Trump triggers storm with transgender ban

President Trump announced Wednesday that he would end service by transgender people in the military, opening up a culture battle that caught much of Washington by surprise.

Trump made the announcement after House conservatives pushed the White House to curb Pentagon funding for transition-related medical care and indicated they may not support the spending bill currently on the floor over the issue.

But Trump went much further, and decisionmakers on Capitol Hill, including the Armed Services committees, were out of the loop.

Trump’s announcement, made in three morning posts on Twitter, also left more questions than answers — including whether the 250 openly transgender troops and thousands more who remain private about their gender identity could face immediate discharge.

Trump announced the military would “not accept or allow” transgender people to serve “in any capacity,” saying he had made the decision after consultation with “my Generals and military experts.”

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The announcement came while Defense Secretary James Mattis is on vacation for the week.

The Pentagon, in a three-sentence statement, referred all questions to the White House and said more guidance would be given in the “near future.”

The White House press briefing on Wednesday did little to clear up confusion.

“I really don't have anything else to add on that topic,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in evident frustration. “As I do, I'll keep you posted. But if those are the only questions we have, I'm going to call it a day. But if we have questions on other topics, I'll be happy to take those.”

Transgender troops have been able to serve openly since summer 2016, when the Obama administration lifted the ban. They also receive coverage for any treatment deemed medically necessary by their doctors, including surgery and hormone therapy.

Trump’s tweets appear to reverse the entire policy.

“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 said in a series of tweets.

“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. Thank you.”

Estimates on the number of transgender troops vary widely. On the high end, LGBT advocates put it at 15,000. On the low end, a 2016 Rand Corporation study estimated there were 2,450 in active duty and 1,510 in the reserves.

About 250 troops have officially come out as transgender since the ban was lifted.

Asked whether currently serving transgender troops, including those now deployed to war zones, would be discharged, Sanders could not answer.

“The implementation policy is going to be something that the White House and the Department of Defense have to work together to lawfully determine, and I would imagine the Department of Defense will be the lead on that and keep you posted as that takes place,” she said.

Asked why such a decision was not made before announcing the new policy, Sanders said Trump did not feel the need to wait after making up his mind. Trump made the decision Tuesday, she said, and informed Mattis that day.

“I think sometimes you have to make decisions, and once he made a decision, he didn't feel it was necessary to hold that decision and they're going to work together with the Department of Defense to lawfully implement it,” she said.

On the Capitol, defense hawks and GOP leadership were caught off guard.

A House Armed Services Committee staffer said the committee was “surprised” by the announcement and was waiting for more information. Notably, Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) made no statement.

House leadership sources said GOP leaders knew the White House was looking into the issue but thought the review was only on how and whether to use taxpayer funding for transition-related medical care. The actual announcement was far beyond what was expected and caught many by surprise, the sources said.

Other GOP sources said conservatives pushed Trump to take action after the failure of an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would have banned Pentagon funding for the medical care.

The conservatives expressed concern about supporting a wide-ranging spending bill without such a ban. The bill includes defense spending, as well as funding for the border wall promised by Trump during his campaign.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Defense: Trump signs 7B defense policy bill into law | Rips McCain hours after signing bill named after him | Green Beret killed in Afghanistan blast Tapper thanks McCain for his service ‘since President Trump would not do it’ Trump rips McCain hours after signing bill named after him MORE (R-Ariz.), notoriously furious when kept out of the loop on Pentagon policy changes, appeared to be equally caught off guard.

“The president’s tweet this morning regarding transgender Americans in the military is yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter,” McCain said in a statement.

Several other Republicans, too, did not agree with Trump’s decision. Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTop Republicans concerned over impact of potential Trump drug rule The Hill's Morning Report — Trump to GOP: I will carry you Treasury releases proposed rules on major part of Trump tax law MORE (Utah), for example, said that “transgender people are people,” and Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) said while taxpayer funding shouldn’t be used on transition surgery, “Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity.”

Democrats, too, were outraged and promised to take action to reverse Trump’s decision.

“It takes a brave and committed person to volunteer to defend this country, and every American that is able and willing to do so should be allowed to join the U.S. military,” Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithIt’s a mistake to associate the Western canon with strictly conservative principles House easily passes 7B annual defense policy bill Overnight Defense: Trump tells veterans he will 'stand up for America' | McConnell, Ryan say Putin not welcome on Capitol Hill | Mattis tries to explain Trump's Iran tweet MORE (Wash.), ranking Democrat of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “We will fight this decision, just like we fought ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and ultimately justice will prevail.”

—Scott Wong and Rebecca Savransky contributed.