Mattis freezes transgender policy; allows troops to continue serving, pending study

USA Today reports: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis late Tuesday announced that transgender troops will be allowed to continue serving in the military pending the results of a study by experts.

The announcement follows an order from President Trump — first announced in a tweet — declaring that transgender service members can no longer serve in the military, effectively reversing an Obama administration policy. The order also affects the Department of Homeland Security, which houses the Coast Guard.

“Once the panel reports its recommendations and following my consultation with the secretary of Homeland Security, I will provide my advice to the president concerning implementation of his policy direction,” Mattis said in the statement. “In the interim, current policy with respect to currently serving members will remain in place.”

Mattis’ move buys time for the Pentagon to determine how and if it will allow thousands of transgender troops to continue to serve, whether they will receive medical treatment, or how they will be discharged. [Continue reading…]

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James Mattis tells the troops that their president is failing them

Fred Kaplan writes: President Trump has left us so numbed by his deceit and dishonor that it’s hard for anything said by or about him to shock us. Even so, the remarks this past weekend by two of his top Cabinet officers should sound the alarm bells louder than usual.

On Fox News on Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked about a U.N. committee’s recent warning about racism in America, which criticized Trump’s wavering attitude toward the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia. Tillerson replied, “I don’t think anyone doubts the American people’s values,” including those touting “equal treatment of people the world over.” But when asked whether Trump shared those values, he replied, “The president speaks for himself.”

Around the same time, a recent video emerged on Facebook of Secretary of Defense James Mattis telling a small group of American troops, “You’re a great example of our country right now.” He went on, “Our country, right now, it’s got problems that we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.” [Continue reading…]

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Syria: ‘Deadly labyrinth’ traps civilians trying to flee Raqqa battle against ISIS

Amnesty International reports: Thousands of civilians trapped in Raqqa, northern Syria, are coming under fire from all sides as the battle for control of the city enters its final stage, Amnesty International said following an in-depth investigation on the ground. The warring parties must prioritize protecting them from hostilities and creating safe ways for them to flee the frontline.

In a report released today, the organization documents how hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured since an offensive began in June to recapture the “capital” and main stronghold of the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS).

Survivors and witnesses told Amnesty International that they faced IS booby traps and snipers targeting anyone trying to flee, as well as a constant barrage of artillery strikes and airstrikes by the US-led coalition forces fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) armed group. At the same time, survivors recounted how Russian-backed Syrian government forces also bombarded civilians in villages and camps south of the river, including with internationally banned cluster bombs.

“As the battle to wrest Raqqa from Islamic State intensifies, thousands of civilians are trapped in a deadly labyrinth where they are under fire from all sides. Knowing that IS use civilians as human shields, SDF and US forces must redouble efforts to protect civilians, notably by avoiding disproportionate or indiscriminate strikes and creating safe exit routes,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, who led the on-the-ground investigation. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-led airstrikes are killing hundreds of civilians in the battle for ISIS-held Raqqa

The Washington Post reports: U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria are killing hundreds of civilians each month, according to monitoring groups, deepening already grave concerns for thousands of families trapped inside the city.

At least 725 civilians have been killed in coalition airstrikes since the offensive to retake Raqqa began June 6, according to Airwars, a London-based monitoring organization that works with local activists, human rights groups and the Pentagon.

“We had been flagging for months prior to the offensive that far more civilians were dying around Raqqa than we would have expected even a few months earlier,” said Chris Woods, the director of Airwars.

“Since the assault began, we have seen a casualty count that is relatively high compared to the rest of the coalition’s war against ISIS,” he said, using another name for the Islamic State. “In Raqqa, this means high numbers of identifiable civilians, many of them women and children.” [Continue reading…]

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White supremacists in the U.S. military

Andrew Exum writes: White supremacist groups and their sympathizers were especially present in the ranks of the U.S. Army’s combat arms units and the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1986, an exasperated Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, ordered the military to crack down on these groups, and another purge was ordered after U.S. Army veteran Timothy McVeigh planted a bomb that almost leveled the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people. 1995 was the same year a paratrooper from the Army’s 82d Airborne Division murdered a black couple outside Fort Bragg.

When I arrived in my first infantry unit in 2000, I remember encountering non-commissioned officers who were by then quite adept at interpreting the tattoos on the young white men arriving to the unit fresh from basic infantry training. By that point, though, recruiters were already weeding out most of the men who showed up with any sign of affiliations with white supremacist groups. [Continue reading…]

Military Times reports: A Marine veteran has been identified as the leader of a white supremacist group whose members marched at Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counter-protester was killed.

The news site Splinter first reported on Monday that former Marine recruiter Dillon Ulysses Hopper is the leader of white supremacist group Vanguard America.

Hopper served in the Marine Corps from July 2006 until Jan. 30, leaving the Corps as a staff sergeant, according to Manpower & Reserve Affairs. He deployed to Iraq from January 2008 to January 2009 and to Afghanistan from July 2010 to February 2011.

James Alex Fields Jr. was arrested Saturday after allegedly killing a woman by ramming a car into counter-protesters.

Fields, 20, was charged with second-degree murder and is being held without bail. At the rally he was photographed behind a shield bearing the emblem of Vanguard America, according to The Associated Press. The group has denied Fields was a member. [Continue reading…]

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Trump threats are wild card in showdown with North Korea

The New York Times reports: After a four-day fusillade of apocalyptic threats against North Korea, President Trump left many in Washington and capitals throughout the Pacific wondering whether it was more method or madness. Among those wondering were members of Mr. Trump’s own administration.

It was not the first time in his unconventional presidency that Mr. Trump had unnerved friend and foe alike, but never before had it seemed so consequential. Unrestrained attacks on uncooperative members of his own party, the “dishonest media” and the cast of “Saturday Night Live” generally do not raise fears of nuclear war. But as with so much with Mr. Trump, the line between calculation and impulse can be blurry.

In the broadest sense, Mr. Trump’s “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” warnings fit the strategic imperatives of the advisers who gave him classified briefings at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., over the last week. The president showed resolve in the face of Pyongyang’s defiance, as his aides had counseled, while increasing pressure on China to broker some kind of deal to denuclearize the tinderbox Korean Peninsula.

But Mr. Trump, who bridles at being stage-managed, ignored their advice to project dignified steadfastness. Carefully calibrated briefings for the president by Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis came out through a Trump bullhorn, magnified and maximized for effect. For perhaps the first time in generations, an American leader became the wild card in a conflict typically driven by a brutal, secretive despot in Pyongyang. [Continue reading…]

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Despite rhetoric on North Korea, U.S. military posture hasn’t really changed

NPR reports: President Trump’s “locked and loaded” remark on Friday — part of his ongoing exchange with the North Korean regime — might have set the world more on edge. But if the U.S. military is preparing for a major conflict, there is little evidence of it.

As of Friday morning, no U.S. aircraft carrier was on patrol in the Asia-Pacific region. The USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan have both returned to their respective home ports, San Diego and Yokosuka, Japan.

The USS Nimitz Strike Group — often on station in the western Pacific — is deployed to the Persian Gulf, supporting the U.S.-led effort against ISIS.

There are about 29,000 American troops permanently stationed in South Korea. Annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises begin Aug. 21 but are conducted primarily with forces already in place.

And U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday appeared to downplay the possibility of armed conflict.

“My mission, my responsibility is to have military options if you need it,” Mattis said. “However, right now, Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson, Ambassador [to the U.N. Nikki] Haley, you can see the American effort is diplomatically led, it has diplomatic traction, it is gaining diplomatic results.” [Continue reading…]

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If missiles are headed to Guam, here is what might stop them

The New York Times reports: North Korea’s threat to launch four intermediate-range ballistic missiles into the ocean near Guam could mark the first combat test of the sophisticated missile defense systems of the United States and its Asian allies.

The launches might not happen for any number of reasons. North Korea’s Hwasong-12 missiles might fail, or the United States or its allies could destroy them on the launchpad. Japan and the United States might also decide to do nothing and let the missiles splash harmlessly into the sea.

But if the four Hwasong-12s do make it off the ground, the options for stopping them mostly rely on hitting them on the way down — in their “terminal” phase.

On the Way Up

The Hwasong-12, a domestically developed liquid-fueled missile, has a maximum range of 3,000 miles, and hits an altitude of about 470 miles on the way to its destination. The velocities needed for those numbers mean that by the time the missile has been in the air one minute, it is already traveling several times the speed of sound.

At those speeds, a missile trying to chase and hit it from behind would have no chance during this part of the flight, called the “boost phase.” The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad, several of which are now stationed in South Korea, could use its radar to track the launches of the North Korean missiles. But it is not designed to hit them as they climb into space.

At one point, the United States Air Force poured billions of dollars into a huge laser mounted on a Boeing 747 that was designed to destroy enemy ballistic missiles during the boost phase — and it worked. But it was so expensive, and required the laser-equipped aircraft to fly so close to enemy territory, that it was abandoned. [Continue reading…]

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Gaming out the North Korea crisis: How the conflict might escalate

The Washington Post reports: A military confrontation with North Korea may now be “inevitable,” says Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) The United States is “done talking” about North Korea, tweets U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. President Trump threatens “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” then says maybe his language “wasn’t tough enough.”

The North Koreans return verbal fire, talking of using “absolute force” to hit the U.S. territory of Guam and even “turn the U.S. mainland into the theater of a nuclear war.”

In this moment of heated, belligerent rhetoric, planners in and out of government are diving into decades of plans and projections, playing out war games, engaging in the macabre semi-science of estimating death tolls and predicting how an adversary might behave. Inside Washington’s “what if?” industry, people at think tanks, universities, consultancies and defense businesses have spent four decades playing out scenarios that the Trump administration now faces anew.

The pathways that have been examined fall into four main categories: doing nothing, hitting Kim Jong Un’s regime with tougher sanctions, pushing for talks, and military confrontation. An armed conflict could take place in disparate spots thousands of miles apart, involving any number of nations and a wide variety of weapons, conventional or nuclear.

In hundreds of books, policy papers and roundtable discussions, experts have couched various shades of armageddon in the dry, emotion-stripped language of throw-weights and missile ranges. But the nightmare scenarios are simple enough: In a launch from North Korea, a nuclear-tipped missile could reach San Francisco in half an hour. A nuclear attack on Seoul, South Korea’s capital of 10 million people, could start and finish in three minutes. [Continue reading…]

It seems to me that the greatest danger of miscalculation by North Korea derives from Kim Jong Un’s assessment of Donald Trump’s capacity to trigger military action.

While North Koreans are acutely aware of the mismatch between the Hermit kingdom and the U.S. in terms of military strength, on a personal level Kim probably views Trump as a contemptible figure who is weak and lacking authority.

On one side is a leader who has zero tolerance for even a hint of dissent and who is presented to his people as a god-like figure whose ruling power is absolute, and on the other side is a man viewed by much of his own population as an unstable dunce — a man whose every utterance requires qualification from close aides whose most frequent message is that Trump should not be taken at his word.

Trump’s lack of credibility now poses a real threat to global security, because it risks triggering a sequence of actions resulting in nuclear war.

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U.S. and South Korea to stage huge military exercise despite North Korea crisis

The Guardian reports: US and South Korean militaries will go ahead with massive sea, land and air exercises later this month, despite a spiralling situation in which North Korea has threatened to fire missiles towards a US Pacific territory.

The annual joint exercises, named Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, have long been planned for 21-31 August, but now come at a time when both Washington and Pyongyang are on heightened alert, raising the spectre of a mishap or overreaction.

The timing is doubly concerning as it is within a timeframe in which Pyongyang says it will be ready to fire four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles toward the US-run island of Guam, an unusually specific threat against the US.

Washington and Seoul say the exercises, involving tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops, are a deterrent against North Korean aggression.

In the past, the practices are believed to have included “decapitation strikes” – trial operations for an attempt to kill Kim Jong-un and his top generals, further antagonising a paranoid leadership. [Continue reading…]

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North Korean threat to Guam tests credibility of Kim and Trump

The New York Times reports: North Korea’s vow to ignite an “enveloping fire” of test missiles near the American island of Guam is the first time it has specified a target with so much detail, escalating a showdown between Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, and President Trump.

For Mr. Kim, failure of the plan announced on Thursday, which includes precise details like splashdown points and exact travel times for four test missiles, would be a potentially costly blunder that could subvert his authority.

For Mr. Trump, whose dire warnings to North Korea — which he further escalated on Thursday — have echoed Mr. Kim’s own screeds, a successful North Korean test would be an embarrassment that could force him into exceedingly difficult choices about military action.

But North Korea’s prospective test also includes some maneuvering room for a possible compromise, South Korean analysts said. North Korea said the missile launches were still in the planning phase and would not be finalized until later this month, raising the possibility of delay or cancellation.

The four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles to be aimed toward the vicinity of Guam, home to a strategic American base, would fly 2,085.7 miles in 17 minutes, 45 seconds, North Korea said in announcing the plan. The missiles would splash down 18.6 to 24.8 miles from Guam’s coast, the North said.

“By revealing this detailed plan, North Korea is trying to show that its Hwasong-12 missile is a reliable system and that it has capabilities of operating nuclear missiles,” said Shin Beom-chul, a security expert at the government-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.

Even though North Korea has conducted 80 missile tests under Mr. Kim, it has never launched a missile toward a target as far as Guam and has never disclosed such precise flight data in advance. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump wants a nuclear attack against North Korea, his military advisers have few other options

The Washington Post reports: The dueling threats issued by President Trump and the North Korean military have prompted questions about U.S. procedures to launch a preemptive nuclear attack. The answer is stark: If the president wants to strike, his senior military advisers have few options but to carry it out or resign.

The arrangement has existed for decades, but is salient after Trump warned Tuesday that future threats by North Korea will be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Pyongyang responded by saying it is considering a preemptive missile strike against Guam, and Trump doubled down on his remarks Thursday by refusing to take a U.S. preemptive strike off the table and suggesting his comments might not have been tough enough.

“I don’t talk about it,” Trump said of a potential preemptive strike. “We’ll see what happens.”

Administration officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have sought to ease the tension, while at the time same time warning North Korea that if it carries out an attack, it will be met with a crushing response. But they also have underscored that it is Trump’s prerogative to use whatever rhetoric he believes is appropriate as commander in chief. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, U.S. analysts say

The Washington Post reports: North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded in a confidential assessment.

The new analysis completed last month by the Defense Intelligence Agency comes on the heels of another intelligence assessment that sharply raises the official estimate for the total number of bombs in the communist country’s atomic arsenal. The U.S. calculated last month that up to 60 nuclear weapons are now controlled by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Some independent experts believe the number of bombs is much smaller.

The findings are likely to deepen concerns about an evolving North Korean military threat that appears to be advancing far more rapidly than many experts had predicted. U.S. officials last month concluded that Pyongyang is also outpacing expectations in its effort to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking cities on the American mainland. [Continue reading…]

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With U.S. general under fire, Afghans fear being abandoned by Trump

The Washington Post reports: Afghans are alarmed by widespread reports that President Trump has threatened to fire Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the highly regarded U.S. military commander in this war-torn country, and that Trump has also delayed deciding on a new military and political strategy Afghans have awaited anxiously for the past six months.

Nicholson, 61, the top U.S. military official in Afghanistan for the past 16 months, has become the best-known face of Washington here, working closely with Afghan military and civilian officials, and vocally advocating expanded U.S. military engagement, while the Taliban and other insurgents continue aggressive attacks across the country.

Now, with two U.S. servicemen killed in the past week, Trump’s attack on Nicholson for failing to “win” the 16-year war has stunned Afghan officials and political leaders. They said a clear signal of continued support from Washington is urgently needed to keep the fragile Kabul government on its feet amid an explosion of public unrest and organized opposition from a variety of groups.

“Our biggest immediate worry is the lack of an American strategy,” said Omar Daudzai, a former senior Afghan official. “We are facing political turmoil and a security crisis. Neighboring governments are meddling. We need an American commitment to support the defense forces, elections and democratic institutions. America’s reputation is at stake in Afghanistan, and if this all goes bad, America will lose its credibility.” [Continue reading…]

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The war America can’t win: How the Taliban is regaining control in Afghanistan

Sune Engel Rasmussen reports: In a rocky graveyard at the edge of Lashkar Gah, a local police commander was digging his sister’s grave.

Her name was Salima, but it was never uttered at her funeral. As is custom in rural Afghanistan, no women attended the ceremony, and of the dozens of men gathered to pay their respects, few had known the deceased.

Salima, like almost all women in Helmand province, had spent most of her life after puberty cloistered in her family home.

Her family said she accidentally shot herself in the face when she came across a Kalashnikov hidden under some blankets while cleaning.

In town – Helmand’s provincial capital – the story was regarded with suspicion, if not surprise. Salima died 10 days before an arranged marriage, but nobody asked any questions: it would be improper to scrutinise a woman’s death.

Her body was lowered into the hole, wrapped in a thin, black shroud. She had lived unseen, and was buried by strangers.

For more than 15 years, women’s empowerment has been claimed as a central pillar of western efforts in Afghanistan. Yet in Helmand, adult women are almost entirely invisible, even in the city. They are the property of their family, and few are able to work or seek higher education, independent medical care or justice.

And if the advancement of women’s rights has moved at a glacial pace in places such as Helmand, the process toward peace has slid backwards. Helmand’s two main towns, Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, are among a handful of places in the province not under Taliban control.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has yet to define a strategy for Afghanistan.

The US was expected to have approved the deployment of about 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan by now – the first surge since the withdrawal began in 2011.

Yet the administration is torn. The president himself has wondered aloud “why we’ve been there for 17 years”, and recent reports even suggest that the White House is considering scaling back instead. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. detects ‘highly unusual’ North Korean submarine activity

CNN reports: The US military has detected “highly unusual and unprecedented levels” of North Korean submarine activity and evidence of an “ejection test” in the days following Pyongyang’s second intercontinental ballistic missile launch this month, a defense official told CNN on Monday.

An ejection test examines a missile’s “cold-launch system,” which uses high pressure steam to propel a missile out of the launch canister into the air before its engines ignite. That helps prevent flames and heat from the engine from damaging either the submarine, submersible barge or any nearby equipment used to launch the missile.

Carried out on land at Sinpo Naval Shipyard, Sunday’s ejection test is the third time this month — and fourth this year — that North Korea has conducted a trial of the missile component that is critical to developing submarine launch capabilities, according to the US defense official. [Continue reading…]

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As North Korea intensifies its missile program, the U.S. opens an $11 billion base in South Korea

The Washington Post reports: This small American city has four schools and five churches, an Arby’s, a Taco Bell and a Burger King. The grocery store is offering a deal on Budweiser as the temperature soars, and out front there’s a promotion for Ford Mustangs.

But for all its invocations of the American heartland, this growing town is in the middle of the South Korean countryside, in an area that was famous for growing huge grapes.

“We built an entire city from scratch,” said Col. Scott W. Mueller, garrison commander of Camp Humphreys, one of the U.S. military’s largest overseas construction projects. If it were laid across Washington, the 3,454-acre base would stretch from Key Bridge to Nationals Park, from Arlington National Cemetery to the Capitol.

“New York has been a city for 100-some years and they’re still doing construction. But the majority of construction here will be done by 2021,” Mueller said. (New York was actually founded nearly 400 years ago.)

The U.S. military has been trying for 30 years to move its headquarters in South Korea out of Seoul and out of North Korean artillery range. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea may have just shown a capability to strike California

Military Times reports: North Korea launched another ballistic missile Friday morning and experts believe it may have been, for the first time, an intercontinental ballistic missile with the capability to strike the continental United States.

Analysts raised concerns — with the caveat that preliminary reports could change — that this test could represent yet another step forward for North Korea’s nuclear posture.

Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis did not immediately have details on the launch, such as whether it was an intercontinental or intermediate range missile, and whether the missile had yet splashed down.

“The U.S. Department of Defense detected and tracked a single North Korea missile launch today at about 10:41 a.m. [Eastern Daylight Time,]” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, reading the departments official statement on the launch. “We assess that this missile was an intercontinental ballistic missile, as had been expected.”

Davis said the missile was launched at 10:41 am local Washington time Friday from Mupyong-ni, and said it traveled “about 1,000 kilometers before splashing down in the Sea of Japan.”

Mupyong-ni “is an arms plant up in the far north of North Korea, north of Pyongyang,” Davis said. The missile “splashed down inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, about 88 nautical miles from Hokkaido,” Davis told reporters at the Pentagon.

“We’re working with our interagency partners for a more detailed assessment,” he said.

NORAD assessed the launch and “determined it was not a threat to North America,” Davis said

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Defense News that the decision to do a night launch from a new location “demonstrates that we can’t preempt them” from future launches.

Most worryingly, Lewis noted the reported 45 minute flight time of the missile and other data, which would “be consistent” with longer-range estimates of the weapon’s capabilities — perhaps putting its range in the 10,000 KM range — distance enough to put California and other continental U.S. locations at risk. [Continue reading…]

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Joint Chiefs: ‘No modifications’ to transgender policy from Trump tweet

Politico reports: There will be “no modifications” to the military’s transgender policy as a result of President Donald Trump’s declared ban on transgender men and women on Twitter, the chairman of the joint chiefs said in a message to top military officers on Thursday — the latest sign of the disarray following the commander in chief’s abrupt announcement.

Marine Gen. Joe Dunford also wrote in the message, which was sent to the chiefs of the military branches and senior enlisted leaders, that the military will continue to “treat all of our personnel with respect.”

“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. [Continue reading…]

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