ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Early today, President Trump made this statement on Twitter. (Reading) After consultation with my generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military. That is a reversal of current policy, or maybe not. Much depends on what the administration actually does following the president's statement. And to hear more about that we're now joined by NPR's Tamara Keith, who's at the White House. Hi, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.
SIEGEL: And in the studio with me is NPR national security editor Phil Ewing. Hiya, Phil.
PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: Tam, first to you. This sounds like a 180-degree reversal from the direction that military services have been taking. What more do we know about Trump's decision?
KEITH: There was no press release, no briefing from administration policy experts, no fact sheet. It was literally just three tweets sent at 9 a.m. And in his statement on Twitter, President Trump said that the military must be focused on victory and, quote, "cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail."
And I'll let Phil get into those concerns that the president raised. But White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders insisted in the briefing today that the White House did consult with the military in making this decision. But that said, she couldn't answer the question of what it would mean for the estimated 6,000 or so transgender people currently serving in the U.S. military. And in the clip you're about to hear, there's a question posed by CBS' Major Garrett.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SARAH SANDERS: When the president made the decision yesterday, the secretary of defense was immediately informed, as were the rest of the national security team that had been part of this ongoing conversation.
MAJOR GARRETT: But you can't answer the question of what's going to happen to transgenders who are in the military now. Shouldn't you have been able to answer that basic question with a policy of this magnitude?
SANDERS: Look, I think sometimes you have to make decisions. And once he made a decision, he didn't feel it was necessary to hold that decision. And they're going to work together with the Department of Defense to lawfully implement it.
SIEGEL: Phil Ewing, we heard Tam make reference to the claim of tremendous medical cost and disruption posed by transgender individuals in the service. What backs up that statement that you know about?
EWING: Here's a little about what we know for the background there. The RAND Corporation did a study over the past few years as the Obama administration before this current one began relaxing personnel policies in the force. And it estimated that there were about 6,300 transgender troops. That's out of a total force of about 1.3 million.
And the health care cost associated with that population is about $8 million per year. That's in the context of a defense budget that's more than $600 billion a year. But people who have taken this position, which now includes the president, have said they believe every dollar spent by the Defense Department should go toward military effectiveness, towards guns and bullets and so forth. And that appears to be where he is now on this issue.
SIEGEL: The president referred to consultation with my generals and military experts. What did the Defense Department say about that?
EWING: Well, in a word, nothing. Defense officials - they were completely unprepared for this statement this morning. They very quickly referred all questions by our colleagues to the White House. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is actually on vacation this week. The White House said today that he was notified yesterday about this, but people in the Pentagon world were not expecting much news today. So we haven't really heard much more from the Pentagon beyond its policy that had already been in place about this before.
SIEGEL: Phil, if this is new policy, what's the policy that's in place now?
EWING: Well, the military permits transgender troops to serve openly today. But it's been reviewing how it was going to begin recruiting them from the outside. When this policy changed before, that affected people who were in the force currently. Now it's going to be studying what it will mean to bring in people new from the outside. So we don't know whether Trump's statement will affirm that delay, the study that's taking place before they can begin to join, or whether this is a broad new policy that would involve actually kicking people out who are now serving in the military.
Under Obama, the military lowered many of its historic boundaries to service by populations that historically couldn't - women in many combat jobs, gays and lesbians serving openly. And this transgender policy was the last link in the chain. And according to studies by RAND and by the military itself, these changes to the makeup of the force have taken place mostly without disruption.
SIEGEL: Tam Keith at the White House, how much of this is actually about military service and how much of this is about changing the subject in Washington?
KEITH: Well, that is hard to know for sure. But what we can say is that the issue of the military paying for gender reassignment surgeries had become a sticking point in legislation over on Capitol Hill to appropriate and authorize money for the military. Conservatives in the House were pushing to stop the military from paying for those surgeries. Moderate Republicans teamed up with Democrats and blocked them on that.
And then the president steps in today and takes it much, much further. A congressional leadership source tells us that leaders knew the White House was looking at this issue, but only as it relates to whether taxpayer money was being used for treatments, and that this was far beyond leaders' expectations and caught many by surprise. And in terms of context, this comes - this could cause a massive culture war flare-up at a moment when Senate Republicans are struggling to pass a wildly unpopular health care bill and the president is openly feuding with his attorney general.
SIEGEL: NPR's Tam Keith at the White House and national security editor Phil Ewing in the studio. Thanks to both of you.
EWING: Thank you.
KEITH: You're welcome.
[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Estimates about the number of transgender people in the military range from 2,000 people to more than 15,000, depending on the study. The numbers cited in this story are from one Rand Corp. paper about transgender troops and reflect the high end of its estimated range of more than 6,000 people on active duty.]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.