Top members of the military are openly opposing President Trump’s move to ban transgender troops, breaking with their commander-in-chief on whether the policy is necessary.
Trump said on Thursday that he's doing the military “a great favor” by instituting the ban, but several service leaders don't see it that way.
Hours after Trump’s comments, recently confirmed Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said he will follow any order the president gives on transgender troops, but that “any patriot” should be allowed to serve.
“We will process and take direction of a policy that is developed by the [Defense] secretary [with] direction from the president and march out smartly,” Spencer told reporters Thursday night after visiting Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.
“On a fundamental basis, any patriot that wants to serve and meets all the requirements should be able to serve in our military.”
The comments seem to break with the long-held understanding that service leaders are meant to stay within the chain of command and implement a president’s directives rather than speak out, according to a source close to top Pentagon officials.
“In my memory, I would consider that an unusual public statement to make,” the source told The Hill.
“You make such statement with some level of risk. The president is looking for each service secretary to carry out the demands of the constitution and the president’s directives. If the president feels they’re not aligned with their directives, they have the power to remove them.”
A defense lobbyist familiar with the Pentagon’s inner workings agreed, telling The Hill that Spencer’s recent comments are “not supposed to happen.”
“There’s a chain of command that’s supposed to be followed,” they said. “The service secretary is not supposed to question the orders of the commander in chief.”
Trump said earlier in the day that the issue of transgender people in the military has “been a very difficult situation.”
“I have great respect for the community,” Trump said from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “It’s been a very complicated issue for the military, it’s been a very confusing issue for the military, and I think I’m doing the military a great favor.”
A 2016 RAND Corp. study estimated that there are nearly 2,500 transgender people on active duty in the military, while a 2014 Williams Institute examination put the number at 8,800. Former President Obama lifted a previous ban last year, and there are 250 openly transgender troops.
The president first wrote on Twitter in July that the U.S. military would “not accept or allow” transgender people to serve “in any capacity.” Trump claimed he made the decision after consultation with “my generals and military experts.”
Since the announcement, former military leaders have also spoken up, most notably in a letter this month signed by 56 retired generals and admirals. They argue the ban would be disruptive and degrade military readiness, rather than improve it, as the president has asserted.
Spencer — confirmed a week after Trump tweeted the plans — is the latest current military official to speak up against the proposed exclusion also lambasted by politicians and rights groups.
Earlier this month, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft asserted he “will not break faith” with transgender individuals serving in his service.
Zukunft disclosed on Aug. 1 that he and other Coast Guard leaders personally made calls to the known transgender individuals within the service after Trump's ban announcement.
“I will not turn my back. We have made an investment in you, and you have made an investment in the Coast Guard, and I will not break faith,” Zukunft said he told Lt. Taylor Miller, the Coast Guard’s first openly transitioning officer.
He also said the Coast Guard has “stood up a tiger team of our [Judge Advocate General’s Corps] officers,” referring to the legal branch of the force.
When asked about the legal team and their role, Coast Guard spokeswoman Lisa Novak told The Hill the branch “follows closely with the Department of Defense on human resources policies and we are currently in contact with them on how those policies may be affected.”
The public statements from Spencer and Zukunft reveal a Pentagon and White House at odds over an unexpected policy change that has largely frustrated military leaders.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has not commented publicly on the issue, but was reportedly rattled and “chagrined” with Trump's untimely announcement.
But the source close to Pentagon officials said the situation is about authority, not right or wrong.
“Trump has the authority,” they said. “The last president had the authority to bring in transgender individuals; Trump has the authority to remove them.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford has said current military policy on transgender personnel has not changed.
The current policy will remain in place until the White House sends specific guidance, Dunford said.
“In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect,” he said in a letter to the service chiefs.
The defense lobbyist said Dunford’s response is “what a senior military leader is supposed to do” — acknowledge the president’s directives and maintain the current policy.
As of Friday, the White House had not sent any policy directive on the transgender personnel ban to the Defense Department and it is not expected over the weekend, according to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Haverstick.
“There’s been continuing conversations between both parties, but no guidance has come forward as to where we’re going,” Haverstick told The Hill.