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Mattis expected to back allowing transgender troops to stay in the military

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, shown during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 6. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is expected to propose to President Trump that transgender members of the U.S. military be allowed to continue serving despite the president’s call last summer for a ban on all transgender service members, according to two U.S. officials with knowledge of the issue.

The defense secretary was scheduled to brief the president Wednesday, but the meeting was postponed and will occur soon, officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss policy deliberations. Dana White, a spokeswoman for Mattis, said the secretary will provide his recommendation to Trump this week and the president will make an announcement at some point afterward.

Officials at the White House and Pentagon declined to comment on the recommendations until Mattis delivers his plan.

“This is a complex issue, and the secretary is taking his time to consider the information he’s been given,” White told reporters Thursday. “It’s an important issue, and again, he sees all of his decisions through the lens of lethality.”

A Pentagon spokesperson said Feb. 22 Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was expected to give President Trump his counsel on transgender military members “this week." (Video: Reuters)

Trump surprised many Pentagon officials on July 26 by issuing a string of tweets in which he said he was banning all transgender people from the military, despite not having a plan in place. Trump tweeted that he had reached his decision “after consultation with my Generals and military experts,” citing the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” he believed it would cause.

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, moved afterward to stop any changes from taking place until a new policy was adopted, and Mattis backed the move. The Obama administration began allowing transgender people to openly serve in the military in June 2016, prompting some people to come out for the first time.

It’s unclear whether Trump will adopt Mattis’s recommendations, which the president requested in an Aug. 25 executive order. Trump directed the military at the time to “return to the longstanding policy and practice on military service by transgender individuals that was in place prior to June 2016,” but left an opening under which Mattis could advise him in writing on changing Trump’s new policy. The order gave Mattis until Wednesday to establish a plan.

A Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon ahead of its 2016 policy change found that there were between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender service members among 1.3 million people on active duty — less than 1 percent of the force. The study concluded that it would cost between $2.4 million and $8.4 million to treat them annually, a “relatively small” amount. Mattis questioned last year whether the numbers in the Rand study were accurate, but said he wanted to study the issue further.

It is not clear how Mattis’s recommendations will address how transgender recruits are processed.

Before the Obama administration’s policy change, the Pentagon for years considered gender dysphoria a disqualifying mental illness. The policy adopted in 2016 banned the services from involuntarily separating people in the military who came out as transgender, and gave the Pentagon a year to determine how to begin processing transgender recruits.

But Mattis delayed allowing transgender recruits for an additional six months as the deadline neared. The decision “in no way presupposes an outcome,” but needed additional study, Mattis wrote at the time. Trump issued his ban on Twitter a few weeks later.

Since then, the Trump administration has been challenged in lawsuits, and federal judges required the Pentagon to open the military to transgender recruits beginning Jan. 1. The Pentagon indicated in December that it would not stand in the way of the court’s ruling and issued new policy guidance to recruiters on how to enlist transgender men and women.

The policy paper “shall remain in effect until expressly revoked,” the memorandum said. Allowing transgender people to serve in the military is “mandatory,” it added, repeating Dunford’s earlier directive that all people will be “treated with dignity and respect.”

Dunford, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last fall, said transgender troops already in the military have served with honor.

“I believe any individual who meets the physical and mental standards, and is worldwide deployable and is currently serving, should be afforded the opportunity to continue to serve,” he said.

He added that he would continue to advise Trump that transgender service members who follow rules and regulations should not be ejected on the basis of their gender identity.

“Senator, I can promise that that will be my advice,” he said, in response to a question from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). “What I’ve just articulated is the advice I’ve provided in private, and I’ve just provided in public.”