Second, the secretary’s decision to postpone any hasty action on transgender troops seems fully supported by the guidance the secretary received from the White House itself. The president’s decision to roll back the restrictions on transgender troops serving, let’s be clear, is cruel and unnecessary: it was almost entirely unsupported by any of the key voices on defense policy within the president’s own party—including John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But the text of the order itself was unsurprisingly more nuanced and heavily caveated than the president’s initial tweets and gives a lot of leeway for the secretary to first carry out a review of the existing policy as he sees fit and to then make a recommendation to the president that might run contrary to White House guidance.
That’s where things get more interesting, because the secretary does seem intent on carrying out a careful review led by the department’s senior civilian leadership. And in the current climate, an evidence-based policy review would amount to a revolutionary act.
Jon Finer wrote one of the smartest and most prescient reflections on this administration for this magazine all the way back in January. The reason the president was spending so much time attacking both the media and the intelligence community, Finer argued, was that he was “taking on two institutions in American life that are traditionally charged with establishing the factual basis that inform national-security decisions––the press in its public discourse and the intelligence community behind closed doors in the Situation Room.”
Trump’s original tweets announcing a ban on transgender troops, of course, were grounded in arguments that had already been carefully and methodically dismantled in an exhaustive study by the Rand Corporation. The Rand Corporation is the home of four of the nation’s 42 federally funded research and development centers. At its worst, Rand—like many other think tanks—produces plodding and untimely reports that have no effect on policy debates. At its best, though, Rand and the other federally funded research and development centers serve as a kind of policy referee for the federal departments and agencies.
The Rand study on transgender troops was Rand at its best: a sweeping, multidisciplinary study that found transgender troops presented neither an obvious financial burden on the services nor a threat to unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.
Case closed, right?
Obviously not. This is an era when, as Finer could have predicted, following pessimistic assessments by the Congressional Budget Office on health care legislation, a common response by some Republicans is to slash the office’s budget and rely on friendly think tank research instead. It’s also an era when, if the intelligence community is telling you things you don’t want to hear on Iran, well, press them to draw different conclusions than the evidence would suggest.