WASHINGTON ― In three tweets, President Donald Trump on Wednesday morning announced a major policy shift that could immediately affect thousands of Americans and sowed alarm and confusion.
Reversing an Obama administration policy, Trump’s decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military continues a pattern of the president and the White House haphazardly rolling out policies with little to no planning or consultation with relevant government officials.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the ban by saying it was purely “a military decision.”
Yet she had no answers on when the new policy would be implemented and what would happen to the thousands of transgender people currently serving in the military.
“I would imagine the Department of Defense will be the lead on that,” she said, repeatedly dodging reporters’ questions on the matter.
Sanders referred further inquiries to the Pentagon. Yet earlier in the day, officials there referred questions back to the White House.
Several Pentagon officials said they had been caught blindsided by Trump’s tweets, and there was confusion over whether Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who is on vacation, had been involved in the decision.
“We refer all questions about the president’s statements to the White House,″ said a Pentagon statement. “We will continue to work closely with the White House to address the new guidance provided by the commander-in-chief on transgender individuals serving the military. We will provide revised guidance to the Department in the near future.”
Sanders provided vague answers on the decision-making process, further suggesting that there had been little consultation.
“When the president made the decision yesterday, the secretary of defense was immediately informed, as were the rest of the national security team. That had been part of this ongoing conversation,” Sanders said. “Look, I think sometimes you have to make decisions, and once he made a decision, he didn’t feel it was necessary to hold that decision, and they are going to work together with the Department of Defense to lawfully implement it.”
The disarray on Wednesday mirrored the Trump administration’s disastrous rollout of its executive order banning travel and immigration from seven-majority Muslim countries.
Soon after Trump took office in January, administration officials issued the executive order without notifying the Departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security, all of whom would have roles in implementing the ban.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly only saw the language of the ban the morning that Trump signed it. Then-acting attorney general Sally Yates said that she learned about the executive order when news outlets reported it. (Trump later fired Yates, after she refused to defend the ban, deeming it unlawful.)
While the travel ban was sudden, it was at least spelled out in a written executive order.
On Wednesday, several lawmakers mused that Trump’s decision on transgender military service members was astonishing in its delivery, as he unveiled a major policy through a series of tweets.
“Major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement opposing Trump’s decision.
“I think we should have a hearing about it, not a tweet,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters.
Some Pentagon officials had been worried that Trump was about to use Twitter to announce a major military action, according to BuzzFeed News.
At the Pentagon, the first of the three tweets raised fears that the president was getting ready to announce strikes on North Korea or some other military action. Many said they were left in suspense for nine minutes, the time between the first and second tweet. Only after the second tweet did military officials receive the news the president was announcing a personnel change on Twitter.
On the origins of the ban, Politico reported that it may have stemmed from congressional battling over a spending bill that includes funding for his signature campaign promise, a border wall. The fight was sparked by a push by some House Republicans to ban the Defense Department from paying for gender reassignment operations.