentagon’s top general told Congress on Tuesday that he has advised President Trump to let transgender service members continue serving, raising fresh questions about the commander in chief’s willingness to entertain such recommendations from senior military leaders.

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that transgender troops have served with honor.

“I believe any individual who meets the physical and mental standards, and is worldwide deployable and is currently serving, should be afforded the opportunity to continue to serve,” Dunford said, speaking at a hearing examining his reappointment as chairman.

The general added that he would continue advising Trump and other leaders that transgender service members who follow regulations should not be ejected on the basis of their gender identity.

“Senator, I can promise that that will be my advice,” he said, in response to a question from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). “What I’ve just articulated is the advice I’ve provided in private, and I’ve just provided in public.”

Dunford wasn’t asked specifically whether he supports allowing transgender recruits to join the military. That issue was under consideration by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis when Trump announced a ban on all transgender service members in late July, catching many officials at the Pentagon off-guard.

“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 U.S. Military,” Trump said in three tweets. “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. Thank you.”

A day later, Dunford issued a memo telling military commanders that the Defense Department would continue to treat transgender troops with dignity and respect as the Pentagon establishes its new policy, and would carry out Trump’s directive once the White House provided guidance for doing so.

The Pentagon has established a panel of experts to examine the issue, and the White House has set a Feb. 21 deadline for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to submit a plan to Trump, including what to do with transgender service members already serving.

The Obama administration lifted the ban on transgender individuals already serving in July 2016, but Mattis and other senior defense officials delayed in late June a policy that would have opened the military to transgender recruits effective July 1. The issue, he said, needed more study.

Mattis wants to examine how transgender military service affects combat effectiveness, but he has left the door open for transgender troops to continue serving. The defense secretary, asked Aug. 14 if anyone may be ousted from the military, pointed to Dunford’s directive.

“The chairman immediately went out and said immediately, ‘Everyone stand fast until we get the direction,’ ” Mattis said. “I understand that this is probably more about your suspicion about what could be coming, but the fact is we have received no direction that would indicate any harm to anybody right now.”

A Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon found that 2,500 to 7,000 transgender men and women are serving among the 1.3 million troops on active duty, but Mattis has questioned whether the study is accurate.

Related coverage:
Mattis asked these two men to help determine the future of transgender military service

On eve of deadline, Pentagon delays plan to allow transgender recruits by six months

Pentagon has made no change yet to its transgender policy, says top U.S. general