WASHINGTON – The response from Arizona lawmakers was swift and clear Wednesday after President Donald Trump said in a series of early-morning tweets that transgender individuals would not be able to serve “in any capacity” in the military.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation criticized both the message – one called it “dumb” – and the medium, with confusion on exactly what weight the president’s words have on Pentagon policy.
“Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving,” Sen. John McCain said in a statement released by his office. “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.”
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said at a hastily called rally of House Democrats that the prohibition is not Pentagon policy.
“There’s a reason why Secretary (James) Mattis did not issue this, there is a reason why no general decided to talk about this, because it’s embarrassing and it’s dumb,” Gallego said. “This president is acting like a coward, unlike the men and women who are trying to serve who are not.”
The Trump tweets began shortly before 9 a.m., sandwiched between tweets in which he criticized Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who had voted against a Senate health reform measure, and another in which he questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
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The three transgender tweets together said: “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. 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.”
They come a little more than a year after the Defense Department’s announcement last summer that openly transgender individuals would be allowed to serve in the armed forces.
Calls seeking clarification from the Pentagon were redirected Wednesday to the White House, where spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said implementation of the ban is “something that the White House and the Department of Defense have to work together to lawfully determine.” She said the change was not easy, but that the president “feels that it’s the best one for the military,” according to a White House transcript.
McCain criticized the lack of clarity in Trump’s messages.
“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. “The statement was unclear.”
Gallego’s message seemed clear when he fired back at Trump on Twitter.
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“Banning any qualified person from serving their country because of who they are is both discriminatory and bad national security policy,” Gallego wrote. He added in a later tweet: “I served in Iraq. I know what matters on the battlefield isn’t gender identity, it’s your character and willingness to serve the country.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said in a statement that Trump had “callously turned his back on more than 15,000 current active transgender service members, the LGBT community and our nation” with the ban.
“Military service members who bravely serve in the name of freedom, liberty and rights for all deserve a better commander-in-chief,” Grijalva’s statement said. “As a LGBTQ ally, I extend my gratitude to those who make sacrifices for our country and continue to pledge my unwavering support to them.”
Steve Kilar, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said that current military personnel who are transgender shouldn’t panic.
“Donald Trump’s tweets are not self-executing in this context,” Kilar said. “Transgender people cannot simply be thrown out of the military because of his tweets from this morning. There are existing military rules and regulations that allow transgender people to serve and even the commander-in-chief cannot change those rules and regulations via Twitter.”
If the rules were to be changed, Kilar said, the ACLU and other organizations will be “ready to take legal action.”
Kilar challenged Trump’s claim that transgender people in the military come with “tremendous medical costs.”
When the RAND National Defense Research Institute evaluated health care needs of the transgender soldiers at the request of the Defense Department, it reported in 2016 that costs related to gender transition health care would increase between $2.4 million to $8.4 million annually. This would represent an increase between 0.04 and 0.13 percent in the Pentagon’s health budget.
“This is a really small cost, I mean we’re talking a couple trips to Mar-A-Lago,” Kilar said, referring to the president’s weekend Florida getaway. “It’s not something that is a serious concern for anyone.”
Arizona Republicans and Democrats, meanwhile, agreed that those who want to serve, should serve
“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,” McCain said.