49 senators accuse Mattis of bringing back 'don't ask, don't tell'

49 senators accuse Mattis of bringing back 'don't ask, don't tell'
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Forty-nine senators, including one Republican, blasted Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOnly Donald Trump has a policy for Afghanistan New Pentagon report blames Trump troop withdrawal for ISIS surge in Iraq and Syria Mattis returns to board of General Dynamics MORE’s recommendations on transgender troops, saying they are not supported by evidence and represent a return to the days of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“The recommendations and report break faith with the men and women serving in our military by establishing a new ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for transgender service members, permitting them to serve only if they are willing to forego any chance of living as their true selves,” the senators wrote in a letter to Mattis on Thursday.

“Just as our mistaken policy regarding lesbian, gay and bisexual service members harmed readiness and ultimately was repealed, the implementation of your recommendations will also harm our nation’s military. Accordingly, we are opposed to the implementation of this discriminatory policy.”

The letter was organized by Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters F-bombs away: Why lawmakers are cursing now more than ever White House offers reassurances amid recession fears as 2020 candidates sound alarm MORE (D-N.Y.). The one Republican signatory was Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate Senate braces for brawl over Trump's spy chief Congress kicks bipartisan energy innovation into higher gear MORE (R-Alaska). Only one member of the Democratic caucus, Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSunday shows - Recession fears dominate Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Trump vows to 'always uphold the Second Amendment' amid ongoing talks on gun laws MORE (W.Va.), did not sign the letter.

Last month, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE signed a memo banning most transgender people from serving in the military “except under certain limited circumstances.” The memo gave Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTop immigration aide experienced 'jolt of electricity to my soul' when Trump announced campaign Trump casts uncertainty over top intelligence role Juan Williams: Trump, his allies and the betrayal of America MORE, who oversees the Coast Guard, “authority to implement any appropriate policies concerning military service by transgender individuals.”

No new policy can go into effect immediately, as courts have issued preliminary injunctions that require the Pentagon to continue allowing open service while lawsuits work their way through the court system.

Trump’s memo was signed in conjunction with the release of a report Mattis submitted to the president outlining his recommendations on how to handle transgender troops.

In Senate Armed Services Committee hearings over the last two weeks, Gillibrand has been asking the military chiefs whether they are aware of unit morale, cohesion and disciplinary issues as a result of open service by transgender troops.

The chiefs of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines replied they have no reports of any issues. On Thursday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told Gillibrand such reports would not normally get to his level.

Mattis, meanwhile, argued Gillibrand’s question was flawed.

“These issues like this would not come to service chief level generally unless it was a very, very, I would call it, newsworthy situation, and the reason is that under the [former Defense Secretary Ash] Carter policy, the reporting is opaque,” Mattis told Gillibrand on Thursday.

“We cannot report that a problem emanated from a transgender. We cannot, under the Carter policy, do that. So the question you’ve asked the service chiefs and the chairman are ones that, right now, the Carter policy prohibited that very information from coming up because it’s private information and it’s specifically called out in his policy statement, so it’s impossible for them to respond to you.”

In the letter Thursday, the senators said Mattis’s recommendations “came as a surprise” to them.

That’s “particularly in light of the many statements — from all levels of military and political leadership under your tenure — arguing that open service has had no impact on readiness or good order and discipline, and that transgender service members should be treated with dignity and respect and allowed to serve as long as they meet the standards,” the senators wrote.

While Mattis’s recommendations claim to be “informed by the department's own data and experience obtained since the Carter policy took effect,” they continued, the recommendations are actually “not grounded in any reported experience from the last two years.”

“For example, the report asserts that ‘[t]he potential for discord in the unit during the routine execution of daily activities is substantial and highlights the fundamental incompatibility of the department's legitimate military interest in uniformity, the privacy interests of all Service members, and the interest of transgender individuals in an appropriate accommodation.’ Given that the department’s experience with open service should, after almost two years, include ‘routine execution of daily activities,’ it is telling that this conclusion is offered without evidence of such ‘discord,’” they wrote.

Further, they said, policies banning transgender service would undermine morale and make it harder to recruit by sending a message to young people that the military is outdated.

“We strongly oppose your recommendations,” the senators concluded. “Rather than a policy which excludes all transgender individuals, the military should establish a policy which includes all Americans who are willing to serve and a policy that reasonably protects the military’s interest as an employer in providing necessary medical care for those willing to serve our country.”