Spicer denies Cabinet feud over transgender student protections – Politico
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reportedly pushed for a cautious approach on the polarizing issue of transgender student protections — but was overruled by a White House and attorney general who preferred a swift removal of Obama-era protections.
That directive from the feds, expected to become public as soon as Wednesday, essentially abandons the Obama administration’s efforts to protect the right of transgender students to use the bathroom or locker room that aligns with their gender identity. LGBT advocates believe strong federal protections are critical to protecting transgender youth, who are among the most at-risk populations when it comes to bullying and suicide rates.
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The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Trump administration’s plan to dismantle the protections sparked a disagreement between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and DeVos, with DeVos initially resisting signing off on a draft letter to schools outlining the new rules.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer disputed that in his briefing Wednesday afternoon, saying that while there were differences over timing and wording, there was consensus on the decision to rescind Obama’s policy.
“There’s no daylight between anybody — between the president, between any of the secretaries,” he said. “I think there’s been some discussion between the timing of the issuance and recommendations — or between the exact wording. But as far as the conclusions go, I’ve made this clear and the president’s made it clear throughout the campaign that he is a firm believer of states’ rights and that certain issues like this are not best dealt with at the federal level.”
Asked again whether DeVos was on board with the decision to rescind the policy, Spicer replied, “Yes, 100 percent.”
Advocates who’ve spoken with administration sources told POLITICO that the Justice Department was eager to withdraw Obama’s directive quickly — before the Supreme Court hears arguments next month in a case involving Virginia transgender student Gavin Grimm. But DeVos seemed interested in moving more deliberately.
A Republican with contacts in the Trump administration offers a similar description of the differences.
“What I have heard is that Secretary DeVos’ preference would’ve been to have a notice of comment period on this rather than just rescinding the policy effective immediately,” the Republican said.
Another source close to the discussions said DeVos opposed rescinding the directive all together, preferring to keep the protections in place. The source said DeVos plans to make a statement that LGBT students must be protected from bullying.
Neither the Education Department, nor the Justice Department could be reached immediately for comment.
The Obama administration’s Education and Justice Departments last May issued a directive to schools across the country, saying it was their duty to protect transgender students under Title IX — a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs. That includes the right of transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms in alignment with their gender identities. The Obama administration threatened schools, districts, colleges and universities with the loss of federal funds if they weren’t compliant. Nearly half of states sued over the issue, complaining of federal overreach.
Another Republican familiar with administration conversations stressed that while it’s normal for agencies to disagree, DeVos has played a weakened role. In addition to losing this fight with Sessions, the source said, DeVos appears to have been cut out of the conversation on whether the administration should get rid of or maintain the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was started by Obama and provides protections for young, undocumented immigrants.
“People are beginning to dismiss her and just go to other agencies or the White House where they believe — real or perceived — the real influence is,” the Republican said.
Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, released a statement saying she was “glad to see reports that Sec. DeVos agrees with me and so many people across the country that rolling back this guidance on protecting transgender students would be absolutely wrong and should not be done. I hope Sec. DeVos stands strong on this issue and doesn’t cave to pressure from Attorney General Sessions and allow this to move forward when she knows it is wrong.”
The Trump administration’s draft letter to schools, obtained by the Times, cites lawsuits nationwide and confusion over the transgender issue as a reason for rescinding the previous directive. The letter also states that schools must protect LGBT students from bullying — language that DeVos pushed to include, according to a source.
“School administrators, parents and students have expressed varying views on the legal issues arising in this setting,” the draft letter says. “They have also struggled to understand and apply the statements of policy and guidance” in the Obama orders.
During DeVos’ confirmation process, she stated that “every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment where they can learn, thrive and grow.”
But Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said rescinding the Obama directive will only cause problems for schools and parents. She said the Obama administration waded into the issue last year in response to questions from schools and districts.
“This is going to confuse schools quite a lot,” she said. “They’re not going to know what to do and it’s going to open them up to litigation.”
Keisling said the Trump administration’s move amounts to a “brazen and shameless attack on hundreds of thousands of young Americans who must already defend themselves against schoolyard bullies, but are ill-equipped to fight bullies on the floors of their state legislatures and in the White House.”
Last week, LGBT employees at the Education Department asked DeVos in an email to commit to upholding protections under Title IX.
“At a time when students and individuals across the nation are being targeted with overtly discriminatory treatment, our nation needs you to remind and empower students about their right to equal access to education,” the staffers wrote.
Next month, the Supreme Court is set to consider Grimm’s case, G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board. The Trump administration’s move to rescind the Obama directive could kick the case back down to a lower court, however.
The court is set to consider two questions: whether the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX is correct and whether it was right for a lower court to defer to that interpretation. The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Grimm, plans to file a brief arguing that it’s critical for the high court to provide clarity on whether Title IX protects against gender identity discrimination.
Grimm, a 17-year-old high school senior, told POLITICO in a recent interview that being treated differently based on his gender identity has caused his grades to suffer.
“It’s really, really detrimental to your high school experience,” he said.
Kimberly Hefling and Benjamin Wermund contributed to this report.