STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump's message on transgender people was couched in the polite language of a sign on a wall at a swimming pool or in a bathroom. Please be advised, he wrote on Twitter, the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory, he said, adding that transgender medical costs are too high and concluding, thank you. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is on the line. Hi there, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Steve.
INSKEEP: What's the story of the debate that the president just drove - dove into with three tweets?
BOWMAN: Well, it is kind of unusual because the Pentagon just last month - Defense Secretary Mattis, he approved a recommendation from the services to defer bringing in any new transgender applicants until January 1 of 2018. They wanted to review it - what impact it had on readiness and lethality, Mattis said. So everyone assumed that this was kicked down the road. And then Trump jumps out this morning and says transgender individuals will not be allowed in the military. So the question - we have a lot of questions here, of course.
BOWMAN: What about those already serving? Will they be asked to leave? So we just don't know.
INSKEEP: Well, here's another question that I have, Tom Bowman. President Obama indicated that he wanted transgender individuals to be allowed to serve in the military. And it turned out he couldn't just do that. He had to order a review. The Pentagon had to think about it. They've ended up thinking about it some more. So can President Trump just decide the other way by tweet? Does the fact that he sent these three tweets mean that the policy has changed?
BOWMAN: It sounds like the policy has changed - but again, policy by tweet. And we don't know the implications of this. We don't know any legal challenges from those serving in the military. There are a lot more questions here. And it was just last year that then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that transgender individuals will be able to serve openly in the armed forces. He said at the time, quote, "this is the right thing to do for our people and for the force. We're talking about talented Americans who are serving with distinction or who want the opportunity to serve. We can't allow barriers unrelated to a person's qualifications to prevent us from recruiting and retaining those who can best accomplish the mission."
So that's going to be a question for the president and also Defense Secretary Mattis. Are you going to kick out these folks already in the military who are transgender? And no one has a firm number, Steve, on exactly how many transgender people there are in the force - in the armed forces of 1.3 million. There's an estimate by the RAND Corporation of about 2,500 in all the active forces - another 1,500 in the reserved forces. So it's relatively a small number.
INSKEEP: Just so we're clear, the president says there are tremendous medical costs. It sounds like we are talking about medical costs that may be associated with a few thousand transgender individuals. Some may have surgery, but not all do. Some may have hormone treatment, but not all do. So we're talking about (unintelligible).
BOWMAN: And he raises the point that I have heard, Steve, from senior officers - that they were worried about added costs here, the tens of thousands of dollars for medical procedures. That was the main concern of one particular senior officer I spoke with.
INSKEEP: OK, let me bring another voice into this conversation, if I can, Tom Bowman. Thanks very much. Sorry to cut you off. I want to leave some time, though, for NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who is also standing by. Tam, why was the announcement made now?
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, we don't really know the answer to that. But this is certainly - very sorry.
INSKEEP: Hang in there, Tam. We can bring back Tom Bowman to chat for a little while if you need it.
KEITH: No, no, no.
KEITH: This is certainly, you know, a sort of culture-war type of item that comes at a time when President Trump's administration is in some trouble, where he's openly beefing with his attorney general.
INSKEEP: In fact, he continued that in the very next tweet.
KEITH: Of course, and also when this health care bill - although there was a small procedural victory yesterday, it's not clear whether this major item in his agenda is actually going to do well. And this type of - this type of item is red meat for his base - part of his base who might be mad at him about beefing with the attorney general.
KEITH: Also, just one other fun note.
INSKEEP: Very quickly.
KEITH: This comes in a week that the White House has themed American Heroes Week.
INSKEEP: OK, well there you have it. Well, Tamara, thanks very much, really appreciate it.
KEITH: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: And again, the major news here, President Trump has said the United States will not allow transgender individuals to serve in the U.S. military.
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