How to Spark Panic and Confusion in Three Tweets

Do impulsive Twitter messages from the president count as formal policy action?

Editor’s Note: This article is one of 50 in a series about Trump's first two years as president.

A sudden trifecta of tweets from the president, on a Wednesday morning in July 2017, threw into question the lives and livelihoods of all active transgender military members:

It had been only a year since the Obama administration announced that these individuals could serve their country openly, having found after an exhaustive review that the likely impact on the military was minimal. Reporters quickly pointed out that the “tremendous medical costs” cited by the president amounted to less than 10 percent of what the military paid out each year to treat erectile dysfunction. “So much careful thought had gone into development of the policy, with consensus at the highest levels of military leadership,” wrote the former U.S. Navy Secretary Raymond Mabus Jr. “I cannot recall another instance in United States military history of such a stark and unfounded reversal of policy.”

In the instant, no one knew whether the tweets themselves had the weight of policy. The next day, the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared that “no modifications” would be made to the existing military policy until the White House issued formal guidance on the meaning of the announcement. “In other words, the military told the commander in chief to go jump in a lake,” Charles Krauthammer wrote at the time. "Generally speaking, this is not a healthy state of affairs in a nation of civilian control.”

Why the haste and chaos from a president who had campaigned as friendly to LGBTQ rights? The careers of trans service members appeared to be a political sacrifice to Trump’s border wall, according to Politico. A group of House conservatives had been threatening to withhold support for a defense-authorization bill that included border-wall funding unless the military stopped covering the costs of gender-reassignment surgery for troops, a move resisted by the defense secretary, James Mattis. The group went over Mattis’s head to Trump, and the president, apparently on a whim, decided instead to casually ban not the surgery, but the service members. “This is like someone told the White House to light a candle on the table and the WH set the whole table on fire,” a Republican aide wrote in an email to Politico.

Now both the military policy and the lives of many would-be service members are caught in suspense. The Trump administration has petitioned the Supreme Court to review injunctions from multiple federal-court judges preventing the government from enforcing a modified version of the initial ban. Enlistments of new trans recruits have thinned to a trickle, with applicants being turned away or slow-walked, even as some branches of the military struggle to meet recruiting goals. Yet thousands still serve.