DOD appears to contradict White House on process for trans military ban

By : Chris Johnson OF THE WASHINGTON BLADE, COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL LGBT MEDIA ASSOCIATION
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A Defense Department spokesperson appeared Thursday to contradict the White House on the process for drafting the transgender military policy, asserting it was “a coordinated effort” with the White House and Justice Department as opposed to Defense Secretary James Mattis and his working group alone within the Pentagon.

Dana White, a Pentagon spokesperson, made the comments Thursday during a Pentagon news briefing in response to a question on timing for the release of the policy late Friday night and whether Mattis was “proud” of his recommendation against transgender military service.

“The secretary was asked for his thoughts, and he provided his recommendation,” White said. “The way that this was done is that it was a coordinated effort with the White House as well as the Department of Justice, and because there were multiple filings done in different time zones, it drove the timing of the release.”

White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah, however, had a different take on the process when asked by the Washington Blade earlier this week whether President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence or anyone at the White House sought to influence the outcome of the recommendations.

“The Department of Defense’s panel of experts was comprised of senior uniformed and civilian leaders who considered the issue based on data and their professional military judgment, without regard to any external factors,” Shah said.

The comments from White lend credence to persistent rumors the policy wasn’t driven by Mattis, but Vice President Mike Pence, who has an anti-LGBT history, even though his office denied he was involved. The comments also suggests U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had a role in developing the policy at the Justice Department.

Neither the White House, nor the Pentagon responded to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on Thursday to clarify the apparent contradiction between the two spokespersons.

White faced intense questioning during the news briefing on the transgender policy from reporters who demanded clarity and pointed out the policy bans transgender service members with limited exceptions, but is unclear and contradictory about those exceptions.

Throughout the briefing, White insisted the U.S. military despite the policy continues to allow, assess and retain transgender service members as a result of multiple court orders that have determined banning transgender service is unconstitutional.

“We will continue to comply with four court orders assessing transgender applicants for military service and retaining current transgender service members,” White said. “Because there is ongoing litigation and to safeguard the integrity of the court process, I am unable to provide any further details at this time.”

That didn’t stop reporters from grilling White. One reporter said he thinks the Pentagon “owes the service members and the public at least some actual clarity about what the actual document says and what its intent was” because it was signed by Mattis.

Pointing out the memo says transgender troops currently in service would be able to stay, but troops who require or undergo transition are disqualified without exception, the reporter asked whether transgender troops who had already transitioned would no longer be able to serve.

White said in response she’s “limited” in her ability to talk about the policy, deferring questions on the policy to the Justice Department, which said called “the lead” on the issue.

“One, we have to remember that what was posted was a recommendation,” White said. “The department remains under four court orders, so we continue to assess transgender individuals as well as retain transgender service members, but beyond that, I have to respect the integrity of the litigation.”

Throughout the briefing, White referred to the transgender military policy as a “recommendation.” That supports a recent Buzzfeed report quoting legal experts as saying technically there’s no actual policy on transgender service because the memo issued no new guidance even through the Trump administration continues to defend the ban on transgender service in court.

Asked whether what was posted is the Department’s recommended policy, White replied: “What was posted was the recommendation. We remain, the Department of Defense remains under those four court orders. There is current litigation, and until any and all of that is resolved, I can’t comment further.”

In response to a question for another reporter who complained about the challenges in reporting on the confusing memo late Friday night and asked why the Justice Department should be the lead, White replied, “It’s a recommendation.”

“The Department of Justice is leading this,” White said. “They will explain because there is a court — this is pending litigation, and as long as it’s pending litigation, there is very limited amounts that we can talk about.”

Recalling comments Mattis made earlier in the week in which he said the documents “stand on their own,” White said, “We have to respect the integrity of the process. The documents are there. They are free for you to read. We put them up as soon as we could. There are multiple filings that were done and this is pending litigation.”

Asked for the individuals who comprised the panel of experts referenced in the Mattis memo, White said she doesn’t have the information, but acknowledged multiple reporters are asking about it.

“We are working on what we can do, but again, the documents are there, the supporting documents are there, they stand for themselves,” White said. “I understand there are questions, but, again, I have to respect that the fact that is pending litigation.”

Another reporter asked why the Trump administration issued the policy now as opposed to waiting until is over. White pointed out the August memo issued by Trump in August called for recommendations from Mattis by February and implementation of a new policy by March 23.

“There was a memo, the secretary provided a recommendation, and that was very transparent,” White said. “And so, now we are in this process, and we’re going to see it through. We provided the documents, we provided the recommendation and we remain under the court orders.”

On whether it was a White House or Pentagon decision to make public the recommendation from Mattis against transgender military service, White said the memo would have been public in any event because it was part of litigation.

“When it was filed, it became public, so by all means, we want to provide you — and we did as quickly as we could — when it was released, we provided it,” White said.

Aaron Belkin, director of the San Francisco-based Palm Center, said in a statement after the briefing the Pentagon missed an opportunity to explain the transgender military ban.

“Dana White fielded nine questions about the transgender ban today, and declined to elaborate on the policy,” Belkin said. “What’s more important than whether or not the Pentagon opts to defend the ban is that the ban is based on scientific distortions that the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association and former U.S. surgeons general immediately condemned. The Pentagon is distorting the science, and nothing that spokespersons say or don’t say in the briefing room changes that.”

Public domain photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond

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