When it first emerged last month (in a burst of early-morning tweets transparently designed to distract attention from the latest bad news about the Russia investigation), the president's peremptory declaration that transgender Americans would soon be banished from the nation's armed services seemed like one of those bad ideas he would be content to forget once it had succeeded in provoking the media and delighting his base.
The generals whose burden it would be to implement such a ban certainly hoped so. In a series of memos implicitly refuting Trump's assertion that he had reached his controversial decision only after consulting with them, the chiefs of all the service branches said that they had neither lobbied for a transgender ban nor had any intention of imposing one in the absence of a formal presidential order.
But now, three weeks later, the White House has taken steps to turn the president's petulant tweets into cruel military policy.
In a 2 1/2-page memo first disclosed by the Wall Street Journal, the administration gives Defense Secretary Jim Mattis six months to complete the purge Trump proposed in his July 26 declaration.
Besides directing the service branches to stop admitting transgender recruits or paying for the medical treatment procedures of transgender personnel, the memo reportedly suggests that those currently serving be drummed from the ranks on the grounds that their transgender status renders them "undeployable" — that is, unable to serve in a war zone, participate in military exercises or live at sea for months at a time.
It will surprise no one familiar with Trump's facts-optional decision-making style that there is little or no evidence to support the assertion that transgender service members are less deployable than anyone else. A spokesperson for Sparta, an advocacy group for LGBT military personnel, says there are no ongoing treatment regimens that would preclude transgender service members from fulfilling their obligations to serve in combat or spend protracted periods of time on a ship.
This is the familiar corner the president paints himself into when he tweets first and seeks a legal rationale for his incendiary declarations later.
Bargaining chip born in haste
To appreciate how flimsy the pretext for a transgender ban is, we need only to remember that it originated not at the behest of the nation's military leaders, but as a sop to Republican congressional members from whom Trump has been seeking financial support for his vaunted wall on the Mexican border.
Never mind that the primary objective of those Republicans was to bar Pentagon spending on transition therapy or reassignment surgery for transgender service members; the president, impatient for even a temporary triumph in the House (the wall continues to face more formidable opposition in the Senate), appears to have opted impulsively for a comprehensive purge.
Any move to implement the directive issued last week seems certain to trigger legal challenges from transgender individuals who are currently serving in the armed forces, some of whom disclosed their status only after receiving the Pentagon's assurances that it would protect them from any discriminatory consequences.
Betraying the bravest
But the real insult is to the military solidarity the president has so often extolled as the model to which America's polarized civilian electorate should aspire. In his tireless campaign to sow division, Trump has now targeted at the national institution that has been most successful at conjuring cohesion in a diverse workforce.
How often have we heard this president celebrate military service as the noblest express of American patriotism? How often has he assured men and women in uniform that he has their backs in every fight, no matter the political cost?
But that is precisely who Trump is betraying by pursuing his mean-spirited purge, all for a political advantage that seems certain to be short-lived.
Like so many White House initiatives before it, the transgender service ban marks a triumph of America's worst over its best. Let us hope, for the sake of the brave men and women whose sacrifice he has devalued, that the president comes to his senses before the damage is irreparable.
You may contact Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press at firstname.lastname@example.org.