AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The White House is expected to issue new guidelines on transgender people in the military in the next several days. This after President Trump wrote on Twitter a month ago, quote, "the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military." Here he is defending those tweets.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think I'm doing a lot of people a favor by coming out and just saying it. As you know, it's been a very complicated issue for the military. It's been a very confusing issue for the military. And I think I'm doing the military a great favor.
CHANG: Joining us now to talk about the coming directive is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So from what we're learning, it seems like these guidelines that are going to be issued by the White House will slightly walk back President Trump's tweets?
BOWMAN: Right. And this is first reported by The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by NPR. It appears that the new guidelines will ban openly transgender people from enlisting, but leave it to Defense Secretary Mattis to determine whether or not to remove those already serving. People who know Mattis say he takes the idea of service very seriously, and he won't quickly kick out someone who raises a right hand and wants to join the military. He doesn't want to break faith with those in the ranks. But the White House wants him to assess whether a transgender service member is deployable. There could be possible medical issues that prevent deployment. And Mattis has said already on this issue what's most important is the readiness and lethality of the military.
CHANG: Let's just - I just want to go back in time a little bit, you know, walk us through some of the context. How did this whole debate over transgender members in the military get to this point? What happened before Trump got into office?
BOWMAN: Well, last year, the Obama administration allowed transgender people to serve openly but deferred decision on whether others could enlist. And the Pentagon was considering that issue of enlistment, actually postponed a decision until the end of the year. But then, the president tweeted that all would be banned. Now, one of the issues in the military and Congress was the cost involved here, the medical costs here. That was, you know, one of the concerns they had.
CHANG: But on that issue of cost, how fair is that to claim that letting in transgender people into the military will be very expensive?
BOWMAN: Well, it's not really very expensive by Pentagon standards, a budget of some 500 billion or more dollars. The estimates are $8 to $10 million for these - some of these medical services. And a very small percentage of transgender people would actually go through this surgery. So it doesn't seem to be a big issue. This is really more a political issue. Some on the conservative right and the religious right take this very seriously. It has less to do with cost and more to do with policy.
CHANG: So Trump seems to be putting a lot of discretion into the hands of General Mattis, this decision about transgender people who are already serving, whether they can stay. Is this kind of - is this a kind of deference to General Mattis that we see in other areas? Do you feel like the White House keeps leaving big decisions in the hands of the defense secretary?
BOWMAN: Absolutely. There's a lot of respect for Mattis in the White House, a lot of respect for the military, too. President Trump is very much enamored with the military. And we've seen this before with the ISIS fight. There was complaints that the Obama administration was micromanaging that fight. And the Trump White House has basically said to Mattis, you and your generals, you figure out how to do the fight. We're not going to tell you to move one aircraft from one point to another. You don't need approval.
How many troops you need, we'll leave it up to you. You know, increasing airstrikes, for example, we'll leave it up to you as well. And with Afghanistan. President Trump has pretty much said to Defense Secretary Mattis, it's up to you to determine how many more troops you need there up to a certain point, up to 3,900. So this is part and parcel, I think, of what the White House has been doing for some time.
CHANG: And on Afghanistan, when the president talked earlier this week about his path forward, there weren't a lot of details. Are you starting to get any sense from the Pentagon about where that path forward is going?
BOWMAN: Yeah. We're told that there could be some deployment orders, some orders that send troops over to Afghanistan as early as this week. And as I said, they expect to send another several thousand, up to 3,900. We don't think they'll all be sent at once. We think that basically you'll send a hundred, maybe 200, 300. And that's what we could see as early as this week. And what they'll be doing is mostly training. These won't be combat troops. So they'll try to be beefing up the Afghan military and try to help it take over the fight against the Taliban.
CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.