Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
If the prevailing theory on Trump’s impromptu transgender military ban is right, Trump’s wall bid may have succeeded in a way we didn’t anticipate.
Just a little over a year ago, then-candidate Donald Trump took to the digital airwaves to promise that he would do more than his opponent to safeguard the rights of LGBT Americans. “I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs,” he tweeted.
At that time, Trump was also promising his supporters that he would build a “big, beautiful wall” across the southern U.S. border with Mexico. Today, President Trump’s pursuit of that border wall may have cost transgender citizens one important freedom: the right to serve their country as soldiers. This comes after the U.S. Department of Justice moved to strip LGBT workplace protections.
Conflicting accounts emerged on Wednesday about the roots of the administration’s surprising new policy, which Trump announced over three morning tweets. The Pentagon and Senate Armed Services Committee were caught unawares. An unnamed administration official told Jonathan Swan of Axios that the shift was a cultural move designed to force Rust Belt Democrats to take a potentially unpopular position defending transgender soldiers, a purely political feint. But some Republicans in fact rushed to their defense, including GOP senators Orrin Hatch, John McCain, Chuck Grassley, and Jodi Ernst. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who ended the ban on transgender persons serving openly in the military, weighed in as well.
On Wednesday afternoon, Politico floated an even more plausible theory for Trump’s decision than 2018 tactics: That the president had cannonballed into a debate over military spending, namely to preserve the faint-if-not-failed dream of building a border wall with Mexico.
Following the change in policy in 2016, the Pentagon has been mired in a debate over its scope and implementation. This week, it surfaced in arguments over the National Defense Authorization Act minibus spending bill. Today, the House narrowly voted down an amendment to the minibus that would have blocked the Pentagon from paying for hormone therapy or gender-reassignment surgery for service members or their families. Previously, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis delayed a decision on admitting recruits who are openly transgender, which would have taken effect this month. CNN reports that Mattis urged Representative Vicky Hartzler of Missouri to withdraw the restrictive amendment before it was finally struck this morning.
GOP hardliners threatened to crash the House vote if the bill didn’t include a prohibition on military spending for medical procedures for gender reassignment. So Trump intervened—kicking transgender troops out of the military altogether. At least part of his motivation, Politico reports, is the bill’s provision on the border wall.
Democrats in the House have accused their counterparts of using a legislative gimmick to allow Trump to use $1.6 billion to begin construction on a border wall (despite the president’s promise that Mexico would pay for it). Republicans previously outmaneuvered Democrats on an effort to ban Pentagon spending on the wall. Critics such as Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, object to using Pentagon funds for non-military objectives. (A border wall to stop undocumented migrants is a law-enforcement matter.)
Even if Trump lawmakers give Trump $1.6 billion for the wall, that’s a drop in the bucket for what it would take to build one. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security pegs the cost of a wall that Trump envisions at $22 billion. But Senator Claire McCaskill, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, has said that it would cost closer to $67 billion. Global construction and engineering firms aren’t bidding to build it—at least not yet. Legislative efforts to divest from companies that participate in the border wall, which are already underway in New York and California, could turn the border-wall bid radioactive.
The savings gained by denying transgender soldiers medically necessary treatments won’t add a brick to the wall. The cost to the military for gender-transition surgeries might fall between $2.4 million and $8.4 million—less than one-tenth of the amount that the military currently spends on medicine for erectile dysfunction, as my colleague James Hamblin explains.
A border wall spanning hundreds to thousands of miles, rising 40 feet or more in the air, is virtually impossible. Even if Trump never sees so much as a yard of fence erected along the border, however, his wall may have succeeded in blocking some people, if his thirst really did lead him to break his promise to the LGBT community. Active-duty transgender service members number between 1,320 and 6,630 people, according to one analysis. The unbuilt wall may stop all of them from fighting for their country.