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News Brief: Transgender People In The Military, Mattis In Middle East


So when it comes to the White House banning transgender people serving in the U.S. military, a key word they are using is deployability.


Yeah, that's right. Remember back in July, President Trump announced that ban in a tweet? And then here's the president talking about it earlier this month.


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: A great favor. Well, the military was reportedly surprised by Trump's initial tweets. They were not consulted on the ban. Now, the Pentagon is supposed to be getting some guidance from the White House in the coming days.

GREENE: And we have NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here. And, Tom, when the tweet came out, a lot of people wondered - is this official policy? Is it just the president tweeting? It sounds like we're actually going to get some official guidelines here. What do they mean for transgender soldiers who are openly serving?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, right. Well, first of all, this was 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. Now, people who know Mattis say he takes the idea of service very seriously. 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 that what's important is the readiness and lethality of the military.

GREENE: OK. So Mattis is going to have a lot of decision making when it comes to people who are openly serving now, but in terms of people enlisting, it sounds like that might stop. So that could really impact the recruitment of transgender people.

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. They're basically saying, we don't want any more transgendered people enlisting in the military. That's the key point there.

GREENE: Well, the Pentagon seems sort of caught off guard by these tweets last month. Now, Mattis is going to play a big role in this. Has he spoken about this issue? What's his take on it?

BOWMAN: He really hasn't spoken much about this issue at all. And again, the big issue for Mattis's service, if you're in the military, people who know him say he'll give a lot of leeway for keeping transgender people in unless there's some huge medical issue that prevents deployability. So that's what we know already. But he hasn't really spoken about this that much.

GREENE: Has this been a big issue in the military, as President Trump suggested, or is it - or is this one that he's sort of brought up into the debate by that tweet last month?

BOWMAN: Right. He brought this up, and it's - in conservative circles, this is something that people talk about. But in the military, this wasn't very much a big issue. Now, don't ask, don't tell - the issue of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly - that was a huge issue in the military - a lot of debate about it.

But this issue - one of the things is you're talking about fairly small numbers here. One officer I spoke with yesterday estimated a thousand transgender folks in the military of more than 2 million. Advocates say the number could be up to 15,000. So the numbers are all over the place. But again, it wasn't a real big issue that was discussed a lot by the Pentagon.

GREENE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman in our studio this morning. Tom, thanks a lot.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David.


GREENE: OK. So as we said, Defense Secretary Mattis is going to have a lot to tackle when he returns to the United States. We should say he is just wrapping up a visit to the Middle East.

CHANG: Yeah, Mattis was in Iraq earlier this week, just as security forces there launched operations to take back another city from the Islamic State. In northern Iraq, he met with Kurdish leaders. They've been instrumental in the fight against ISIS. Mattis was also in Turkey, where he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

GREENE: And let's bring in NPR's Peter Kenyon from Istanbul. Hi, Peter.


GREENE: So what exactly was Mattis trying to pull off on this tour?

KENYON: Well, trying to make some kind of a progress, at least, or maintenance of this big dispute. The Turks are very upset with American support for Syrian-Kurdish fighters. And there really isn't an easy answer to this. The U.S. needs those fighters. The Syrian Kurds play a key role. Nobody's offering the kind of battle-hardened fighters that might replace them. But Turkey says those Syrians are aligned with Kurdish militants here inside Turkey, known as the PKK, who've been fighting Turkey for over 30 years.

So when Turkey sees its U.S. ally arming the Syrian Kurds, they get dismayed and they're quite sure those weapons will ultimately wind up being used against Turkey. Now, Americans say, no, that won't happen. We're going to get these weapons back. So that kind of back-and-forth is what continued yesterday. And Turkey's also hoping for U.S. intelligence on these PKK fighters, the Turkish Kurds who are operating inside northern Iraq. So we'll have to see what develops from that meeting.

GREENE: It's such a complicated conflict. And you and I have talked many times about the United States and Turkey with different agendas and different views on the groups who are armed. I mean, do you feel like this meeting between Mattis and the Turkish government - was there any movement?

KENYON: Well, there was one thing they did agree on, and it also involves the Kurds - this time, the ones in northern Iraq. They're holding an independence referendum next month. Both Turkey and the U.S. agree very vocally that's a bad idea - so do Baghdad and Iran, by the way. Critics say this referendum is destabilizing at best. At worst, it's an attempt to break up Iraq. So a lot of talk about protecting the integrity of Syria and Iraq. The Kurds, meanwhile, they say, never mind, we're going ahead with this vote anyway.

GREENE: This visit comes after a top general from Iran visited Turkey.

KENYON: That's right.

GREENE: Is the U.S. getting more worried that Turkey is moving closer to Iran and Russia, of course?

KENYON: It's an issue. I mean, that visit by the Iranian chief of staff to Turkey was the first since 1979. It's the latest sign of them working closer together, both with Iran and Russia, especially on Syria - this whole plan for de-escalation zones. And Turkey likes to play one side off against the other as much as it can. But essentially, it's still economically dependent on Western nations.

GREENE: OK. NPR international correspondent Peter Kenyon speaking to us from Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, David.


GREENE: Ailsa, I don't think President Trump is very shy about attacking fellow Republicans.

CHANG: No, he is not. But the president's digs at Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, may have some bigger consequences. Trump's been attacking the Senate majority leader ever since he failed to pass a Republican health care bill. And McConnell responded with his own jab earlier this month.


MITCH MCCONNELL: Now, our new president has, of course, not been in this line of work before and, I think, had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.

CHANG: Excessive expectations - those were the words that really got McConnell's team angry. Now, this feud has gotten so bad - I'm sorry, Trump's team angry.


CHANG: This feud has gotten so bad that the two have reportedly not spoken in weeks. But then yesterday, the White House and McConnell each issued statements saying that they were committed to a shared agenda.

GREENE: OK. Let's talk to NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. Hi, Domenico.


GREENE: OK. So all that drama and the silent treatment, let's put that aside for a moment. How much does the president need his Senate majority leader to get an agenda through?

MONTANARO: Well, the majority leader sets the agenda. He decides what goes to the floor. And you make an enemy of him, and any priority that a president might have could be dead on arrival and not see the light of day, David.

GREENE: So who has more to lose here?

MONTANARO: Look, nuclear standoffs, I mean, which is what...


GREENE: Is that what we're calling this - a nuclear standoff?

MONTANARO: Nuclear standoffs rarely benefit anyone, except in this case, maybe the Democrats, you know. Publicly, both sides are downplaying the tension, saying they're focused on shared goals and priorities. That's probably what they need to say publicly because this could blow up on both of them.

If Trump ostracizes McConnell, Trump's priorities would have a harder time passing. And if Trump decides to weigh in heavily in the primaries and try to oust Republican incumbent senators, that could cost McConnell and Republicans the majority in the Senate. And then it's game over legislatively for both sides.

GREENE: I'm just scratching my head still listening to McConnell there. Note that the president, from his party, has not been in this line of work and may have excessive expectations. I mean, that's extraordinary. Are there issues, though, that the two of them can get something done on, even if they have this spat going?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, they could reshape the country in a conservative image - that's all.


GREENE: Only that, yeah.

MONTANARO: You know, more specifically, in the medium term, that's tax reform, which is easier said than done. Infrastructure, maybe even health care again - they've talked about coming back to. But before they can do all that, they've got to get through some boring but consequential items like raising the debt ceiling so the country doesn't default on its debts, keeping the lights on in government, things that in the past have been layups and Republicans are turning into a game of HORSE, to borrow from basketball.

CHANG: I also just want to say, what's so interesting to me about this feud between these two men is these are two men who are each used to getting their way. And they have totally different leadership styles, right? You have bombastic Trump on one side. You have quiet, implacable McConnell in the other. It'll be interesting to see who comes out on top.

GREENE: And also, what about Elaine Chao...

MONTANARO: Absolutely.

GREENE: ...Who is McConnell's wife, but President Trump's transportation secretary? I mean, talk about awkward.

MONTANARO: And she added a new twist to that Tammy Wynette classic, "I Stand By My Man (ph)" - both of them.


GREENE: I wish we could play that right now. That would be fantastic. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro speaking to us about the apparent feud right now between President Trump and Mitch McConnell. Domenico, thanks.

MONTANARO: Always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU'S "4U") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.