July 30, 2017

Editorial: Trump’s anti-transgender maneuver

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Flickr / Gage Skidmore

President Trump

After six months of skirmishes with the press, political foes, facts and protocol, President Trump sent out tweets last week that stood out from the pack.

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” the president wrote Wednesday morning. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”

This surprise attack on transgender people serving in the military was disruptive, puzzling, petty and ill-informed — even by America’s new lowered standards for presidential forthrightness and clarity. The move also reversed a campaign promise to serve as a friend to the LGBTQ community.

Now military personnel and the rest of us are left to wonder, first, why he suddenly targeted transgender servicemen and women. Second, what does this mean for current active-duty personnel who identify as transgender? And third: Is a tweet an order?

What lies ahead for them in the wake of Wednesday’s bombshell is uncertain. But we admire Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford for quickly asserting that nothing will change before there is more direction from the administration.

Dunford also took care to sound exactly the right tone in response to the confusing tweet from his boss: “In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect. As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions,” the general said.

Though most other answers are murky, one thing is clear: Over and over again, our president fails us.

In sorting out the president’s motivations, we have learned to look to his ego. So, regarding Trump’s decision to launch those seemingly out-of-the-blue tweets analyses by Politico and other media organizations are probably on track in suggesting the move was tied to the $1.6 billion spending bill on the House floor.

That bill was loaded with items Trump wanted, most famously a down-payment on his long-ballyhooed border wall between the United States and Mexico.

Defense hawks, according to this line of thinking, dug in on their desire to ban the Pentagon from paying for sex-reassignment surgeries. GOP insiders appealed to the president to appease the conservative holdouts somehow and help break the potential budget logjam.

The president, giving them much more than they’d bargained for, fired off Wednesday’s three tweets barring transgender people from the U.S. military altogether.

Bizarrely, careers are now in jeopardy, the nation is needlessly distracted, and principles of fairness and decency have been compromised at least in part because of Trump’s obsession with that enormously expensive and ridiculous border wall. But the potential costs actually in question — for sex-reassignment surgery (and not everyone who identifies as transgender wants or undergoes the surgery) — amount to very little in comparison with other Pentagon expenditures.

According to one analysis, for instance, the U.S. military spends five times more for Viagra prescriptions than it would for sex-reassignment surgeries.

The House did pass the bill the day after Trump’s tweets upped the ante on the issue.

In addition to the spending-bill connection, it’s likely that Trump’s move was part of a pattern of undoing President Obama’s initiatives regardless of merit. It also partly served as a nod to social conservatives such as Vice President Michael Pence, as well as an exercise in power-flexing by an unpopular, unprepared and retaliatory leader.

It is a broken campaign promise as well as a step backward in being the great and striving nation many of us envision.

Thirteen months ago, the Obama administration allowed people who consider themselves transgender to openly serve in the military, and the Pentagon has had the time since to adjust to the policy.

An interesting and comprehensive study by RAND Corporation, published last year, estimates there could be as many as 6,630 active-duty military personnel (and up to some 4,000 reserves) who identify as transgender — people, it must be remembered, who have dedicated themselves to America’s protection, and many of whom are highly trained specialists needed for their skills.

Leadership from the top of the chain of command — the Oval Office — has been unconventional, to say the least. We hope this alarming episode of unilateral policy-setting via tweet will receive enough pushback that it will help tame the administration into the kind of deliberative, collaborative decision-making the nation deserves.

Most especially, leaders need to cultivate and employ wisdom. It is worrisome that President Trump shows no sign of learning — or even wanting to learn — from missteps and mistakes.

(Take for example his confounding and insulting speech to the Boy Scouts of America last Monday at their annual jamboree. Dan Rather called it “disgusting.” It was so off the wall, the top Scout official felt the need to apologize. Response from the White House? Expectedly disappointing.)

Nor does he seem concerned that last week’s tweets reverse his campaign assurances to members of the LGBTQ community that he would have their backs. In June 2016, Trump positioned himself as a better friend to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people than Hillary Clinton, saying after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting that took the lives of 49 people in Orlando, Florida, that someday that friendship “will be proven out, big-league.”

It hasn’t.

This current controversy isn’t just about the country’s, and military’s, small transgender community. All of us are affected by words and actions signalling a more closed, more divided nation.

Trustworthiness, consistency, inclusion, appreciation, understanding, support — those sorts of attributes are an army in themselves to a president and in a country.

America is losing ground through such nonsense as last week’s Trump Twitter outburst.

We hope cooler heads will prevail. People who identify as transgender, and who are qualified and eager to serve our country in the military, should be completely welcome. That’s especially so in a country whose very strength traces in large part from its tolerance and shared democratic values.

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