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Arizona lawmakers blast Trump’s tweeted ban on transgender soldiers

The response from many 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.

Several 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. One Republican congressman supported Trump's stance, while Rep. Martha McSally — who frequently touts her status as an Air Force veteran — stayed mum.

“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. Wednesday, 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.

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.

Military commanders later said there would be no immediate changes to the Pentagon's policy, despite Trump's tweets.

"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,"Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, the the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told top commanders, according to a document reported by Politico.

"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., said last week, discussing an amendment to a defense spending bill that would have barred funding for sex reassignment surgeries by the military.

That amendment was not supported by Pentagon brass, but some Republican members of Congress appealed to the president over the issue — threatening to block funding for his promised border wall, Politico reported.

Franks 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."

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.

“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.”

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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 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.”

Grijalva's estimate of the number of serving trangender troops is considerably larger than the figure determined in a 2016 study by the RAND Corporation, which found that 1,320-6,630 servicemembers in the active component were transgender personnel. Grijalva's staff said the congressman used figures from the Human Rights Campaign, based on a 2014 UCLA study.

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.”

Most Arizona Republicans and Democrats who weighed in on the issue, 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.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Dylan Smith contributed to this report.


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Megan Janetsky/Cronkite News

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, a veteran of the war in Iraq, called President Donald Trump’s announcement via Twiter on Wednesday of a ban on transgender members of the military 'embarrassing' and 'dumb.'