In a dizzying series of tweets and news stories on Monday, the Pentagon appeared to simultaneously embrace transgender recruits while the Trump administration was losing its bid in court to deny their entry into the service. Once the dust settled, it became clear that, for now, the slow policy change on transgender service that began under President Obama will continue under President Trump. Transgender people who want to serve their country in uniform may enlist starting on Jan. 1; those now serving can continue, with appropriate support from the military’s medical and personnel systems. Far from being a military coup, this was merely a case of the Pentagon following existing law while the courts haggle over what exactly the law is.
That fact may itself be startling at a time when senior administration officials seem more willing to unlawfully promote their boss—or misuse their offices—than follow the law. The Pentagon chiefs’ response to the transgender litigation illustrates how they differ from other senior officials, for better or worse. In response to Trump, the military’s leadership has improvised a new norm of civil-military relations: something in between a yes and a no that doesn’t amount to insubordination but does help modulate Trump’s excesses.
Although civilian Cabinet officials, generals, and admirals are all “Officers of the United States” under the Constitution, appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, they have very different traditions of service. Over more than 240 years, but especially since World War II, the military has evolved into a profession that puts a premium on apolitical service to presidents of both parties. Senior military officers serve tours in key positions that are staggered so that they transcend administration boundaries. Senior officers and junior troops alike are bound by military justice provisions and regulations that sharply curtail their political activity. By rule, custom, and inclination, today’s military leaders shun direct involvement in partisan politics, such as standing on stage during rallies, even at the request of their commander in chief. Those officers who do politick for the boss—like Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster writing a controversial op-ed supporting Trump’s “America First” policy—stand out as conspicuous exceptions to the rule.
Read the full op-ed in Slate.
More from CNAS
PodcastCOVID-19 Has Forced The Army To Rethink And Step Up Its Virtual Recruiting Efforts
The Army is holding its first nationwide virtual recruiting campaign, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to scale back face-to-face interactions and revealed gaps in its di...
By Emma Moore
VideoThe Pitch: A Competition of New Ideas
On June 17, 2020, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) hosted its premier event to elevate emerging and diverse voices in national security. Sixteen applicants made t...
By Richard Fontaine, Michèle Flournoy, Michael J. Zak, Loren DeJonge Schulman, Shai Korman, Carrie Cordero, Kristine Lee, David Zikusoka & Cole Stevens
CommentaryWhy your next university president should be a veteran
Robert L. Caslen’s tenure as president at the University of South Carolina was nearly over before it began. When he started his presidency in August 2019, he faced dissen...
By Emma Moore & Barrett Y. Bogue
ReportsCalled to Lead
Authors Barrett Bogue and Dr. Andrew Morse examine the connections between military service and higher education leadership roles based on interviews with veterans who work in...
By Barrett Y. Bogue & Dr. Andrew Morse