WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis has heard from his panel on the future of transgender service members in the military and will convey his thoughts to the president by the end of this week, the Pentagon said Thursday.
“He sees these issues through the lens of lethality,” Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said, referring to a top Mattis priority of making the armed forces more lethal and agile. “This is a complicated issue and the secretary is taking his time.”
Mattis had a Feb. 21 self-imposed deadline to give his recommendations on a transgender policy to President Donald Trump. That was Wednesday and as of 12:30 p.m. EST Thursday Mattis had not done so, White said.
He has repeatedly said since becoming Defense secretary that readiness to fight is his top priority. The new policy on transgender troops must be “consistent with military effectiveness and lethality,” he wrote in a memo in September.
White said Mattis has received recommendations from a panel created to give thoughts on a policy, but that he is not obligated to follow those recommendations. “The secretary can decide to do whatever he [wants],” White said.
The Pentagon does not plan to release either the panel’s recommendations or what Mattis eventually recommends to the president, she said.
Trump caught the military by surprise last July in sending out tweets calling for a ban on transgender individuals in the ranks. The president said he wanted the future policy to be that the U.S. “will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.”
Last August, Trump issued a memo directing Mattis to conduct a review led by a panel of experts and make recommendations.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, issued a statement that the Pentagon would not change its policy until officially notified by the White House. Last September, Mattis issued interim guidance that prevented transgender troops from being booted from service, allowed for their medical treatment and established the panel to develop the policy.
The Defense Department has repeatedly declined to give an estimate on how many transgender individuals are currently serving. Army Secretary Mark Esper recently told reporters he met with six transgender members during his recent tour of U.S. facilities.
A Rand Corp. study estimated that there are between 2,500 and 7,000 transgender service members on active duty and an additional 1,500 to 4,000 in the Reserves and National Guard. A 2014 UCLA study estimates that 15,500 transgender service members are enlisted on active duty, in the reserves, and in the National Guard. That same study estimated 134,300 transgender people are veterans or retired from the armed forces.
Trump’s ban would reverse the directive issued by former President Barack Obama in 2016 that allowed transgender individuals to serve openly for the first time.
The president’s proposals triggered a series of lawsuits by advocacy groups. Four federal district courts have ruled that a ban would be unconstitutional. The courts also ordered that the recruitment of transgender individuals should resume on Jan. 1 and the military has complied.