In a dispiriting one-two punch on July 26, President Donald Trump announced, in a three-tweet spree, that the US military will no longer “accept or allow” open service by out transgender Americans, while hours later Attorney General Jeff Sessions — just under the wire — filed a friend of the court brief, on behalf of a company being sued for an anti-gay firing, that argued discrimination based on sexual orientation is not protected by existing federal civil rights law.
In a big picture sense, neither of these development should be surprising. Trump’s stewardship of his office has been nothing if not impulsive, and so the apparent fact that the Pentagon was caught off guard by his tweets fits a pattern well established over the past seven months. And Sessions, a longtime Alabama Republican senator prior to his appointment as attorney general, has matched his Old South racial attitudes and lock-em-up criminal justice beliefs with a consistent hostility toward the LGBTQ community. Though the president was not particularly known as a homophobe or transphobe during his career as a businessman and reality TV loudmouth, the appointments he’s made since winning election — in fact, the crowd he’s surrounded himself since entering politics –– pretty well signaled an indifference or worse toward our community’s concerns.
What’s telling about these latest assaults on our rights, however, comes in their particular political timing.
In a troubled presidency, Trump has hit new lows in recent weeks, not only as shown by his support in the polls, but as importantly by the breadth of people now willing to criticize him.
On January 24, the president, speaking to about 40,000 Boy Scouts at their annual Jamboree in West Virginia, offered nakedly partisan comments about his November victory, the “cesspool” he has encountered in Washington, and his goal of overturning Obamacare. He also waded into a bizarre tale of a rich, retired developer who bought a yacht and “had a very interesting life.”
“I won’t go any more than that, because you’re Boy Scouts, so I’m not going to tell you what he did,” the president told the teenaged boys. “Should I tell you? Should I tell you? You’re Boy Scouts, but you know life. You know life.”
The outcry about Trump politicizing a Boy Scouts event, while doing a little blue humor at the same time, by Thursday of last week prompted a top Boy Scout official to issue a formal apology for the president’s remarks on behalf of the organization.
The Boy Scout embarrassment came the same week that Trump was facing open rebellion by members of his party in his fight to repeal Obamacare. Though to the end he held on to fond hopes he would prevail, in votes on three different — and increasingly desperate — approaches to undoing the Affordable Care Act, the president lost 13 different Republican senators on one or more of them. That’s a quarter of the GOP caucus. His interior secretary’s ham-handed efforts to threaten retribution against Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski could not have proven more impotent.
If the Boy Scout and health care matters provided clear signs of political dangers facing Trump, his repeated taunting of Sessions — whom he blames for recusing himself from all matters related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and thereby bringing on the appointment of a special counsel — was doing the president particular damage on the right, where the attorney general is widely revered. The White House is increasingly apprehensive about where Robert Mueller’s investigation could lead, and in typically undisciplined form, the anxious president vented by making Sessions his whipping boy. That, in turn, has led to the strongest anti-Trump pushback from the right since he secured the Republican nomination more than a year ago.
Distraction is something Trump knows a thing or two about — and his sudden decision to upend a military policy that seemed headed for full, formal acceptance of transgender service members and recruits undoubtedly came out of that instinct. We are perhaps lucky that — as is often the case with Trump — his distraction seems to have backfired, with even many conservatives voicing unease about the idea of targeting dedicated trans service members with expulsion.
Sessions’ move to intervene in a Second Circuit Court of Appeals case involving the claim that gay and lesbian people are protected from discrimination by the employment sex discrimination ban in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act involves a different set of political calculations by the attorney general, but just as with Trump survival is part of the puzzle.
It’s no surprise that Sessions disagrees with a viewpoint that gained considerable support in federal courts and the Obama administration in recent years — that discrimination against a gay person is inherently based on the sex of the discrimination victim. Still, the federal government need not necessarily have intervened in a private lawsuit being litigated between a corporation and a former employee.
But even if Sessions would have filed the DOJ brief regardless of whether he had Trump on his back, the timing couldn’t have hurt the AG. One reason Sessions has gained support from conservative media and politicians as the president has bullied him — South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse are but two of a number of Republican senators warning Trump off — is that more than any other Cabinet member, the attorney general is pursuing goals cherished by the American right. He is undermining voting rights. He is looking for stiffer drug sentences. The DOJ will now investigate whether white students face systemic discrimination in college admissions. And shutting the door on claims of anti-gay discrimination fits squarely into that agenda. If the right was unsure a year to 18 months ago about Trump’s fidelity to its cause, Sessions was his guarantor.
So, as we move forward, we would do well to remember this: a wounded animal, even if weakened, can sometimes be the most dangerous adversary.