When President Donald Trump announced a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, he specifically cited "the tremendous medical costs" that such troops impose on the Pentagon budget. This is simply false.
Barack Obama had OK'ed trans people to serve openly. According to the two most-recent studies on providing health care for trans people in the military, the costs are in fact negligible. A 2016 Rand study done for the Department of Defense calculated that between 1,362 and 6,630 trans people serve and that costs associated with transitioning would increase military health spending by between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually. That's an increase of 0.04 percent and 0.13 percent. A New England Journal of Medicine study from 2015 found slightly less than 13,000 transgender service members and transition-related care amounted to between $4.2 million and $5.6 million per year. The military's annual health-care budget is around $48 billion a year.
Those numbers are small enough on their own, but they shrink even more when put into context of other medical expenditures. For instance, the Pentagon spends about $42 million a year on the erectile-dysfunction drug Viagra and another $23 million on Cialis. According to one estimate, the Navy spends $115 million a year simply to transfer pregnant women from active duty back to land.
Politico reports that Trump's motivation to ban trans troops was driven by his desire to save a House spending bill that provided money for his wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. While the GOP leadership had no brief against trans armed forces, enough lower-ranking members did that the president decided to soothe them with a "snap decision" delivered via Twitter. Although he claimed to have consulted with his "Generals and military experts," CNN reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the group's chairman, was "blindsided" by the announcement. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate's Armed Services Committee, has said that Defense Secretary James Mattis was "surprised" by the announcement. Mattis had recently extended a six-month study about trans troops that was underway. From McCain:
I think generally speaking, it's accepted you consult the secretary of defense before you make a decision that has to do with defending the nation. Mattis was going through a study that they'd done for six months, and he had just extended.
I know what Mattis said, that he wanted to complete the study, and he was surprised.
Military brass are asking for a written directive beyond random tweetstorms and despite huzzahs from presidential advisers, it's far from clear whether such a policy is legally enforceable.
Under @realDonaldTrump we refuse to treat the American military as an ideological petri dish.
Obama-era social engineering is over. https://t.co/2tkGIH9OPW
— Sebastian Gorka DrG (@SebGorka) July 28, 2017
Beyond the immediate issues at hand, the ban on trans military personnel underscores at least two problems for the the president and the Republican Party.
First, Trump's sheer impetuousness when it comes to policy pronouncements is wearying not just to the public but to government actors. Surprising the very people who are supposed to implement and enforce a policy is no way to win friends and influence people. For many reasons—most of which I agree with and support, by the way—Trump has been alienating the deep state (particularly in terms of foreign policy and interventions). This sort of action will exacerbate those tensions and regrettably in a way that will make him less likely to effectively discombobulate the military-industrial complex. The whiff of basic incompetence emanating from the Oval Office (recall the hastily issued immigrant and refugee bans that went nowhere due to rushed wording) is already strong enough; there's no need to triple down on it anymore.
Second, this sort of action shows that the Republican Party has drawn the wrong lesson from Trump's super-tight victory, which is almost certainly the last of its kind for a GOP that remains fixated on culture war issues such as bathroom exclusivity, the war on pot, immigration, and gay marriage. The libertarian position on all these issues—the state should treat all individuals equally under the law, immigrants are a good thing for the country, businesses should create their own policies when it comes to who flushes whast toilet, it's time to focus on more important issues than punishing people who smoke weed—are broadly popular with the American public. Each pulls clear and growing majorities. If the GOP remains the party of the past, it will certainly have trouble topping Trump's 46 percent of the popular vote in 2020 and beyond. That's especially true when Republicans, who control all branches of the federal government, have manifestly failed in repealing Obamacare, passing anything like a "skinny" budget, or generating the conditions for economic growth.
Yes, the the Party of Lincoln has gone exceptionally far on no positive accomplishments in the 21st century (other than ushering endless war, a surveillance state, Sarbanes-Oxley, light-bulb bans, massive deficits, and the like). But eventually Republicans will have to have a message that is more than just "We're not as bad as Hillary or the Democrats." Beyond disrespective individual rights—why shouldn't anyone who wants to serve their country?—the ban on trans service members get Republicans any closer to a vision that might win them the next election.