Media outlets widely and misleadingly reported that Defense Secretary James Mattis had “frozen” President Donald Trump’s plan to ban transgender people from the military. A few days after Trump sent him a directive on the issue, Mattis announced on August 29 that he would “carry out the president’s policy direction” while “in the interim, current policy with respect to currently serving members will remain in place.” But Mattis’ statement was exactly in line with each step of Trump’s directive, which granted the defense secretary time to “determine how to address transgender individuals currently serving” in the military.
Numerous headlines and reports on August 29 suggested that Mattis had paused Trump’s transgender military ban, framing the situation as if Mattis was defying Trump’s orders. The New York Times said Mattis had “kicked President Trump’s proposed ban … down the road,” and an ABC affiliate’s headline said Mattis had made the decision “despite Trump’s order.” The Washington Post said Mattis announced “that he is freezing the implementation of” the ban. Many other headlines asserted that Mattis’ announcement constituted a freeze of or “hold on” Trump’s policy. Similarly, Politico’s Eliana Johnson called Mattis’ statement “kind of a rebuke” of Trump’s announcement during an appearance on MSNBC.
But Mattis’ statement is exactly in line with Trump’s August 25 directive. That directive gave Mattis until February 21 to “determine how to address transgender individuals currently serving in the United States military” and called for “further study” of the issue even though there has already been extensive study on transgender service members. A Pentagon-commissioned 2016 Rand Corporation study found that “allowing transgender personnel to serve openly” would have “little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness” and minimal costs.
Trump’s directive explicitly called for reinstating the ban, asking the Pentagon to “return to the longstanding policy and practice on military service by transgender individuals that was in place prior to June 2016,” when the Obama administration announced that transgender Americans “may serve openly” in the armed services.
Other experts and media figures have pointed out media's incorrect framing of Mattis' response, with Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern calling it “an extreme mischaracterization of the facts.” Stern wrote that Mattis “is doing exactly what Trump directed him to do in a recent memo” and noted that the defense secretary “is not suspending the ban or disobeying Trump, but simply following orders.” The Slate report also quoted Chase Strangio, an ACLU attorney, saying that Mattis’ “statements do not change the directive nor has he been given the power to retain transgender service members indefinitely.” And Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center of Lesbian Rights, told Stern that USA Today’s “inaccurate reporting” is “playing into a patently bogus strategy to make it appear that there is going to be some new 'study' that will legitimize what is already a forgone conclusion: the discriminatory banning of military service by transgender people, based on a characteristic that has no bearing on their fitness to serve.’”
A report by ThinkProgress’ Zack Ford noted similar points, saying that though “multiple outlets” reported that Mattis “had somehow frozen, paused, or stalled” the ban, there “is no justification for this framing.” Ford continued, “Mattis’ statement says that the military will implement the order exactly as directed.” The article laid out the expectations set forth in Trump’s memo, noting that Mattis’ statement “matches what was in Trump’s order.” And though the Post published a piece about Mattis “freezing the implementation” of the ban, another story in the newspaper noted that “defying orders was not what Mattis was doing.” The report added that Mattis’s actions were “to freeze [the ban’s] impact for the moment” and that “such a delay was pretty much authorized by Trump in his formal memorandum.” It continued, “Mattis did not reverse Trump or defy him on the broader ban against new recruits who are transgender people.”
There are repercussions to the misleading reports and headlines on Mattis’ statement. Stern’s post in Slate concluded that the stories about a “freeze” “serve the administration’s narrative in two ways: They legitimize a ‘study’ that is designed to reach a foregone conclusion, and they falsely portray the ban as more lenient or unsettled than it really is.” This morning, a panel discussion on MSNBC’s Morning Joe suggested that perhaps Trump “didn’t really want to” implement the ban. Host Joe Scarborough remarked that “Donald Trump saying I really don’t want to do this” would make “a lot of sense,” and he also echoed debunked but insidious arguments that Trump might be “supportive” of LGBTQ rights.
Despite those suggestions on Morning Joe, media should have no doubts about Trump’s intention to ban transgender people from the military. On July 26, Trump explicitly said on Twitter that “the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” and he has done nothing to indicate otherwise since then. Trump’s August 25 directive clearly stated his intent to reinstate the ban, and Mattis’ statement did not suggest that he would not be complying with the directive.