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.
The sum total is another piece of political malpractice and poor planning from the White House.
“Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who criticized Trump for announcing the new policy on Twitter. It's worth emphasizing that McCain was among the final holdouts on repealing the military's “don't ask, don't tell” policy for gays in the military late last decade.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said Ernst opposes Trump's new policy. While the senator and former Army Reserve commander doesn't support the government paying for gender reassignment surgery, spokeswoman Brook Hougesen said, “Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity.”
Critical statements came even from GOP senators from heavily conservative states.
“You ought to treat everybody fairly and give everybody a chance to serve,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said on CNN.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said, “I don't think we should be discriminating against anyone.” He also responded to a question about whether he stands with transgender Utahns with a simple “Yes.”
Perhaps as illustrative as these critical statements is the lack of many supportive ones. A few GOP House members announced their approval of the ban, but thus far big-name Republicans seem to be staying far away from this decision — except to oppose it.
Asked for his position, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R), Ernst's Iowa colleague, declined to take one. “I have respect for what she has to say, and I think I would let it go at that until I’ve looked into it deeper and had conversations with her,” Grassley told the Des Moines Register.
As with Grassley's, some of these statements were couched as wanting to better understand the White House's policy — perhaps giving the White House a chance to walk this back. But it's also clear the party was not prepared to embrace a ban on transgender soldiers in a way some in the White House assumed. The White House thought this would put Democrats on the spot, but it has put their own party on the hot seat as it wrestles with whether to wade into the LGBT issues it has studiously avoided for years.
Even if you set aside the political calculation, the fact that the White House failed to inform key stakeholders about the decision — even simply to make sure they understood it and to see whether they could support it — is a pretty stunning indictment of how this was handled. As late as Wednesday afternoon, the White House still couldn't even say whether thousands of existing transgender members of the military would be allowed to continue to serve, with White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying there wasn't yet a plan for implementation. And keeping McCain, the chairman of the relevant committee, in the dark is downright puzzling.
That said, this is pretty par for the course for the White House. The travel ban was a mess from Day One, with members complaining about not being consulted. Grassley, who as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee is in charge of confirming Christopher A. Wray as FBI director, said he learned about the nomination via Twitter. And then there was arguably the White House's worst political moment: the way it handled the firing of the then-FBI Director James B. Comey and the many conflicting reasons offered for it.
The lesson from this latest episode is that the White House either doesn't understand the current political paradigm or is simply really bad at selling its policies.