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Democrats Call Trump’s Bluff on Transgender Military Ban

Christine Grimaldi

“I think this is way more political than anything else. And now, they’re kind of like post hoc trying to figure out what any of it means.”

Congressional Democrats are pressuring U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis to admit what, if anything, he knew about President Trump’s transgender military ban prior to the commander-in-chief’s bombshell announcements via Twitter.

Trump claimed he consulted with his “Generals and military experts” before his July 26 Twitter proclamation. But military officials contradicted Trump, saying that the move came as a surprise to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to Mattis, who was on vacation and reportedly given just a day’s notice. Now, 115 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are calling Trump’s bluff, requesting “access to any letters, emails, telephone transcripts, meeting logs and minutes, or other materials that document such requests.”

“We seek information to discover the proof of where and when the Pentagon advised the President that this was the best idea for our country,” Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-VA), the leader of the effort, said in a statement accompanying the group’s letter to Mattis. “If there is proof then we can evaluate that, if there is no proof then the President lied to the American people once again.”

McEachin subsequently admitted to his “bias” in an interview with Rewire.

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“I’m not convinced when this president’s lips are moving that he’s telling the truth, and that goes for his tweets,” McEachin said.

Trump followed up his tweets with a formal White House memorandum instructing Mattis to prohibit openly transgender people from entering the military and decide how to oust those who are already serving. The memorandum dropped the same Friday night in August that Trump pardoned convicted criminal Joe Arpaio, the infamous former Arizona sheriff who long terrorized undocumented immigrant families.

Civil rights groups immediately sued the administration, calling into question the constitutionality of yet another state-sanctioned form of discrimination. Trump’s federal agencies are waging a stealth campaign against some of the most vulnerable LGBTQ populations in addition to flashier actions like the trans military ban.

 

House Democrats’ appeal to Mattis again raises questions of who knew what and when in a White House that most charitably can be characterized as erratic. Trump stocked his administration with officials who are erasing LGBTQ people from being counted in the United States. Some officials in that vein include white nationalist Stephen Miller and contraception foe Katy Talento in the White House; former anti-LGBTQ Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) senior counsel Matt Bowman, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) senior legal adviser who wrote the reversal of the birth control benefit; and HHS Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino, a longtime anti-LGBTQ activist. And that doesn’t account for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who in July addressed ADF behind closed doors, and white nationalist Steve Bannon, who exited the White House in the lead up to the official memorandum in August.

Who had Trump’s ear in the moments before he tweeted and then formally signed away the future of thousands of transgender service members?

One senior Capitol Hill staffer believes Trump acted to put an end to controversial anti-trans offerings ultimately to keep defense spending moving in the GOP-dominated House.

“I think this is way more political than anything else,” the staffer, who has direct knowledge of the issues, told Rewire in an interview. “And now, they’re kind of like post hoc trying to figure out what any of it means.”

The staffer doubted that the ban “was thought through by the Family Research Council and passed over to the White House.”

Either “the president literally had like a brain spasm or something and just decided to do this,” the aide said, or “he was told one night, ‘Hey, the thing that’s holding up this bill is this debate over trans people in the military.’”

McEachin confirmed the aide’s assessment, with a twist. He speculated that Trump proposed the trans military ban to eliminate controversial hurdles and clear a path to the House’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act, appeasing the majority of Republicans and solidifying their support for the ultimately doomed effort.

“At best, I can suggest that is a rumor that is being bandied about, or was being bandied about on the floor of the House,” McEachin said. “I think [the ban] was done out of political necessity and not given any real policy thought or debate.”

That could explain why the White House needed another month to cobble together the formal ban via the memorandum.

A more calculated theory involves the religious right.

The Family Research Council (FRC), a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, appeared to claim victory for the trans military ban.

Trump “fulfilled his promise to us as we sat with him out there in October 2016,” FRC Executive Vice President Jerry Boykin, a retired army lieutenant general, told the group’s president, Tony Perkins, during an in-house interview in August.

The New York Times confirmed Perkins’ potential influence on the trans military ban in a paragraph buried in a sweeping analysis of the religious right’s influence on the growing web of federal regulations undermining reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality.

Perkins, in attendance at a mid-July meeting between administration officials and religious leaders, “broached the topic of banning transgender people from the military.”

“Some Republican members of Congress had been pushing for a similar prohibition, pointing to the medical costs of supporting transgender people,” the Times reported. “Again, within days of the meeting, Mr. Trump took action, announcing his transgender military ban.”

The Times hyperlinks the congressional GOP’s effort to a press release from the office of Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), an increasingly vocal opponent of abortion rights and transgender rights. Hartzler is scheduled to speak at this Friday’s Values Voter Summit, sponsored by Perkins’ FRC.

Hartzler initially offered an outright ban on trans service members during June’s committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense budget and perennial magnet for anti-LGBTQ measures. The amendment gave Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) a platform to go on a notorious anti-trans diatribe.

But Hartzler withdrew her controversial amendment during the same markup “with the understanding and plea to Secretary Mattis to take the steps to restore readiness and make sure we don’t waste precious tax dollars; and if that doesn’t happen, understand that we need to take action once this gets on the floor.”

By the time NDAA reached the floor in mid-July, Hartzler offered a version prohibiting the U.S. Department of Defense from providing gender-confirming health care to transgender service members. Hartzler based the amendment on what she inaccurately claimed were the “high medical costs” for trans service members, contradicting a widely recognized 2016 RAND Corporation report that determined “the costs of gender transition-related health care treatment are relatively low”—in fact, a fraction of what the military spends annually on erectile dysfunction medication.

The amendment failed with help from 24 House Republicans who crossed party lines to vote against it.

Hartzler’s supporters tried again, turning to a separate defense appropriations package with much-touted border wall funding as a vehicle for discrimination. As Politico reported:

They began pushing GOP leadership to use a procedural trick to automatically include the controversial proposal in a Pentagon spending package set for a floor vote this week. The idea was to tuck the provision into a rules package governing the legislation, sidestepping a second potentially unsuccessful amendment vote and adding it to the bill without a floor fight.

Under intense pressure from moderates in the Tuesday Group to reject the idea, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his team shied away from the strategy, worried that it would make them look hypocritical for circumventing regular order ….

That’s when lawmakers turned to the White House for help. They figured the administration could speed up a decision and settle the dispute once and for all.

“Conservatives were telling [the] White House they didn’t want money in a spending bill to go to transgender health services,” said one senior administration official, noting that it accelerated Trump’s decision.

Their argument fell on sympathetic ears, White House sources said. Chief strategist Steve Bannon encouraged Trump to deal with the matter now.

Now, some Republicans are having buyer’s remorse. They didn’t realize Trump was going to ban transgender people from serving in the military altogether.

Behind the scenes, Hartzler was also pressuring the administration to act. She “attempted to reach Mattis by phone numerous times” in the lead-up to her initial NDAA push, according to the same Politico report examining “Trump’s snap decision” to ban transgender troops. “Mattis only got back to her the day she forced the matter on the House floor [in NDAA] in mid-July.”

Hartzler stepped up her game, going “around Mattis to engage the White House.”

“Mattis knew the ban was being considered and was consulted before the announcement, according to several White House officials,” Politico reported. The ban, however, “ultimately came down from Trump and was ‘White House-driven,’” per the president’s aides.

Indeed, Vice President Mike Pence, the virulently anti-LGBTQ former governor of Indiana, lobbied for the failed Hartzler amendment ending the military’s coverage of gender-confirming health care, according to a Foreign Policy report.

And The Washington Blade directly connected Pence to the final ban and the right-wing religious leaders pushing for it all along:

The White House senior official source—who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity—said Vice President Mike Pence is the driving force behind the ban. In fact, he has been spearheading the trans ban reinstatement since last May, at the behest of conservative leaders such as Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, and scores of retired anti-LGBT military officers.

How much did Mattis, or anyone for that matter, really know? That’s what congressional Democrats are trying to find out.

One LGBTQ rights advocate with working knowledge of the effort cautioned against getting lost in the details and overlooking the consequences. “There’s no mystery here, in the most fundamental sense,” the advocate told Rewire, hearkening to the administration fundamentally opposed to LGBTQ rights.

“I think it’s important here not to miss the forest for the trees.”

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