ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What began as a presidential tweet is now an official White House memo with profound implications for transgender people who serve or want to serve in the U.S. military. President Trump has ordered the Defense Department to unwind an earlier move by the Obama administration that allowed transgender people to serve openly in uniform. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. And Scott, the president telegraphed this move in a tweet last month. What's changing?
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, that tweet, Robert, took the military somewhat by surprise. That was in late-July when the president tweeted that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to serve in the U.S. military. That, as you say, was a reversal of the position taken by the Obama administration just a year earlier.
And initially the military said, look; we're not going to change how we deal with transgender people in the service just because of 140-character tweet. If the commander in chief wants to give us an order, he needs to put it in the shape of a real order. And so now that tweet has been codified in the shape of a memo to the Department of Defense and, as concerns the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security.
SIEGEL: And what is the president's new directive?
HORSLEY: Well, he's reversing the Obama administration order which allowed transgender people to serve openly in uniform for the first time. So he's basically turning back the clock to where it was before 2016 when that Obama-era order came down. What this means is people who are transgender will not be allowed to enlist in the military. Now, that has been true already. But they were going to be able to enlist for the first time starting this summer. The Trump administration initially put that off until January of 2018, and they've now put it off indefinitely.
For transgender people who are already serving in the military - and it's estimated there anywhere from 2,000 to 15,000 active-duty trans service members - their fate is up in the air. The president's memo directs the Defense Department to decide whether to kick them out of the service based on military effectiveness, unit cohesion and things like that.
And finally, the president's order bars the use of federal funds for sex reassignment surgery and treatment, although there's an exception if halting treatment would pose a risk to someone who has already begun the process. And the Pentagon has until late March of next year to put all this into effect.
SIEGEL: Scott, what do you think the likely reaction is going to be to this move?
HORSLEY: Social conservatives who are uncomfortable with the idea of trans servicemembers serving openly are going to welcome this move. They were balking at the idea in particular of trans people being able to enlist openly for the first time. And in fact it was the deadline of that enlistment that may have moved all of this into high gear.
But the president's getting criticism from groups that advocate for the LGBT community and also some threats of legal action. There's a feeling of betrayal in particular for those trans service members who self-identified last year, thinking their careers would be safe if they identified themselves and are now at risk of being kicked out of the military.
There's also some political pushback. Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat and a decorated veteran who lost both her legs in combat, tweeted this week, when I was bleeding to death in my Black Hawk helicopter, I didn't care if the American troops risking their lives to save me were gay, straight, transgender. All that mattered was they didn't leave me behind.
SIEGEL: That's NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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