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Jeff Sessions
  Attorney General Freedom of Thought and Speech Under Attack on College...  CSPAN  September 26, 2017 1:33pm-2:16pm EDT

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>> thursday we are live in richmond, virginia for the next stop on the c-span bus 50 states capital tour. former virginia governor, doug wilder is our guest on the bus during washington journal at 7:30 a.m. eastern. join us as he takes calls and questions about current events and state issues. join us thursday for the entire washington journal starting at 7:00 a.m. eastern on c-span. >> attorney general jeff sessions book at torch to law school this afternoon about free speech on college campuses. he was greeted by protesters. the attorney general began with an opening speech then took questions from a georgetown law professor about free speech and other issues facing the administration. >> good afternoon everyone. i'm the dean of georgetown law and i am pleased to welcome you to today's center for the constitution event. in a moment, after being introduced by professor burnett,
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who is the director of center for constitution, attorney general sessions will speak on free speech and higher education. free speech and higher education is at the core of our academic mission. as you can see from the protest outside georgetown law is a place that takes ideas very seriously and where people sharply disagree. i have heard from many faculty and students that they wanted to protest the actions of the administrations and is part of the mission of a great academic that they are able to express their views and engage in civil debate. as an academic institution it is also important that we hear the attorney general express his ideas about free speech at the university. i welcome attorney general sessions and i look forward to hearing what you say. [applause]
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>> jeff sessions is the 84th attorney general of the united states. born in selma, alabama he received his bachelors of arts from huntington college in montgomery. his law degree from the university of alabama in 1973. mr. sessions served in the united states army reserve from 1973 to 1986, ultimately attaining the rank of captain. he began legal career as a practicing attorney in russellville, alabama and in louisville. following a two-year stint as assistant united district attorney for the alabama he was dominated by reagan in 81 to serve as the us attorney for the seventh district of alabama. he held that position for 12 years. in 1995 selected alabama attorney general and serving as
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the states chief law enforcement officer until 1996 when he entered the u.s. senate where he served until this year. the georgetown center for the constitution is a nonpartisan and non- ideological program devoted to examining how a written constitution, including the first amendment, is properly interpreted and enforced. we are very pleased, mr. attorney general, that you chose us and georgetown law as a venue from which to offer your thoughts on this subject. thank you. [applause] >> thank you very much, passer. it is a great honor to be in georgetown law and the georgetown center for the constitution where the exchange of ideas is indeed welcome and encouraged. thank you for hosting me with the students today. i thank you, students, for allowing me to be a part of the national conversation with you.
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as you embark on another school year you and hundreds of your peers across the campus, we hope will continue the intellectual journey, that is higher education. i love my education experience so much and i suspect you do, too. you will discover new areas of knowledge and engage in debate, great and small, and many of the views you have will be challenged in some of your views may even change. you will, if your institutions follow our nation's historic and cultural education traditions, pursue truth while growing in mind and spirit. in short, we hope you will take part in the right of every american, free, robust and sometimes contentious exchange of ideas. as you exercise these rights realize how precious and rare and how fragile they are. in most societies throughout
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history and in so many that i have had an opportunity to visit as a member of the armed services committee to some of the most difficult places on the globe, such rights do not exist. in these places, openly criticizing the government or expressing unorthodox opinions that land you in jail or worse. let me tell you about one example that occurred one on them when a few idealistic university students came together as a group to advocate for a belt political need wanting to recruit others to their cause they staked out some ground on a campus walkway, popular with students, and approached them as they passed. they said things like do you like freedom? do you like liberty? and then they offered these passerby's a document that they revered and believed represented these ideals.
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the united states constitution. these young proselytizers for liberty did not walk the walk way, did not disrupt surrounding activities, did not use intimidation or violence to further their cause. nevertheless, the governor official labeled this behavior as provocative and in violation of government policy and when the young people bravely refuse to stop citing the right to free speech the local official had them arrested, handcuffed and jailed. this incident could have occurred on any number of tyrannies where the bedrock american ideals of freedom and thought and speech have no hope whatsoever. this incident happened right here in the united states, just last year at a public college in battle creek, michigan. a state official had students jailed for handing out copies of the united states constitution.
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freedom of thought and speech on american campus are under attack. the american university was once the center of academic freedom, a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas but it has transforming into a neck of chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos. in 2017 the foundation for individual rights in education surveyed 450 colleges and universities across the country and found that 40% maintain speech codes that substantially infringe on constitutionally protected speech. of the public colleges surveyed, which are bound by the first amendment, fully one third had written policies banning disfavored speech.
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for example, at boise state university in idaho the student code of conduct prohibits quote conduct that a reasonable person would find offensive". at clemson university the student code of conduct bans any verbal act that creates quote and offensive educational work or living environment". who decides what is defensive and what is acceptable? the university is about the search for truth not be in the position of truth by a government sensor. speech incivility codes often violate what the late justice anthony scalia called the first action of the first amendment which is that "as a general rule, the state has no power to ban speech on the basis of constant" in this great land,
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the government does not tell you what to think or what to say. in addition to written speech codes many colleges now deign to tolerate the speech. only in certain geographically limited free speech zones. for example, a student recently filed suit against pierce college in california, a public school, alleging that it prohibited him from distributing spanish language copies of the united states constitution outside the school's free-speech zone. the size of the free speech zone, 616 square feet. clearly the size of two dorm rooms. these cramped zones are eerily familiar to what the supreme court warned against in the seminal 1969 case of tinker
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versus des moines, a case about free speech. it said "freedom of expression would not truly exist if the right to exercise only in an area that a benevolent government has provided as a safe haven" college administrations have also silenced speech by permitting the heckler's veto to control who gets to speak and what messages are conveyed. in these instances administers discourage or prohibit speech if there is a threat that it will be met by protest. in other words, the student favors at heckler's disruptive tactics over the speakers first amendment rights. these administrators have seem to forget that as the supreme court put it in watson versus
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city of memphis more than 50 years ago "constitutional rights may not be denied simply because of hostility to the assertion of their exercise". this permissible attitude toward the heckler's veto has spawned a cottage industry of protest who have learned that school administrators often will capitulate to their demands. protesters are now routinely shutting down speeches and debates across the country in an effort to silence voices that is sufficiently conform to their beliefs. a frightening example occurred at middleberry college, student protesters violently shut down a debate between an invited speaker at one of the school's own professors. as soon as the event began the protesters shouted for 20 minutes preventing the debate from occurring. when the debaters then attempted to move to a private
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broadcasting location the protesters, many wearing masks and a common tactic often used by the kkk surrounded the speakers and began physically assaulting them. they engaged in a violent riot to ensure that neither they nor their fellow students would hear speech that they may have disagreed with. they crackdown on speech. [inaudible] a speech to promote transgender rights was canceled after students protested because a jewish group sponsored the election. virginia tech disinvited an african-american speaker because he had written on race issues and they worried about protest disrupting the event. this is not right.
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it is not the great tradition of america and yet school administrators have been to this behavior. the offense is to travel and encourage it. over a week ago, after the anti- fascist protesters have successfully shut down numerous campus speaker events in recent months was with violent riots, berkley was reportedly forced to spend $600,000 and have an overwhelming police presence to simply prove that the mob was not in control of their campus. the home of free speech. in advance, the school offered counseling -- in advance of the speech, they offered counseling to any student or faculty who sense of safety or belonging was threatened by a speech from ben shapiro, a 33 -year-old harvard trained lawyer who has
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frequently been targeted by anti-semites for his jewish faith and to vigorously condemns hate speech from the left or the right. in the end, mr. shapiro spoke to a packed house and to my knowledge, no one fainted, no one was unsafe, no one needed counseling, i hope. yet, after this small victory for free speech a student speaking to a reporter said in reaction i don't think berkley should hold any controversial speakers on both sides. perhaps that would be the worst lesson. i believe the vast majority of students like you at the constitution center made no lecture on the dangers of government imposed but we have
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seen a rash of incidences often perpetrated by small groups of those students and professors unable or unwilling to defend their own beliefs in the public forum. unfortunately, these trends have been tolerated by administrators and shrugged off by other students. let us directly address the question why should we should be worried about the speech that may be in retreat on our universities. of course, for a publicly run institution the easy answer is of upholding free speech rights is not an option but an unshakable requirement of the first amendment. as justice robert jackson once
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explains "if there is a fixed star in our constellation in our constitutional constellation there is no official i that can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion". even setting aside the law, the more fundamental issue is that the university is supposed to be in place where we train and where the next generation of americans are equipped to contribute to and live in a diverse and free society filled with many often contrary voices. our legal heritage upon which the founders drafted the bill of rights thought that reason and knowledge produced a close approximation of truth. from the truth, may hopefully
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often arises justice but reason requires discourse and frequently argument. that is why the free-speech guarantee is found not just in the first amendment but permeates in institutions, traditions and constitution in this free, unique, exceptional lands. the jury trial, the right to cross-examine the witness, the speech and debate clause, the very art and practice of lawyering all of these are rooted in the idea that speech reason and confrontation are the very bedrock of the good society. these practices are designed to ascertain what is the truth and from that truth good policies and action can be found in. federalist first anti- federalist, abraham lincoln against steven douglas, doctor martin luther king against george wallace.
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indeed, it was the power of doctor king's words, his speech, that crushed segregation and overcame the violence of segregation. he was unrelenting in making it clear moral arguments that in the end could not be denied. words over violence. at so many times in our history, as a people, it was indeed speech and still more speech that led americans to a more just in perfect union. the right to freely examine the moral and immoral, the prudence in the foolish, the practical in the inefficient, the right to argue for their marriage or demerit remain indispensable for a healthy republic. it has been known since the beginning of our nation that james madison knew this when, as part as his protest against the
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alien sedition act, the speech codes of his day, he said "that the freedom of speech is the only effectual guardian of every other right" in a quote that i am reminded of daily in this job, thomas jefferson knew this when he said in a word "now hundred i swear upon the altar of god eternal hostility against any form of tyranny over the mind of man". no little manner they are. soon, you will be, perhaps, a professor, university president, attorney general of the united states, it may be president of the united states and you will have your own pressing issues to grapple with but i promise you
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that no issue will be better decided with less debate with indifference from the audience and with voices not listened to it unhurt. there are those who will say that certain speech isn't deserving of protection and they will say that some of speech is hurtful, even hateful and they will point to the very speech and belief that we a poor as americans but they attract the right of free speech does not exist only to protect the ideas upon which most of us agree at a given moment in time, justice brandeis outwardly stated in 1927 in the current with whitney versus california "if there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more
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speech, not enforced silence". let me be clear, protecting free speech does not condone violence like we saw recently in charlottesville. indeed, i call upon universities and all-america to stand up against those who would silence free expression by violence or other means but a mature society can tell the difference between violence and unpopular speech and a truly free society stands out, speaks up for cherished rights precisely when it is most difficult to do so. at justice, if there is any principle of the constitution that more imperatively calls for the attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thoughts that we
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hate. we must do so on our campuses, university officials and faculty must defend free expression boldly and unequivocally. that means presidents, regions, trustees as well. a national recommitment to free speech on campus is long overdue and an action to ensure first american men. women rights are overdue. starting today, the department of justice will do its part in this work. we will enforce federal law, defend free speech and protect students free expression from what ever end of the spectrum it may come. to that end we are filing a statement of interest in a campus free-speech case this week and we will be filing more, i'm sure, in the weeks to come. this month we march the 230th anniversary of our constitution.
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what a remind remarkable document and the longest existing constitution in the world and it is an extraordinary thing. this month we also mark the 54th anniversary of the 16th street baptistery bombing in birmingham. for little girls died that day as they changed into their choir robes because the clan wanted to silence their voices for civil rights. but their voices were not silenced. doctor martin luther king would call them the martyred heroine of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. i urge you, really urge you, to go back and read that eulogy is to consider what it had to say to each of us today. this is the true legacy and power of free speech that has
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been handed down to you and you can be sure it made people uncomfortable when martin luther king spoke about segregation, particularly in the south. this is the heritage that you have been given and that you must protect. i am here today to ask you to be involved, to make your voices heard, to defend the rights of others to do the same. for the last 241 years we have staked a country on the principles that robust and even this debate is how we discover truth and resolve the nations most in practical problems. your generation will decide if this experiment in freedom will continue and nothing less than the future of the republic depends on it. you all. great to be with you.
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[applause] >> thank you, mr. attorney general. as you no, this talk has tracked considerable interest from the student body, as well as for my colleagues. we have some questions that have been submitted by students in attendance today. many of these questions are similar. they asked about the same question and most popular question concerns just like you may be surprised to hear this but the nfl. here is one iteration of this question for your comments. can you comment on the recent debate over nfl player protest, as attorney general doesn't concern you that these players are being condemned by many, including the president, for exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and protest.
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>> the president has free-speech rights, too. he sends soldiers out every day to defend this country under the flag of the united states onto the national anthem and unity that those symbols call on us to adhere to. so, i agree that it is a big mistake to protest in that fashion because it weakens the commitment we have to this nation that has provided us this freedom. i would note, force, that the players aren't subject to prosecution but if they take a provocative action they can expect to be condemned and the president has the right to condemn them and i would condemn their actions, not them as a human being but i don't think that's a good -- in many ways, these players with all the assets that they have can express their political views
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other than denigrating the symbols of our nation, a nation that has provided our freedom to speak and act. >> as a matter of fact the next in question is a follow-up question on what you just said. let me read it. if the methods citizens have thus far employed to register objections through policies, practices and situations are unsuitable and divisive in the administration's eyes, what can citizens do to properly register their opinions? >> people have a right to register their opinion through protest, to criticize in any number of ways. i guess it is up to the owners and the people who create these games and pay for the ballfields to decide what you can do on a ballfields. freedom of every individual player is paramount under the constitution. it is protected and we have to protect it. i think that it is not a
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contradiction. >> how much does context matter here? are those whose views points in the minority, in a particular community, such as a college campus in need of any special protection? will that be a factor that the doj will take into account when setting up policies? >> all of us need to understand that people who have minority views should be respected and should be listened to. but i don't think we need to apply any special rights to a minority group. i think there is a danger, greater danger, that a minority group might be denied the right to speak, to express their views and be suppressed. that should always be guarded against. fundamentally, the constitution
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protects everybody's speech, the majority and minority. i think that is the great tradition that we have in this country and i think we should defend it and i have felt and we talked about it with my staff and young people right out of college and super talented young people and there is unease that things are going on in campuses that make them uncomfortable and they feel not free or affirmed when they express views that might be contrary to the majority. i don't think the constitution says you would treat one group different from another. i think fundamentally everyone has the basic right to express themselves. >> we have a speech -related questions from students. that is an says this. an advocate of free speech, how do you feel about the use of senate rule 19 to limit speech
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on the senate floor during confirmation hearings, as was done to senator warren when she was criticizing your nomination to the attorney general? >> she had a right to criticize my right for the nomination and she had the right to read the letter but she was blocked temporarily from reading. the senate rule 19 says you should not and this goes back to 1902 after he despite broke out in the senate that you shouldn't personally disparage another senator. i was both a senator and a nominee and i wasn't on the floor and i didn't know anything about it. i would just say that i think in general the senate is one of the most open debating forums in the history of the world. robert byrd said there was two great tenants and one of them is the u.s. senate and people feel
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that and we should be very cautious before we constrict any member on the senate from speaking on issues and in a way they choose. >> you grew up in alabama and you were a college student. so, did you have any experience as expressing minority opinions in your college? >> huntington college. great place. >> did you have any experience being a minority viewpoint in your college campus? >> well, yeah. i was a it was a methodist liberal arts college so there was no republicans then and somehow some body, an english teacher had prevailed upon me to start reading the national review and that i became conservative in my thinking but the establishment with the wallace machine dominated alabama.
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we started out our effort first time they'd had a republican club on huntington college campus and my wife was a member, too. we battled in campaigns, lost almost every time we campaigned but even in law school, not many republicans in the law school bunch, you can be sure. times have changed. it's amazing. now every statewide elected official in alabama is republican. i have a sense, i have a feel for what it's like to stick in there for what you believe and not kowtow to someone who has a different view, a majority view and people have a right to not have their mind dominated by the effects of the government and no one else, really. you are required all of us are
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to use our best judgment in to seek truth and to try to do the right thing. before the debate clears the air, it should help you make better decisions. that was certainly the idea the founders, i believe that is still valid today. >> could you tell us more about this initiative that the doj is taking that you mentioned in your speech, your filing a statement of interest -- what's this case? >> it's a case about a christian group that was attending to express themselves in a way that any group promoting any agenda, political or religious, we believe should have been allowed to do and we prop him probably think they were constructed in that right or the constitution provides free speech, right to assembly and right to petition and provides the right to free
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expression or religion. we think that this case, probably because it had a deadline for us to file and we can file a statement of interest without being and it's one of the unusual rights the department of justice has in the federal government has. filed a statement and a brief without being a party in the case and we think it's appropriate to affirm what the proper parameters of free speech are in this college in georgia. >> we know you have to be at another engagement and we will have to let you go. i may be the last question can be about this particular event. as you no, there are many
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protesters, both in front of this building and in the hallway outside this hall, including members of our faculty who are protesting. this event is being simulcast in a classroom that is outside this auditorium so that everyone else could it come in here could hear their and i'm wondering if you have any message since these words are conveyed outside this room and any message to the folks outside this room? any message to professors or students or that are protesting or books that could it be and join us here in the auditorium today. >> first, i'd like to thank you for the opportunity to be with you. i know this is a very talented group indeed or you wouldn't be in this law school. we respect your views, no matter what they are. we will defend your views and the right to express them in appropriate and effective ways. certainly, the great tradition
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of this country has been founded on that. we would call on our universities, administrators, officials to intellectual pushback against some of the trends that we are seeing today. by which, some people seem to think they have a right to block someone else's beliefs and expression of those beliefs. i think it is a fundamental thing and i think if we teach that and we teach the fundamental necessity of that then the fewer people will feel that they can have a legitimacy by blocking someone else's free speech. my heaven sakes, college campuses where it should be the most, you are forming your ideas and thinking things through and it was such a fabulous time for
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me and i've changed in a lot of different ways over that period of time and i'm sure you will. we celebrate the diversity of opinion and the freedom to ask questions, to push back and to challenge what may be orthodoxy in many areas. that is part of america's heritage. i got to tell you that the american heritage of law and public policy and the way we approach it is very unique. i've traveled the globe and i've been in afghanistan. we help them write a constitution but professor barnett, they had no heritage of it. it was written up here but their lives didn't impact there. we have been blessed with a heritage that causes us to understand in a more deep way that most people in the world can't, why freedom is important
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and why debate is important and why free speech is important. i would urge you to understand and think about the very uniqueness of this right that we have. defended steadfastly against anyone that would dominate somebody in their thoughts and speech and i believe we will be a better and more healthy republic "after words". so, it's an honor to be with you. thank you. >> thank you, mr. attorney general bac. [applause] >> trump campaign advisor roger stone was on capitol hill today to talk to the house republican committee behind closed doors. he was asked about russian interference in the 2016 election here is what he had to say after the meeting. >> i answered all of the questions. i made the case that the
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accusation that i knew about john protesters e-mail hack was false and that i knew about the content and the source of the wikileaks disclosures regarding hillary clinton was false and that my exchange was someone claiming to be lucifer 2.0 when viewed through the context and timing was benign and innocuous. i had an opportunity to correct a number of the things that members of the committee had said about me which they seemed to take in. i think this was productive. i expressed my view that i am aware of no evidence whatsoever of the collusion by the russian state or anyone in the trump campaign or anyone associated with donald trump and i
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reiterated my view that, in my opinion, donald trump has the potential to be both a truly great and transformative presence. i'd be happy to take your questions. yes. because he auditioned or i should say interviewed as a job as after the date mr. comey was fired from the job. that constitutional conflict. [inaudible] i have not. i have written and i've said it that the president may be aware of my. [inaudible] >> you are looking at life picture of what is called the ohio clock area, a corridor
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outside the senate chamber. right now the senators in their party lunches, democrats in one room, republicans and another. normally the senate leaders come out and speak with reporters. you can see the reporters gathered and that should get underway expects very soon. the senate do to come back into session in just a minute or two. whichever happens first we will have live right here on c-span.
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[background noises] >> we will take you inside live to the senate floor. life covered on c-span2 the other side of the aisle about the health care system. they are trying to sell this as a new and better health care bill, but, in fact, they came up with something worse than the previous trumpcare bills. it would gut the health care act. i the want to recognize some of my