Lawmakers in both parties slammed President Trump’s decision on Wednesday to bar transgender Americans from serving in the military, while many of his allies on Capitol Hill remained largely perplexed or silent.
The president’s decision, announced in a series of tweets, is yet another move that confused and divided elements of his party at a time when it is already roiled by disagreements over the future of a proposed health-care overhaul and of embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has faced a barrage of criticism from Trump in recent days.
Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), a former Army officer, said “it throws us off” when Trump issues surprise tweets that distract from other GOP priorities. “Based on what we’re doing in here this week, I don’t know what the connection is,” he said.
Capitol Hill’s most prominent Republican voice on national security matters, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), also criticized Trump’s announcement, calling it “unclear” and “yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter.”
McCain added, “There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military — regardless of their gender identity.” He said there should be no change in policy until the Pentagon completes an ongoing review of the issue.
Other conservative senators offered criticism of the move. A spokeswoman for Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), an Army veteran and member of the Armed Services Committee, said that the senator believes “Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity,” though the military should not fund gender-reassignment surgery.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a Trump ally on most issues, said he wanted “more information and clarity” on Trump’s policy. “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone,” he said, adding that transgender people “deserve the best we can do for them.”
And Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a senior member of an Appropriations subcommittee that sets Pentagon spending levels, said he expected Congress to call hearings exploring Trump’s policy change.
“You ought to treat everybody fairly and give everybody a chance to serve,” he told CNN.
Most Republicans on Capitol Hill, however, remained mum in the hours immediately after the announcement Wednesday.
A House Republican aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about internal matters, said that while GOP leaders were aware of a White House review of the issue of transgender service members, they were not given heads-up about the announcement and that it was “way beyond what we expected.”
One Republican lawmaker who offered early support for the policy change on social media was Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), who recently offered an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would have blocked the Pentagon from offering gender transition therapies to active-duty service members.
“Pleased to hear that @realDonaldTrump shares my readiness and cost concerns, & will be changing this costly and damaging policy,” she said on Twitter.
But a GOP colleague, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), who has a transgender son, weighed in against the policy: “No American, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, should be prohibited from honor + privilege of serving our nation.”
Trump’s announcement comes two weeks after the House rejected Hartzler’s amendment in a closely watched vote. Twenty-four Republicans joined all 190 Democrats voting to reject the measure.
But the issue has remained a pet cause for House conservatives who believe the federal government should not be funding gender reassignments. Conservatives have offered several amendments to a pending appropriations bill funding the military that would target transgender service members. But those amendments, which could come up for a vote Thursday, would not exclude them from serving entirely.
During the debate on the initial amendment, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who also served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, argued for the therapy restriction but explicitly stopped short of calling for an overall ban.
“We’re not stopping transgender people from joining,” he said. “We’re saying taxpayers in this country right now are not going to foot the bill for it.”
The defense policy bill has yet to move through the Senate, though Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated that could happen in the coming weeks. McCain, who is still determining how to treat an aggressive form of brain cancer, is poised to lead floor debate on the legislation.
Opponents of Trump’s policy could use the legislation to amend the bill to overturn it. A handful of Democrats, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), said they were preparing legislation to do so.
Gillibrand, who has used her perch on the Senate Armed Services Committee to push for greater protections for women in uniform, said Wednesday that she would pursue legislation to “overturn this discriminatory decision.”
The defense bill, always seen as one of the few must-pass bills of the year, is often used as a way to launch proxy battles in the decades-long culture wars that pit social conservatives against progressives. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle often introduce legislation to restrict or expand abortion protections at military medical installations, to enact stricter rules against sexual harassment or rape in the ranks, or in more recent years, to restrict or roll back protections for transgender troops.
The last time the annual defense bill was used to make a significant change in social policy was 2010, when lawmakers voted to roll back the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule that banned gay men and lesbians from openly serving in uniform. But transgender service was left in flux, in part because its fate has been dictated by internal Pentagon medical policy, not law.
If Trump’s tweets signal a change in policy, then “this is a president hell-bent determined to wreak havoc in the ranks — the very thing he said he didn’t want to do he’s proposed doing,” said Aubrey Sarvis, a private attorney and gay rights advocate who used to lead Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the group that pushed to end the gay troop ban. “If he seeks to do this as commander in chief by ordering his subordinates to act on this, the Defense Department is going to be faced with a barrage of lawsuits.”
“This is a wake up call and defining moment for the LGBT community. We have to rise up and oppose this president,” Sarvis added.
The seven openly gay members of Congress quickly denounced the change. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who is also running for Colorado governor, said, “Trump makes our military weaker by arbitrarily kicking out high-performing soldiers based solely on gender identity.”
Other Democrats flooded social media and email inboxes with statements objecting to the change.
Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, called the policy change “an unwarranted and disgraceful attack on men and women who have been bravely serving their country.”
“These service members are defending the United States around the world as we speak, and they have long done so with distinction,” he said. “To prevent transgender people from joining the military and to push out those who have devoted their lives to this country would be ugly and discriminatory in the extreme.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) noted that Trump made his announcement on the 69th anniversary of President Harry Truman’s executive order desegregating the military, adding that the president “has chosen this day to unleash a vile and hateful agenda that will blindside thousands of patriotic Americans.”
“Transgender Americans are serving honorably in our military,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). “We stand with these patriots.”
Several Democratic military veterans also lambasted Trump’s decision. Rep. Ruben Gallego (Ariz.), a Marine veteran of the Iraq War, accused Trump of “using fear of Trans community to score political points.”
“Banning any qualified person from serving their country, because of who they are is both discriminatory and bad national security policy,” he tweeted.
And Rep. Anthony G. Brown (Md.), a retired Army Reserve colonel, called it “a dark day for our Armed Forces and our nation.”
“President Trump’s rationale harkens back to a more ignorant and intolerant time, where words like ‘disruption’ and ‘not a social experiment’ were used to keep women, African Americans and gays and lesbians from fully participating in our military services,” he said.