Earnest made the remarks under questioning from the Washington Blade on whether the White House had a hand in encouraging Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to move forward Thursday with implementing openly transgender military service.
“This is something Secretary of Defense Carter wanted to review,” Earnest said. “He announced a few months he wanted to take a look at this policy. At that point, he had described the policy as outdated. So he conducted this review consistent with the priority that he has placed on making sure that our Department of Defense and our armed forces are ready and well-prepared to defend the country, and he’s come to the conclusion that the best way to do that is to update this outdated policy.”
Earnest added Carter made the decision on his own, but the result is “certainly one that is supported by the commander-in-chief.”
Asked if that meant the Pentagon made the decision without input from the White House, Earnest said President Obama and Carter “had an opportunity to discuss” the policy change before it was made.
“The secretary of defense had the responsibility and assumed the responsibility to conduct this review,” Earnest said. “Obviously, the president and the secretary of defense have had an opportunity to discuss it, but this is a review that was conducted by the secretary of defense and he did so focused on the priority that he places on military readiness and he made an observation that is consistent with the president’s view, which is our country and our military is best served when everybody who’s most qualified to serve in our military has the opportunity to do so.”
The change is regulatory and a future administration hostile to openly transgender service could put the ban back in place, but Earnest declined to say whether that underscores the potential risk to LGBT rights in the upcoming election.
“I’ll let individual voters make their own determinations about this,” Earnest said. “The president and the secretary of defense agree on this principle and both men certainly belief that it enhances our national security to live up to this principle, so frankly this is not a decision that’s rooted in politics. This is rooted in something more important, which is the national security of the United States.”
Also on Thursday, a federal judge issued an injunction blocking the enforcement of a recently enacted “religious freedom” law in Mississippi seen to enable sweeping anti-LGBT discrimination.
As first reported by the Blade, the Obama administration has been reviewing the law and Mississippi could potentially lose federal funds as a result of the statute. Asked if that review is now on hold after the ruling, Earnest said he’s limited in his comments because of ongoing litigation against the law.
“What I can just say in general is that these types of laws raise a number of difficult legal and policy questions and what happens in the courts in these cases will inform of our assessment of these laws and their implications,” Earnest said.
More generally, Earnest said Obama has said numerous times he “strongly disagrees with laws that are focused on taking away the rights of law-abiding Americans.”
“And the truth is, we should be a little more focused on protecting the rights and expanding the rights and enhancing the rights of law-abiding Americans, and that is principle the president has abided by and been guided by during his tenure in public service,” Earnest added. “It’s also been a principle that has guided his assessment of laws that are passed at the state and local level as well.”
Another anti-LGBT law was recently enacted in North Carolina, where President Obama intends to travel on Tuesday to campaign on behalf of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The controversial law nullified pro-LGBT non-discrimination city ordinances in North Carolina and prohibits transgender people from using public restrooms in schools and government buildings consistent with their gender identity.
Along with the Mississippi law, Obama said during a news conference in April the North Carolina statute is “wrong and should be overturned.”
Asked if Obama during his visit to North Carolina would remind voters about his opposition to the law as they head to the polls, Earnest said isn’t aware of the totality of president’s remarks, but the focus will be on Clinton.
“I don’t have detailed remarks to preview for you at this point, but I can tell you that the focus on the president’s remarks will be on Secretary Clinton and his view that she has the character, the toughness, skills and experience to succeed him as president of the United States,” Earnest said.