Donald Trump addresses supporters in Charleston, W.Va. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Donald Trump vowed Monday that if elected president he would rescind the Obama administration's new directives aimed at protecting transgender people against discrimination in schools and health-care coverage.

But even as Trump accused the administration of federal overreach and argued that such matters should be addressed by the states, the Republican Party's presumptive nominee also sounded a more compassionate tone and offered a more nuanced outlook than many of his party's elected leaders.

Allowing transgender people to use the restrooms of their choice has split Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, and even drawn attention from President Obama in recent days. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post that the government must act "to protect all people" and that he was eager to learn more about the movement for transgender rights.

"It is a very, very small portion of the population, but as I said, you have to protect everybody, including small portions of the population," Trump said during the interview in his 26th-floor office at Trump Tower here in Manhattan. 

On Friday, the Obama administration both directed public schools nationwide to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice and prohibited health insurance providers from denying coverage and services based on gender identity to transgender Americans.

The Obama administration will issue a directive May 13, telling every public school district to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. (Reuters)

The landmark directives sparked an immediate backlash from conservatives, who called them a violation of states' rights, as did Trump. Some prominent Republican leaders suggested the new rules would endanger innocent children. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), who threatened to sue, said Obama was trying to "bully Texas schools into allowing men to have open access to girls in bathrooms."

But Trump, in a lengthy discussion on the issue Monday, spoke in a markedly different manner. He repeatedly said transgender people should be protected under the law and said he believed most states would "make the right decisions."

Asked whether he thought the issue had been overblown, Trump said: "I don't think so, because you've got to protect all people, even though it's a tiny percentage of 1 percent. I think from that standpoint, [states] should come up with a policy that’s going to work for everybody and protect people."

Obama sees transgender rights as a modern civil rights issue, but Trump offered a different characterization: "I think it's a people thing."

"I think we have to help people," Trump said. "I don’t view it as civil rights or not civil rights. I think it’s something where we have to help people — and hopefully the states will make the right decisions.”

Asked whether he has had any personal exposure to transgender people, perhaps as an employer or through social settings, Trump said he did not.

“I have not had any exposure to it at all," Trump said. He added, "Now, I may not know about it, but I do not think I have any exposure to it from the standpoint of knowing people."

But Trump said he wants to learn more about the transgender experience in America.

"It's actually a very interesting subject to me," Trump said. "It's certainly an issue that's getting a lot of play and it's an issue that I'm studying very closely."