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Jim Mattis didn’t undermine President Trump’s transgender military ban. Trump already had.

President Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Norfolk in July. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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News broke Tuesday night that Jim Mattis had put President Trump's transgender military ban on hold, and opponents of the ban quickly cheered the apparently mutinous act from Trump's own defense secretary.

They ought to hold their applause.

What Mattis did Tuesday night, it turns out, was what Trump had called on him to do in a directive issued Friday: Study how to implement the ban — specifically when it comes to existing transgender service members — and get back to the White House with recommendations by early next year before the ban is implemented. This was presented as Mattis “freezing” the transgender ban, when in fact it was already frozen. And it was frozen because Trump himself froze it on Friday.

That said, the directive itself and the need to delay implementation of the ban for six months show how haphazard this whole process has been. Trump tweeted more than a month ago that the government would not “accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.” The actual policy is looking far more fungible than that hard-and-fast statement made in several out-of-nowhere tweets. Trump clearly jumped the gun, and now reality is setting in.

But Mattis only reinforced that fact, at Trump's direction. Here's what Trump's Friday directive instructed him to do:

By February 21, 2018, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, shall submit to me a plan for implementing both the general policy set forth in section 1(b) of this memorandum and the specific directives set forth in section 2 of this memorandum. … As part of the implementation plan, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, shall determine how to address transgender individuals currently serving in the United States military. Until the Secretary has made that determination, no action may be taken against such individuals under the policy set forth in section 1(b) of this memorandum.

Mattis's announcement on Tuesday night is wholly consistent with that directive. He did not go rogue here. “Once the panel reports its recommendations and following my consultation with the secretary of Homeland Security, I will provide my advice to the president concerning implementation of his policy direction,” Mattis said in the statement Tuesday night. “In the interim, current policy with respect to currently serving members will remain in place.”

But what many missed Friday night — probably because this announcement was buried in the White House's Friday night news dump alongside Hurricane Harvey and the pardoning of Joe Arpaio — is that the directive itself had considerably less teeth than Trump's initial comments suggested.

Here's what Trump tweeted July 26:

That sounded a lot like Trump banning all transgender service members — current or prospective — from the military. Yet the White House went weeks without providing further guidance on the fate of current ones.

But as the New York Times reported over the weekend, Trump's directive ceded plenty of authority to Mattis on this matter:

Left unclear was how many of the thousands of transgender service personnel estimated to be in the military might keep serving. By putting the onus on Mr. Mattis, the president appeared to open the door to allowing at least some transgender service members to remain in the military.

And now we have six months of study on whether current transgender service members can continue. Trump said the government would not “accept or allow” transgender service members, and now it looks like they may be allowed — provided they are already serving. As for the rest of the policy, it seems to be in Mattis's hands, subject to Trump's approval.

Trump's tweets now appear, at best, overzealous and, at worst, haphazard. He announced a huge military policy that wasn't ready for public consumption and caused needless confusion, and now he and his won defense secretary have been forced to rein it in.

All while transgender service members twist in the wind for six more months.