President Trump's tweeted transgender military ban on July 26 drew immediate criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, who were caught unaware by the decision. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

A bloc of 45 U.S. senators is asking the Pentagon not to discharge any transgender service members until the Defense Department completes an ongoing review of whether they should be able to continue serving in uniform.

The letter holds no legal sway over the Pentagon and lawmakers cannot stop President Trump from carrying out his stated intention to ban transgender people from serving in uniform, but the letter puts almost half of the U.S. Senate on record as opposing the surprise announcement.

Despite Trump’s directive, issued in a series of tweets on Wednesday, the military’s highest-ranking officer said in a letter to senior military leaders Thursday that there would be “no modifications” to the current policy on transgender troops until further direction was received from the president.

“In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect,” said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The White House has not yet said whether or when it would issue detailed instructions to the Pentagon to carry out Trump’s tweeted orders.

The letter from senators was written by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a member of the Armed Services Committee who focuses especially on personnel matters. Aides said it is intended to encourage Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to complete the review he has started to explore whether transgender people should be allowed to serve.


Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote a letter eventually signed by 45 senators urging the Pentagon not to act on the president’s transgender ban while a review of the current policy is underway. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Food Policy Action Education Fund)

The senators ask that “at a minimum, you do not separate any service member due to the person’s gender identity until you have completed the assessment that you announced on June 30, have reported back to Congress about any challenges that you foresee in the accession and retention of transgender troops, and determined the Department is unable to mitigate these challenges.”

“Any American who wants to serve and meets the standards should be allowed to serve our country,” the senators added.

The letter was finalized late Thursday and early Friday amid the drama of the unexpected end to the Senate’s weeks-long debate over health-care reform.

While most senators watched as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) deliberated with colleagues over how he planned to vote on a proposed watered-down repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Gillibrand was spotted working her way around the Senate Chamber seeking signatures for her letter. With paper and pen in hand, she was seen talking to Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), as well as several other Democrats.

Ultimately, 45 senators signed her letter — all Democrats except Collins. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the Armed Services panel, was among the signatories.

Gillibrand told CNN on Thursday she was “outraged” by Trump’s unexpected announcement and said she would be introducing legislation to block Trump from banning transgender troops as part of consideration of the annual defense policy bill.

“These are men and women who woke up that morning … only to find out by Twitter that their president doesn’t want their service. I can’t think of something more disrespectful, more outrageous,” she told CNN.

Here’s the full text of Gillibrand’s letter, obtained first by The Washington Post:

Dear Secretary Mattis,

We are writing regarding the President’s announcement via Twitter yesterday that transgender Americans can no longer serve in the military. We strongly oppose this policy change, and urge you to advise the President against it. This announcement contradicts existing Defense Department policies, undermines our military readiness, and puts our transgender service members as well as their commanders in an impossible situation. We appreciate General Dunford’s message that no policy changes should be made until implementation guidelines have been issued. We further write to request that, at a minimum, you do not separate any service member due to the person’s gender identity until you have completed the assessment that you announced on June 30, have reported back to Congress about any challenges that you foresee in the accession and retention of transgender troops, and determined the Department is unable to mitigate these challenges.

Transgender Americans who serve in our military put their lives on the line to protect America. They make up a small percentage of the military population, but are reportedly twice as likely to serve in the military as other Americans. Transgender service members have been serving openly since the policy was changed in June 2016 and in that time no service has reported any issues associated with their service.

Forcing these brave Americans out of our military would be cruel and discriminatory. It would harm our readiness by denying the military of these service members’ capabilities and requiring the military to replace them at a time when the recruiting pool for the services continues to shrink. It will harm morale in the military as service members see their brothers and sisters in arms — some of whom are currently forward deployed — thrown out simply because of their identity. And the uncertainty associated with making policy this way is already harming our military readiness and morale, as transgender service members and their superiors struggle to make sense of the policy and what it means for them today and tomorrow.

Any American who wants to serve and meets the standards should be allowed to serve our country. Transgender service members are serving with honor and distinction today and we ask that you, as our Secretary of Defense, assure them that their service will not be ended simply because of who they are.

Sincerely,

Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D- Conn.), Cory A. Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.), Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D- Calif.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Martin T. Heinrich (D-N.M.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.), Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Gary C. Peters (D-Mich.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Bernard Sanders (I- Vt.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Jeanne Shaheen (D- N.H.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).