Interns' Questions on LGBT Rights and More Throw Jeff Sessions Off Balance

Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions got flustered and testy at times during a Q&A session with Justice Department interns in June, on topics including LGBT rights, excessive use of police force, and marijuana legalization.

Video of the June 22 event was posted online today by ABC News, which obtained it through the Freedom of Information Act. Coming at a time when Sessions was being criticized by his boss, Donald Trump, “the back-and-forth with interns was a unique opportunity for them to question the nation's top cop,” ABC notes. “Outside of multiple interviews with Fox News since becoming attorney general, Sessions has offered other media outlets few chances to publicly press him about Justice Department policies.”

The first intern querying Sessions, Harvard Law student Charlie Fletcher, questioned the department’s commitment to the rights of transgender people, considering the February withdrawal of guidance from the Justice and Education departments advising schools to let trans students use the restrooms and other single-sex facilities appropriate for their gender identity, and for faculty and staff to use these students’ preferred names and pronouns.  

“You can be sure we’ll protect transgender and all people in their civil rights,” Sessions answered, somewhat haltingly. But federal officials “did not conclude that the bathroom question was decided by Title IX,” the law banning sex discrimination in education, and decided to leave that up to state and local governments.

Courtney Hagle, a student at Boston University, also asked Sessions about LGBT rights, given that the Trump White House had nor proclaimed June LGBT Pride Month — something that President Barack Obama did every year.

Sessions said the Justice Department was going to hold a Pride observance the following week (it did, honoring Gavin Grimm, a transgender student whose lawsuit against his school district was undermined by the withdrawal of the guidance) and said he didn’t know about the lack of a Pride proclamation from the White House. He also said he had recommended Justice Department inquiry into murders of several transgender people.

Hagle subsequently told ABC News, “I think it is very important for members of the LGBT community to know where the attorney general and the DOJ stand on issues of LGBT rights, especially considering recent moves made by the White House, such as moving to ban soldiers who are transgender from serving in our military.”

Sessions sparred a bit with interns on other issues as well. A Washington University law student identifying herself only as Elisa asked why, since guns kill more people than marijuana does, he supports “pretty harsh marijuana policies and pretty lax gun control laws.”

“That’s an apples and oranges question, I would say first and foremost,” he said. He brought up “the Second Amendment — you’re aware of that,” guaranteeing the right to keep and bear arms, and said, “I intend to defend that Second Amendment — it’s as valid as the First Amendment.”

He also said marijuana is not a healthy substance and that the American Medical Association agrees with him. When he asked the intern if she holds that belief and she shook her head, he called her “Dr. Whatever Your Name Is” and advised her to contact the AMA.

An intern named Sean from the University of California, Berkeley, pressed Sessions on police violence, citing the shootings of African-American men such as Philando Castile and Michael Brown. He noted that the Justice Department is reviewing the use of consent decrees, which are legal agreements used to reform troubled police forces, and asked when the department will get back to using these agreements. The student said they had proved effective in many communities.

When Sessions said he cared about keeping all communities safe, the intern responded, “I grew up in one of these communities. ... I grew up in the projects with a single mother. And the people who we are afraid of are not necessarily our neighbors but the police.”

Sessions replied, “Well, that may be the view in Berkeley, but it’s not the view” elsewhere. He also claimed cities like Chicago and Baltimore have high murder rates because police there “have abandoned traditional police activities” — an assertion many in those cities would likely contest.

A Justice Department spokeswoman released a statement to ABC, saying the event allowed students “to have robust conversations — even debates — about the challenges facing our country with the attorney general,” and that the department is “proud to provide hundreds of law students and undergraduates the opportunity to work with some of the finest lawyers in the country.”

Watch the full video below.

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