Despite media reports to the contrary, Secretary of Defense James Mattis didn’t freeze President Trump’s ban on transgender troops. Instead, Mattis is doing exactly what Trump told him to do: Prepare a plan to implement a deeply controversial order that many in the military and on Capitol Hill oppose.
“The department will carry out the president's policy direction,” Mattis said in a statement last night. “I will establish a panel of experts serving within the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to provide advice and recommendations on the implementation of the president's direction.”
And once the panel gives Mattis its recommendations, he’ll talk to the president about how to turn them into practice.
Some reports took the secretary’s comments to mean he single-handedly stopped the ban until further notice. USA Today, for instance, ran a piece headlined “Mattis freezes transgender policy; allows troops to continue serving, pending study.”
But that’s not true. The president’s August 25 ban memo allowed trans service members to stay in the military up to March 23, 2018, when the ban goes into effect. “No action may be taken against such individuals,” the administration memo reads, until Mattis and the Homeland Security secretary figure out how to address transgender people already serving in the military.
And Mattis has until February 21, 2018, to figure out how best to implement the plan. Mattis had previously signaled that he needed more time to complete the review of the effects transgender service members have on the military’s ability to fight wars.
On August 14, 19 days after the initial tweets, he told reporters that when the president’s order arrived at the Pentagon, he and others would “study it and come up with what the policy should be.”
So Mattis’s decision to ask a panel for its expert opinion is not some crafty move to ignore Trump’s directive. The secretary is carrying out the president’s order, which is to analyze its effects on the military and find the most effective way to implement the ban.
The panel could recommend a less restrictive ban than Trump has in mind. And Mattis might persuade the president that kicking out thousands of trans service members from the military — and blocking trans people from signing up to serve — is the wrong move. Both of those are uncertain outcomes, though.
But nothing regarding the transgender military ban changed as of last night. It is still scheduled to take place next year.
That means Mattis is not exactly the “HERO!” his statement last night led some to believe.
Mattis’s influence has limits
But the transgender military ban is the latest move to show the limits of the secretary’s power. Trump is the president, after all, and so he makes the final decisions. Mattis can only offer his best advice, but then carry out the president’s wishes.
Take NATO and Russia. Mattis tried for months to have Trump endorse NATO’s Article 5 provision which says an attack on one is an attack on all. Trump finally endorsed it in an offhand comment during a June 9 press conference. And Trump still doesn’t acknowledge the threat posed by Russia even though Mattis and the intelligence community believe it is trying to undermine NATO and influence elections in the US and Europe.
And in this case, Mattis may not push back too hard because he is no social warrior. He was skeptical of women openly serving in combat roles, worrying that men and women would attract one another in the field. He also believed women couldn’t perform “intimate killing” in close combat and didn’t know if commanders would send women into that kind of situation.
But Mattis cares deeply about the military’s ability to fight wars. If he starts removing able-bodied troops, it makes that fight harder. As of now, there is no evidence that shows trans service members are less capable than other troops.
So the real test of Mattis’s influence will be what he tells the president after the soon-to-be-formed panel makes its recommendations.
Until then, Mattis is simply following the president’s orders.