The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff does not consider President Donald Trump’s tweet a direct order.
“I know there are questions about yesterday’s announcement on the transgender policy by the President,” Dunford wrote in the internal communication, a copy of which was provided to POLITICO. “There will be no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance.”
“In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect. As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions,” he continued.
General Dunford’s comments come as no surprise to me. When I first learned the news that President Trump planned to reverse President Obama’s policy I didn’t go to his Twitter account. I instead searched WhiteHouse.gov for an executive order.
First, President Trump should not have tweeted what he did. He should have discussed his intentions with the White House communications team, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense that way they were all on the same page. Then when an executive order had been signed, he could have tweeted an announcement out.
Second, a President’s social media is not formal communication. He can not command through Twitter.
Our Armed Forces abide by a Chain of Command which goes from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the Joint Chiefs and on down the line. General Dunford is not insubordinate; he is just stating a fact and he is respecting the rule of law. There is a process that even President Trump needs to follow; otherwise, there is confusion in the ranks.
I have seen a lot of skepticism that the President’s action yesterday was nothing more than a smoke screen to subdue heat from his right flank over Attorney General Jeff Sessions. If he doesn’t follow through with an executive order, President Trump will prove his skeptics right.
Update: David French at National Review writes that the President does the right things the wrong way and ends up sabotaging his own policy. He says he should have worked to codify the policy, not take haphazard executive action that is sure to be overturned with the next Democratic president.
But he did it exactly the wrong way. Not only did he reportedly blindside members of the military (he tweeted while Secretary of Defense James Mattis was on vacation) with the timing and nature of his announcement, his typical inflammatory tweeting was guaranteed to ignite yet another round of public fury. He virtually guaranteed that the next Democratic president would immediately reverse his policy, and he made any congressional debate that much more challenging.
Here’s what actual presidential leadership would look like. After permitting his respected secretary of defense to comprehensively study the issue of transgender service, he would draft a carefully written, factually supported statement describing in detail the military justifications for the policy. Then, with the full, prepared backing of the Pentagon, he’d approach a Republican-controlled Congress and write his policy into law — creating a far more permanent standard that couldn’t be quickly reversed by the next administration and wouldn’t jerk the military into a game of culture-war hot potato depending on whose party controls the White House.
But that’s hard work. It’s much easier just to tweet.