Donald Trump incited a political firestorm on Wednesday when he unexpectedly announced on Twitter that transgender people would be barred from serving in “any capacity” in the United States military, with no clarification from the White House as to what the order meant for the approximately 15,000 trans people already serving. Now, less than 24 hours later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have sent a clear message that the military doesn’t consider tweets to be orders, notwithstanding Sean Spicer’s assertion that they should be “considered official statements by the president of the United States.”
“I know there are questions about yesterday’s announcement on the transgender policy by the President,” Marine General Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in an internal memo obtained by Politico. “There will be no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance.” In what reads like a rebuke of the policy Trump outlined on Twitter, Dunford added, “In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect . . . and will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions.”
Dana White, the chief spokesperson for Secretary of Defense James Mattis, echoed Dunford’s message. “The Department of Defense is awaiting formal guidance from the White House as a follow-up to the commander-in-chief’s announcement on military service by transgender personnel,” White said. “We will provide detailed guidance to the department in the near future for how this policy change will be implemented.”
Mattis was reportedly given very little notice of Trump’s imminent announcement about the ban, which the president argued was because the U.S. military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption” associated with transgender individuals in the service. But while Mattis was notified on Tuesday about the controversial policy shift, CNN reports that the Joint Chiefs only found out about the president’s order when it was suddenly tweeted out. When the Pentagon was originally asked for comment on the ban Wednesday, a spokesperson told the Associated Press that they had no information and referred all questions back to the White House.
This apparent lack of communication reveals an unsettling disconnect between Trump and the military. While the White House has dismissed protocol and presidential tradition at every turn, the military relies on chain of command and formality to function properly—a troubling concern in the context of future military crises. “We grow up and learn to obey the chain of command, and my chain of command is secretary of the Army, secretary of defense, and the president,” General Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, said at a National Press Club event on Thursday, Politico reports. “We will work through the implementation guidance when we get it . . . To my knowledge, the Department of Defense, Secretary Mattis has not received written directives yet.”
Asked at a White House press briefing Wednesday what would happen to the thousands of transgender troops already deployed, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also seemed at a loss, though she defended the order forcefully. “That’s something that the Department of Defense and the White House will have to work together as implementation takes place and is done so lawfully,” she said. “The decision is based on a military decision.”
Trump himself may have been unclear about what he was ordering, or why. Politico reports that Trump pulled the trigger after learning that a congressional fight over gender reassignment treatments might endanger the funding for his border wall in an upcoming budget bill. But instead of addressing the medical issue itself, Trump appeared to ban all transgender people from the military entirely—an order that administration officials reportedly feel is guaranteed to face a court challenge on constitutional grounds. A senior House Republican aide told Politico, “This is like someone told the White House to light a candle on the table and the WH set the whole table on fire.”
By Abigail Tracy