September 23, 2019 at 5:15 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Mattis claims (dubiously) Joint Chiefs had no input on trans service
Defense Secretary James Mattis (Public domain photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm)

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis continues to defend the transgender military ban, making a dubious claim the military service chiefs had no input when openly transgender service was implemented during the Obama years.

Mattis made the remarks in an interview with Time Magazine on the publication of his book, “Call Sign Chaos” in response to a question about why he agreed to roll back policy allowing transgender people to serve in the military.

Although President Trump tweeted he’d ban transgender service members “in any capacity,” Mattis said the new policy was “not a roll back; it was a study.”

Mattis, in apparent reference to the six-month study he was carrying out on transgender service as Trump made the anti-trans tweets, said the policy he proposed “was absolutely a study” based on concerns he said the Joint Chiefs brought up with him.

The military service chiefs, Mattis said, brought up concerns about allowing transgender people into basic training and told him “we’re not ready.”

“I said, ‘What do you mean you’re not ready? Do you have any guidance on what the expectations are? Well, where was your input?’ Mattis said. “They said we didn’t have input.”

It should be noted that when Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced in 2016 the military would lift the medical regulations banning transgender service and begin its policy of allowing openly transgender people into the armed forces, none of the military service chiefs were present at the news conference.

Mattis said he called for the study on transgender service because he didn’t want to sacrifice the readiness of the armed forces. (Transgender advocates would say the addition of an estimated 14,700 transgender people in the military enhances readiness.)

“I am not going to lose any military efficiency or effectiveness,” Mattis said. “And that’s why I called for a study. And then I just need to leave it there because it’s in courts right now and I shouldn’t be addressing things when I’m no longer privy to the ongoing discussions or where the policy is at.”

Mattis said he was couching his remarks because litigation challenging the transgender military ban remains pending. Although the U.S. Supreme Court essentially issued a green light allowing the Trump administration to implement the ban, the process of litigation continues in lower courts.

The study Mattis conducted resulted in his recommendation to restrict the military service of transgender people in a policy that essentially amounts to a ban. Although transgender people who came out under the Carter policy can remain in the armed forces, transgender people now face significant barriers in enlisting in the armed forces and those who are diagnosed at a later time are now discharged.

Aaron Belkin, director of the San Francisco-based Palm Center, said in a statement Mattis “continues to bury his head in the sand when the health and unity of the nation are at stake,” placing any blame on lack of readiness on the feet of the military service chiefs.

“When it comes to transgender military service, Secretary Mattis asserted falsely that the Service Chiefs had no input into how new transgender recruits would be integrated into basic training,” Belkin said. “In fact, the Chiefs were put in charge of applying transgender policy to the basic training environment, and they were given an entire year to figure it out. They didn’t do anything and then complained about it when the deadline came.”

Mattis’ remarks are similar to comments he gave in Senate testimony defending the transgender military ban in a moment when he clashed with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). At the time, Gillibrand had recently gotten all service chiefs on the record saying transgender service has resulted in no incidents of unit disruption, but Mattis insisted reports of that nature wouldn’t have reached them.

Referencing the favorable testimony the military service chiefs gave Gillibrand on transgender service, Belkin concludes Mattis continues to miss the mark.

“As he has on other issues, Mattis seems to want to have his status as a Trump critic without renouncing any of the Trump policies he put into practice,” Belkin said.

Mattis resigned as defense secretary under the Trump administration following an announcement from Trump he’d remove all U.S. soldiers from Syria, which was criticized as a hasty decision and influenced by Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump has since reversed himself on that decision.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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