Analysis: Growing GOP backlash to transgender troop ban underscores Trump's political miscalculation

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Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who returned to Capitol Hill after being diagnosed with an aggressive type of brain cancer, leaves the chamber Wednesday. "Major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter," he said.

WASHINGTON – President Trump tweets first and asks questions later.

His surprise announcement Wednesday that he will ban transgender people from serving in the military in any capacity, reversing an Obama administration decision to allow them to serve openly, caught the Pentagon and Capitol Hill off guard.

• Reflecting how dramatically the national conversation on LGBTQ rights has shifted in recent years, the news drew swift rebukes from several leading Republicans in the Senate.

War hero John McCain, the preeminent Republican voice on national security, took a break from battling brain cancer to send this statement: “The President’s tweet . . . regarding transgender Americans in the military is yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter. . . . There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military – regardless of their gender identity. We should all be guided by the principle that any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet the standards should have the opportunity to do so – and should be treated as the patriots they are.”

From Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa), a former Army Reserve commander and the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate: “While she believes taxpayers shouldn’t cover the costs associated with a gender reassignment surgery, Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity,” spokeswoman Brook Hougesen told the Des Moines Register.

From Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), who is up for reelection in one of the reddest and most socially conservative states in America, tweeted:

From Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.), who wields a lot of control over the Pentagon’s budget from his perch on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee: “You ought to treat everybody fairly and give everybody a chance to serve,” he said on CNN. In a follow-up statement to the Huntsville Times, he added: “The current policy is a big tent for people who want to serve. You’ve got to remember, our military force is a voluntary force.”

From Sen. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.): “I would have significant objections to any proposal that calls for a specific group of American patriots currently serving in uniform to be removed from the military.”

From Sen. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska), who served in the Marines: “I’m all about training standards. High, high standards for whoever joins the military,” he told HuffPost. “But my initial reaction is, if you can meet those standards, we shouldn’t care who you are. So, meet the standards, and you should be able to join the military.”

Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio), whose openly gay son prompted him to come out for gay rights in 2013: “The Secretary of Defense is conducting a study of this policy and Rob believes we should wait until that is complete before making any decisions,” a spokeswoman told in-state press.

• Most Republicans in the Capitol tried hard to avoid reacting at all, and their silence spoke volumes about the degree to which they don’t think this is a political winner. One exception was Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R., Mo.), who praised Trump’s move. She recently offered an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would have blocked the Pentagon from offering gender transition therapies to active-duty service members. Twenty-four Republicans joined all 190 Democrats to reject the measure, the Post’s Mike DeBonis and Ed O’Keefe note.

• The Pentagon referred all questions about Trump’s announcement to the White House, but the White House referred questions back to the Pentagon and falsely suggested that the decision had been made at the behest of the military. Because no thought was given to the details before Trump’s trio of tweets, White House incoming press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was unable to provide any clarity during her afternoon briefing. She couldn’t answer, for example, what will happen to the thousands of openly transgender troops who are already serving. A lot of lives hang in the balance, and folks whose careers could be destroyed are waiting with baited breath. But Sanders threatened to leave if reporters pressed her about it. “Guys, I really don’t have anything else to add on that topic,” she said. “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.”

• Some background on the review that had been underway: “Under former Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, the military lifted the ban on transgender troops and was given one year to determine how to implement a policy that would allow transgender service members to receive medical care and would ban the services from involuntarily separating people in the military who came out as transgender,” the Post’s Abby Phillip, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe explain. “Trump’s defense secretary, retired Gen. Jim Mattis, delayed implementation . . . by six months in order to study its impact. . . . That review was due by early December. Mattis cautioned at the time that the delay ‘in no way presupposes the outcome.’ . . . Thousands of troops currently serving in the military are transgender, and some estimates place the number as high as 11,000 in the reserves and active duty military, according to a Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Defense Department.”

• The military was plainly caught off guard. As of Thursday morning, the pro-transgender policy is still on the Defense Department’s website.

From BuzzFeed News’s national security correspondent:

From a former public affairs strategic planner at the Pentagon:

• Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said in a radio interview that he “was not aware” of the policy change until he learned about it from social media.

• Trump’s tweets once again stomped on what could have been a good news cycle for him. Electronic manufacturer Foxconn announced plans to invest at least $7 billion in the United States and create between 30,000 and 50,000 jobs, with a huge factory in Wisconsin. But this story fell through the cracks because of Trump’s ban.

• The timing was also bad from an optics standpoint: Trump banned transgender troops on the 69th anniversary of Harry Truman ordering the desegregation of the armed forces.

• Could this be the civil rights issue of our time?

• The real impetus behind Trump’s snap announcement,via Politico’s Rachael Bade and Josh Dawsey: “House Republicans were planning to pass a spending bill stacked with his campaign promises, including money to build his border wall with Mexico. But . . . insiders feared they might not have the votes to pass the legislation because defense hawks wanted a ban on Pentagon-funded sex reassignment operations – something GOP leaders wouldn’t give them. They turned to Trump, who didn’t hesitate. . . . (But) House Republicans were never debating expelling all transgender troops from the military. ‘This is like someone told the White House to light a candle on the table and the WH set the whole table on fire,’ a senior House Republican aide said in an email. The source said that although GOP leaders asked the White House for help on the taxpayer matter specifically, they weren’t expecting – and got no heads up on – Trump’s far-reaching directive.”

2004 called. It want its wedge issue back

• A Trump administration official boasted shortly after the announcement: “This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin to take complete ownership of this issue,” the unnamed official told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. “How will the blue collar voters in these states respond when senators up for re-election in 2018 like [Michigan Sen.] Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaigns?”

Such a cravenly cynical quote – with its tacit acknowledgement that a major change in social policy was announced with partisan advantage in mind – is both breathtaking and scandalous. But even taken at face value, from a purely political perspective, it also reflects a remarkably unsophisticated view of our country circa 2017.

“What this official missed: Stabenow has a perfect 100% score from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT organization, for the last session of Congress,” Time Magazine’s Phil Elliott writes from Cleveland. “In fact, Democrats here in the heartland – and beyond – have decided embracing LGBT rights is good politics. Younger voters overwhelmingly support the issue, have no issue with same-sex marriage and don’t really get the hullabaloo over transgender identities. Even in the most blue-collar towns, a neighbor’s LGBT sexual orientation is less an issue than if they root for the wrong football team. Even as Democrats try to figure out their path forward, no one seriously questions whether they should retreat from the LGBT provisions in their platform.”

Look at how the 2018 Democrats in the other two states mentioned by the White House responded:

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio): “I have deep respect and gratitude for anyone who volunteers to serve in our military. We should not turn away anyone who is willing and able to serve this country and help keep America safe.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis)., who is openly gay, tweeted:

Even West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate (and up for reelection next year), spoke out against Trump’s ban. “I agree with Senator McCain that ‘any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet the standards should have the opportunity to do so – and should be treated as the patriots they are,'” Manchin told West Virginia MetroNews.

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, another Democrat up for reelection next year in a ruby red state, called Trump’s “cavalier” announcement “deeply unfortunate”: “If a service member can do the job and is willing, they should be able to serve – and they should be able to be open about who they are,” Heitkamp said in a statement to the Grand Forks Herald.

• Seeing an opportunity to gin up their grassroots base, national Democrats certainly didn’t equivocate either. “President Trump is a draft dodger and if he wants to talk about 2018, we’ve got dozens of veteran candidates who have already shown what it looks like to step up and serve our country to keep us safe, and are ready to do it again in Congress,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee communications director Meredith Kelly.

There were lots of very fiery statements from members in this same vein: “When my Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq, I didn’t care if the American troops risking their lives to help save me were gay, straight, transgender or anything else,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.). “All that mattered was they didn’t leave me behind.”

Trump has changed

• “For decades leading up to [yesterday’s announcement], the businessman-turned-politician has approached the LGBT community on nonideological terms,” the Post’s Robert Samuels and Jenna Johnson report. “Trump’s relationships with LGBT people, and his evolving positions on issues, have been transactional, according to people who have interacted with him, focused largely on how the community might affect his interests in the moment. Only a year ago, candidate Trump presented himself as a social liberal seeking to move the Republican Party left on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. . . . But circumstances have been changing since Trump entered the White House. While his staff has met with LGBT advocates and he has hired several New Yorkers who have supported LGBT rights in the past, Trump’s administration has taken positions more in tune with the president’s social conservative base.”

Thursday morning’s clips are brutal

Elites up and down the Acela Corridor are predictably outraged, but local TV stations and newspapers — including in some of the reddest places in the country, humanized the issue by featuring transgender troops.

Perry Stein on The Post’s Local desk: “Protesters speak out against Trump’s transgender military ban in front of the White House.”

New Yorker Editor David Remnick: “The Cruelty and Cynicism of Trump’s Transgender Ban; The President’s tweets are a naked attempt to divert attention from his scandals.”

USA Today: “Trump’s ban leaves transgender troops in limbo, and his White House and Pentagon scrambling.”

Stars and Stripes: “‘Fired by tweet:’ Troops, veterans react to transgender ban.”

Voice of America: “Transgender Soldiers, Veterans Shaken by Trump’s Ban on Their Service.”

Deseret News (Salt Lake City): “Utahns denounce Trump’s ban on transgender troops in U.S. military.”

Rapid City Journal (South Dakota): “Retired Ellsworth sergeant says transgender ban hurtful.

ABC affiliate in Louisville: “Kentucky Guardsman faces uncertain future after Trump tweet.”

ABC affiliate in Charleston, S.C.: “Lowcountry transgender veteran ‘stunned’ by President Trump’s transgender military ban.”

NBC News’s John Paul Brammer: “Trump’s Tweets May Leave Transgender Service Members ‘In Harm’s Way.’

NBC affiliate in Las Vegas: “Trump’s morning tweets have local LGBTQ vets asking, ‘What’s next?’

In a sign of how much the news is breaking through, People Magazine is giving major billing to this story on its home page: “Trump’s Transgender Military Ban Is a ‘Political Tool’ to Stir Fears of His Base, Experts Say.”

WaPo op-ed by Col. Sheri Swokowski (ret.): “I served 34 years in the Army. I’m transgender. President Trump is wrong.

Alex Horton on Checkpoint: “Trump called transgender troops a costly disruption. An expert who studied it says he’s wrong.

Bustle: “This Trans Air Force Veteran Didn’t Serve For 20 Years To Have Trump Tear Her Down.

Air Force Space Command veteran Carla Lewis on HuffPost: “I’m A Trans Veteran And I Fought For Your Right To Hate Me. For someone who claims to value loyalty, the president fails to comprehend the ultimate loyalty of our nation’s transgender service members.”

Vice: “What it’s like to be called a ‘burden.’ We talked to transgender military members about Trump’s plan to ban them.”

San Jose Mercury News: “Apple, Google and Facebook CEOs slam Trump’s transgender military ban.

San Francisco Chronicle: “Transgender effort reopens culture wars.”

Albany Times Union (New York): “Firestorm erupts over ban of transgenders in military.”

Boston Globe Editorial: “Trump’s cruel, unnecessary transgender ban.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg penned a column for Bloomberg View: “Trump’s Dishonorable Transgender Ban. It’s an ill-considered decision that offends on moral and practical grounds.”

Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton: “Donald Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military is un-American.”

Washington Examiner: “Policy aside, Trump’s Twitter announcement was a political disaster.”