jeff sessions oversight hearing russia
Jeff Sessions to senator: 'Give me a break'
00:50 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

Democratic Sen. Al Franken criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for working to revoke LGBT rights, accusing him and the Department of Justice of wasting “no time in systematically undermining attempts to safeguard LGBT people.”

Questioning Sessions during a Senate judiciary committee hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, the Minnesota senator blamed Sessions personally for new policy changes at the Justice Department.

Franken joined a handful of Democrats who brought up the issue repeatedly, pressing Sessions on whether his department was encouraging discrimination, an accusation Sessions denied.

Franken noted a laundry list of issues the Justice Department has supported since Sessions was sworn in as attorney general including the department’s “sweeping new order” this summer that the Civil Rights Act does not cover against discrimination based on sexual orientation and Sessions’ order earlier this month that transgender people also lack protection under that law.

In the two page memo issued by Sessions, he wrote, “Although federal law, including Title VII, provides various protections to transgender individuals, Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity per se … Titlle VII expressly prohibits discrimination ‘because of… sex’ and several other protected traits, but it does not refer to gender identity. ‘Sex’ is ordinarily defined to mean biologically male or female.”

Franken said the orders were clearly “all in the name of religious liberty,” arguing that Sessions’ actions were in contrast to previous promises he made during the confirmation process and that they showed the “DOJ’s unrelenting hostility toward LGBT people.”

Sessions responded that he rejected the phrase “unrelenting hostility,” arguing instead that he issued orders to “follow the law as I promised to do.”

He added, “These employment issues we felt the law did not answer … we felt the states could make their own decisions.”

In response to Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, who also brought up Session’s LGBT record, the attorney general said, “We’re going to protect our LGBT citizens with vigor and determination and we are not going to look the other way, we will enforce the law as written and we will continue to do so.”

Sessions noted that the Justice Department had recieved a letter from members of Congress listing multiple cases they were concerned about and he “made sure everyone of them was looked at.”

Franken also praised Sessions for personally ordering a DOJ lawyer to Iowa to prosecute a man for alleged hate crimes against a transgender student, but added “your decision to prosecute … doesn’t tell the whole story.”

“There’s an argument to be made that no Trump administration official has done more to hurt LGBT people than you,” Franken told Sessions.

This story has been updated to add additional details from Wednesday’s hearing.

CNN’s Diane Ruggiero and Madison Park contributed to this report