The President of the United States, as Commander-in-Chief, holds awesome power. He alone can order the launch of preemptive nuclear strike against an enemy of The United States. He cannot be stopped by any person or institution-not the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense, Congress nor the courts. It is in the context of the increasing tensions with North Korea, the president’s tweet regarding a total ban on transgender service members is instructive.
It is the duty of senior military leaders to provide the Commander-in-Chief their best military advice on any given defense issue. They have the background, experience and education that make them experts a President must consider, and rely upon, in reaching an important military decision.
President Trump claims in his trans tweet:“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..” The evidence is clear the President did not consult with his current military leadership.
Before the tweet, the Department of Defense was well on its way to implementing the policy of open service for transgender patriots. After extensive research by outside think tanks, and a complete and thorough internal review, the unanimous conclusion was there was no military rationale to keep the ban in place. On the contrary, removing the ban would enhance military readiness. The only pending issues were payment of medically necessary procedures and accession of new recruits. The most senior military leadership was completely on board with this change in policy.
During his confirmation hearing the incoming Secretary of Defense, Marine General James Mattis was asked by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) whether there is “something innate in being a woman or LGBT that would cause you to believe that they could not be part of the lethal force.” He responded that there is not. It is also reported he took steps to kill the ban on medical treatment of trans service members Vicky Hertzler (R-MO) had offered as an amendment the National Defense Authorization Act.
Before the tweet, the former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen made it clear he was in favor of lifting the trans ban. “I led our armed forces under the flawed ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ policy and saw firsthand the harm to readiness and morale when we fail to treat all service members according to the same standards,”
The reaction of many of the current military leaders to this cavalier tweet was unexpected and quick. The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford stated in a letter: “There will be no modifications to the current policy until the president’s direction has been received by the secretary of defense and the secretary has issued implementation guidance,” He was followed by the Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley.
Most astounding was the statement of the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft: “I will not turn my back. We have made an investment in you, and you have made an investment in the Coast Guard, and I will not break faith. " The rest of the senior leadership was silent. Not one spoke up and said they were consulted by the President. It was reported in the press that the Secretary of Defense, who was on vacation at the time, was “appalled” by the tweet.
The previous Secretaries of the Army and Navy almost immediately reacted to the tweets. Former Navy Secretary and one time governor of Mississippi, Ray Mabus, called the ban of transgender service a threat to America. Former Army Secretary Eric Fanning said on the Today show he was "disappointed," “angry” and “shocked’ about the tweet and concluded it will be “very disruptive to readiness.” A group of 56 retired General and Admirals released a statement in part saying “ This proposed ban, if implemented, would cause significant disruptions, deprive the military of mission-critical talent and compromise the integrity of transgender troops…”
Just this last Sunday, on ABC’s “This Week”, George Stephanopoulos pressed White House counselor Kellyanne Conway to identify which Generals in the Pentagon the President had consulted with. She did not identify one.
Secretary Mattis’ first formal response to the President’s tweet came on August 4, 2017 in a memoranda entitled “Ethical Standard for All Hands.” He called on his subordinates in the Department of Defense in essence to do the right thing. “Our prior reflection in our choice to live by an ethical code, will reinforce what we stand for, we will remain morally strong especially in the face of adversity.”
Secretary Mattis and the Joint Chiefs have an opportunity to put that advice to the test. The Congress is in recess. The President is on a working vacation at his resort in New Jersey. Washington D.C is relatively calm. The time is right to rectify this ill conceived tweet. It must be accomplished before any official order comes from the WH. The advice must be given in private.
It has been done before. As a candidate, the President made it clear he was in favor of so called enhanced interrogation and water boarding. Then retired Marine General Mattis, a leading contender for Secretary of Defense, met with the President elect and in private convinced him to reverse his stand on torture. The President continues to call upon senior military men to work within his administration. It appears he respects their leadership, experience, judgment and character. These leaders have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution. They are duty bound to tell the Commander in Chief when he is wrong.
Now is the time to demonstrate the courage called for in Secretary Mattis’ memoranda and do the right thing.