Pentagon & Congress

Smith says he won’t derail the NDAA over transgender troop ban

WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services chairman has pledged to fight the Trump administration’s ban on transgender individuals from serving in the military, but he said he will not let the issue derail the annual defense authorization bill.

“I am not going to not pass a defense bill because the Senate’s in one place and we’re in another,” Adam Smith, D-Wash., said of the ban on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” on Friday. "But I am going to push for priorities and policy objectives that we as Democrats have. One of them is that transgender people ought to be allowed to serve openly in the military.”

The comments come amid uncertainty after a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling Jan. 22 gave the Trump administration the green light to implement plans to restrict the military service of transgender personnel. The Pentagon said after the ruling it will not immediately implement changes to its transgender policy.

On Friday, Smith said he had not heard from acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan about how the Pentagon would interpret the ruling. Calling the Trump administration’s policy “wrong” and consistent with “discrimination,” Smith noted that “all four service chiefs testified there has been no impact whatsoever on military readiness, unit cohesion, anything. It is clear the president’s policy does not stem from any actual national security need."

Stanley McChrystal, a prominent retired four-star Army general, told CNN last week the ban on transgender people serving in the military is a mistake and compared it with the military’s past restrictions on African Americans and women.

“I think it’s a mistake to lose that talent ... somebody with those attributes, the willingness and the capability to serve, not being welcome, is a negative message to send,” McChrystal told CNN’s David Axelrod on his podcast, The Axe Files. “Patriots should be able to serve America in any way that is best for them.”

While it is likely Democrats would use the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to address the ban, Smith said his top priorities as the new chairman are to work in a bipartisan manner and pass the FY20 NDAA.

Even when Republicans controlled both chambers, the process sometimes dragged, but bipartisan, bicameral compromise is expected to be a heavier lift this year, as Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate. On an annual basis, the two chambers pass their own version of the far-reaching bill before leaders from the Armed Services committees negotiate compromise legislation that can pass both chambers.

“We are trying to produce a product to support the men and woman putting their lives on the line to defend the country,” Smith said. “We have to pass the bill, the defense authorizing act, to ensure we put in place laws and protections that the men and women who serve our country need.”

Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the staunch Republican Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, signaled in a November interview he would go to bat for the ban and questioned Democratic resolve on the issue.

Defense watchers expect a partisan clash on at least one other issue: nuclear weapons. Inhofe has vowed to defend all three parts of the military’s nuclear force, or triad, because America’s adversaries are modernizing their arsenals, but Smith has repeatedly called for a more affordable arsenal, one just large enough to act as a strategic deterrent.

“The idea that it is sacrosanct, that the triad is not to be touched because it is crucial to U.S. national security, does not bear scrutiny,” Smith said. “I want to bring scrutiny to it and spur a debate about whether we can have a wiser policy on our nuclear weapons.”

Smith expressed openness to upgrading the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal, but repeated his skepticism about its size. Smith questioned, in light of mounting deficit pressures, why the U.S. was spending so much on nuclear weapons and not emerging areas like artificial intelligence or space-based technologies.

“We have to make choices,” Smith said.

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