A congressional fight over sex reassignment surgery threatened funding for border wall.
President Donald Trump’s sudden decision was, in part, a last-ditch attempt to save a House proposal full of his campaign promises that was on the verge of defeat, numerous congressional and White House sources said. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo
After a week sparring with his attorney general and steaming over the Russia investigation consuming his agenda, President Donald Trump was closing in on an important win.
House Republicans were planning to pass a spending bill stacked with his campaign promises, including money to build his border wall with Mexico.
But an internal House Republican fight over transgender troops was threatening to blow up the bill. And House GOP 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. In the flash of a tweet, he announced that transgender troops would be banned altogether.
Trump’s sudden decision was, in part, a last-ditch attempt to save a House proposal full of his campaign promises that was on the verge of defeat, numerous congressional and White House sources said.
The president had always planned to scale back policies put in place during the administration of President Barack Obama welcoming such individuals in combat and greenlighting the military to pay for their medical treatment plans. But a behind-the-scenes GOP brawl threatening to tank a Pentagon funding increase and wall construction hastened Trump’s decision.
Numerous House conservatives and defense hawks this week had threatened to derail their own legislation if it did not include a prohibition on Pentagon funding for gender reassignment surgeries, which they deem a waste of taxpayer money. But GOP leaders were caught in a pinch between those demands and those of moderate Republicans who considered the proposal blatantly discriminatory.
“There are several members of the conference who feel this really needs to be addressed,” senior House Appropriations Committee member Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) said Tuesday. “This isn’t about the transgender issue; it’s about the taxpayer dollars going to pay for the surgery out of the defense budget.”
That’s why House lawmakers took the matter to the Trump administration. And when Defense Secretary James Mattis refused to immediately upend the policy, they went straight to the White House. Trump — never one for political correctness — was all too happy to oblige.
“[P]lease be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “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.”
The president’s directive, of course, took the House issue a step beyond paying for gender reassignment surgery and other medical treatment. 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.
While Democrats and centrist Republicans are already blasting the move, one White House official said the decision would be “seen as common-sense” by millions — though likely vociferously protested by others. White House officials also noted that conservatives had pushed for the ban, including in a May letter that was signed by dozens of right-leaning groups.
“It’s not the worst thing in the world to have this fight,” the administration official said.
The announcement, multiple sources said, did not sit well with Mattis, who appeared to be trying to avoid the matter in recent weeks. An extensive Defense Department review of the policy was already underway, but a decision wasn’t expected for months.
Insiders said Mattis felt there was no need to rush upending the policy, arguing the Pentagon needed time to study the issue. Its decision would affect at least 2,450 transgender active-military personnel, according to a Rand report — though military LGBT activist groups say as many as 15,000 soldiers fall into that category.
That timeline, however, wasn’t good enough for House Republicans. Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), the original author of the House’s transgender proposal, attempted to reach Mattis by phone numerous times in recent weeks to discuss the transgender issue.
Mattis only got back to her the day she forced the matter on the House floor in mid-July. And, according to Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), who opposed the Hartzler proposal, Mattis asked Hartzler to withdraw her amendment and give him space to maneuver.
Lawmakers, including Hartzler, went around Mattis to engage the White House. Mattis knew the ban was being considered and was consulted before the announcement, according to several White House officials. But the decision ultimately came down from Trump and was “White House-driven,” Trump aides said.
The president was also annoyed by the Pentagon delay, one person said. A different official said the White House had gotten positive reaction from conservatives, an important factor amid their displeasure with Trump’s recent bashing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The transgender fight first surfaced in the House a few weeks ago. With the backing of almost the entire GOP Conference, Hartzler offered an amendment to a defense authorization bill that would ban funding for gender reassignment surgeries and treatments for transgender active-duty personnel.
Republican supporters were shocked when a group of 24 mostly moderate Republicans teamed up with 190 Democrats to kill the effort in a 209-214 vote.
Republicans spent much of a closed-door GOP Conference meeting the next morning steaming about what happened.
“It’s not so much the transgender surgery issue as much as we continue to let the defense bill be the mule for all of these social experiments that the left wants to try to [foist] on government,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a conservative supporter of the Hartzler proposal, said last week.
He added: “It seems to me, and all due respect to everyone, that if someone wants to come to the military, potentially risk their life to save the country, that they should probably decide whether they’re a man or woman before they do that.”
Supporters of Hartzler’s proposal were determined to try again. Last week, they began pushing GOP leadership to use a procedural trick to automatically include the controversial proposal in a Pentagon spending package set for a floor vote this week. The idea was to tuck the provision into a rules package governing the legislation, sidestepping a second potentially unsuccessful amendment vote and adding it to the bill without a floor fight.
Under intense pressure from moderates in the Tuesday Group to reject the idea, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his team shied away from the strategy, worried that it would make them look hypocritical for circumventing regular order.
“Leadership should respect the will of the House — and that’s already been expressed,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a centrist who opposed the amendment. “These transgender service-people are serving our country and have signed up and agreed to risk their lives for this country, so we want to honor that commitment as well.”
That’s when lawmakers turned to the White House for help. They figured the administration could speed up a decision and settle the dispute once and for all.
“Conservatives were telling [the] White House they didn’t want money in a spending bill to go to transgender health services,” said one senior administration official, noting that it accelerated Trump’s decision.
Their argument fell on sympathetic ears, White House sources said. Chief strategist Steve Bannon encouraged Trump to deal with the matter now.
Now, some Republicans hare having buyer's remorse. They didn't realize Trump was going to ban transgender people from serving in the military altogether.
Franks, the Hartzler amendment supporter, told POLITICO that his push was more narrowly tailored to the medical procedures issue — not an all-out ban on transgender people. He wasn't sure what he thought about the broader prohibition, saying he needed to look into it further.
Still, some, like Hartzler, were elated.
"This was the right call by our commander in chief, to make sure every defense dollar goes toward meeting the threats that we are facing in the world," she said in an interview. "The entire [Obama-era transgender] policy… is a detriment to our readiness."