The following is a transcript of an interview with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox that aired on “Face the Nation” on July 9, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to the Republican governor of Utah. Spencer Cox, thank you for being here.
GOVERNOR SPENCER COX: Thanks for having me.
MARGARET BRENNAN: It’s good to talk face to face. I know you’re on this coast because of the National Governors Association and meetings there. And the group’s putting some special focus on mental health, but broadly protecting kids. And I think that sounds very bipartisan, but things get complicated on a number of issues. I want to start on the question around guns and gun control. There have been over 356 mass shootings in 39 states this year, and over this past July 4th weekend, there were 22 mass shootings. What are you going to do in your leadership role on this issue?
COX: Well, we’re working as a bipartisan group of governors, we actually formed a subcommittee. I’m a part of that subcommittee. Several other governors, Republicans and Democrats, working together. We’ve been working with Congress having conversations, trying to figure out what we can do. And I don’t know that anybody’s figured out the answer to this one yet. Certainly, I haven’t seen it if they have, but we- we know that it’s getting worse. We know that they’re trying to get at the root problem. What is- what is it that’s causing this? Right? I mean, we talked about gun control. And that’s certainly an issue. That’s a hot topic of debate. But- but there’s-, there’s something else out there. What is it that’s driving us apart as a nation, as a society? What’s happening in our homes, what’s happening in our schools, what’s happening in our community? And I think that’s where we find the common ground of governors that are really striving to figure this one out, and- and see what can be done. I mean, there- there was some bipartisan legislation that passed Congress in the past year, that- that’s certainly a step. But I don’t think at least, you know, the results aren’t showing that that’s made much of a difference.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Now- well, certainly when it comes to children, firearms are the leading cause of death among kids, according to the CDC, kids and adolescents. In your state of Utah, the Salt Lake City Tribune pointed out that at the state level, there’s been an impulse to- to ban dangerous things for kids on many levels. You’ve talked about social media. You’ve focused on transgender issues. But that doesn’t extend to firearms, even at the state level. Why is that?
COX: Well, I don’t think there’s a move to loosen gun access amongst kids, and protecting kids. Certainly, there’s a second amendment issue in there–
MARGARET BRENNAN: It’s not about a child buying a gun, but a child getting caught in crossfire, in a mass shooting, in a school shooting.
COX: But that’s not- that’s not why- that’s not why guns are the leading cause of death. The reason guns are the leading cause of death is because of suicide. And I think that’s a really important conversation to have. And that is something else that we’re working on in a bipartisan manner, something we’re working on in the state of Utah as well. What is it that is causing this significant rise in anxiety, depression, and self harm? And- and we happen to know that there are several drivers, but social media is a huge piece of this. That’s also something we’ve been working on in Utah. What can we do, again, to make sure that our kids are in a better mental state? But what is it that’s changed over the past- the past 10 years that has led to this significant increase? Again, when you look at the gun numbers in the state of Utah, those numbers increasing are not being driven by people getting caught in crossfire or you know, kids shooting each other. It’s being driven specifically by mental health and suicide issues. Now, we’re doing more to help keep guns away from kids, keep them locked up. But- but what is it that’s- that’s driving that desire to say life is not worth living anymore? And how do we, as a society, collectively, work to make sure the kids know that it is going to get better and- and there is a reason to stay here? That’s a huge focus for us as well.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, I talked about loosening because lawmakers introduced 25 firearm related bills during your annual effort, and 16 of them passed, and that was about expanding access to firearms. But you’re saying you don’t think that’s the cause here. That’s not something worth looking into further?
COX: Well, it’s certainly a conversation worth having and making sure that our gun laws are not causing more harm. And again, I haven’t seen any evidence that that’s happening in the state of Utah. But- but this is- when we talk about laws, I like to ask again, if we’re going to limit somebody’s constitutional rights, and that’s a second amendment question, is what we’re doing going to make a difference? Is- is it causing more harm, or is it causing less harm? And can we see that and I think we’ve tried to do a pretty good job of that in Utah. We’re obviously not perfect and- and we’re constantly looking at our gun laws. At what’s happening with our kids. And again, this mental health piece, which I think is so critical.
MARGARET BRENNAN: On social media that you brought- you brought it up, because your state is the first, as I understand it, to restrict social media access by minors, although that law doesn’t go into effect until March of next year.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You just had this judge this week, make a determination that the Biden administration should be prohibited from discussing with social media companies, certain things, I’m looking at the quote here, anything that encourages, pressures, or induces in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression or reduction of content. Is that ruling going to affect what you are trying to do at the state level to protect young kids from harmful content?
COX: So – so that was a ruling in an- in a different district, so no, no direct impact on- on Utah.
COX: Not a- a 10th district ruling, but I don’t think so. I don’t think so. That- that’s- that’s more of a content restriction. Ours again, based on youth, and this will be litigated, there’s no question we- I’m sure we’ll have social media companies suing the state of Utah. In fact, we’re going to be suing social media companies for- for the harm and damage that they’re causing our young people. I- I suspect that at some point, the Supreme Court will weigh in on this decision when it comes to restricting youth access. What we’re trying to do is give families more control over what is happening on social media. When you when you look at the- the new research that’s coming out, there’s not just a correlation between social media use and an increase in- in suicide, anxiety, depression, self harm, there is a causal link there. And- and so we feel like we are on firm ground when it comes to the legality of what we’re trying to do. But again, what we’re trying to do is to allow parents and kids, kids under the age of 18, an opportunity to have a little more control and- and making these social media companies turn off the algorithms that we know are driving so much of this harmful addiction and- and then harmful action that comes from- from- from this addiction to social media.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You said litigation is ahead. Is there something you’re about to file and what should we be looking for?
COX: Yeah- yeah, we’ve- we’ve- we had a press conference several months ago, talking about this. We are going to be pushing the social media companies to hold them accountable for what we believe is the intentional–
MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s Facebook, that’s Twitter, that’s–
COX: We’re looking at all social media companies right now. In the coming months, you will see lawsuits being filed by the state of Utah to hold them accountable. We believe they’ve known about- about the dangers, some of this has been leaked out, Meta and others, very clear evidence that they knew the harms that their products were causing to kids, and that they intentionally tried to hide that information. And- and- and of course to not make- make changes that are necessary to protect our kids, and- and so we’re looking forward to having our day in court on that issue.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We’ll be watching for that. I want to ask you, again, on the topic related to kids, there are 18 different states that have now enacted laws that restrict in some way access to gender transition care for Kids. In Utah, you have said that you are just pausing access to that kind of care, you’re not banning it. Do you have an end date to that pause? What specifically is the kind of data and research you need to see to say you will allow for it?
COX: Yeah, so we don’t have an end date. But we- we do need more data and more information and the legislature has been clear on that. Ultimately, the legislature would have to run a bill to unpause that, depending on what that, you know, what that data comes back. I’ve been very, very vocal about this. This is such a charged topic–
MARGARET BRENNAN: It is–
COX: That it’s been, it’s been impossible, I believe, to get good information here in the United States right now. Because half the country doesn’t want to touch it and the other half is convinced that they already know the answer. And so I’ve really tried to look elsewhere at conversations that are happening in other countries, specifically in Europe around- around this, where it’s not quite as charged. Looking at at Sweden and Finland and France and the UK, other countries where they don’t have the same culture war battles that we’re having here, where it’s, you know, it’s either too political or you know, you can’t say anything about it, to- to see what they’re finding out. And they’re also pushing pause. I mean, many of those countries are saying, ‘Look, we’re- this–
MARGARET BRENNAN: On which specific part of it? Is it hormone treatment, puberty blockers, surgery?
COX: Both, all of the above. Yeah.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Because the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics have said, this kind of care- that they’ve rejected the claims that it is harmful.
COX: Yeah, all very political groups. And again, I don’t- I believe that they are politicized. Those groups are politicized.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The American Academy of Pediatrics?
COX: I absolutely do. Yes, yes. On this issue, it- it’s impossible to get unbiased information out of the United States right now on this issue. I just don’t believe it. So- so that’s why I’ve been looking elsewhere and looking at scientists elsewhere who have said look, ‘Yeah, we have some old data. This is based on a Dutch study many, many years ago, looks absolutely nothing like what we’re seeing today.’ And- and we have not looked at the long term impacts of- of these hormone blockers, we have not looked at the long-term impacts of- of these surgeries, and we don’t have enough data to support moving forward right now. So that’s what we’re at. So we’re working, the University of Utah, and other organizations out there that will be compiling research that’s being done all across the world, looking at the very best and latest data. We’ll present that to the legislature and then they’ll make the decision going forward.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So short of therapy, though, can a kid in Utah go to- go to talk therapy?
MARGARET BRENNAN: If they are going through something they consider to be related to their gender?
COX: Yes, yes, yes, yes. And not- not only that, but one of the things that’s gotten lost in this bill that we passed in the state of Utah is we actually appropriated state money to help kids who are struggling to get the type of therapy that they need to get through this very difficult time and what they’re going through, until they’re an adult, until their brain is- is- is mature enough to be able to make this decision for themselves.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So just on the numbers, of 73 million children in the U.S., there were just 56 genital surgeries related to dysphoria between 2019 and 2021 according to this study by Komodo Health and Reuters embroiders–
COX: Yeah, do you have the numbers on, on on hormone therapy, and- and- and puberty blockers in the past year?
MARGARET BRENNAN: In those years? What is the number?
COX: They’re exploding. We went from, like 10 10 years ago to several hundred this past year, I mean, those numbers and again, this is–
MARGARET BRENNAN: In Utah?
COX: In Utah alone, yeah.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Why do you think it’s happening in Utah like that?
COX: That’s- it’s happening everywhere. And that’s what people are trying to figure out.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The request for–
COX: Absolutely. Yeah.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So you don’t know what’s driving this?
COX: Well, that’s- that’s what the scientists in other countries are actually trying to figure out, where in the United States, we’re putting our head in the sand and saying, ‘we’re not even going to talk about this or look about this, you can’t even have a discussion about it.’ In other countries, they’re saying something is happening. Again, going back to this Dutch study, there were a few people, mostly males transitioning, they didn’t have any other mental health issues at the time. What we’re seeing now is hundreds, thousands, and hundreds in my state, thousands all across the country that are making requests for this. And they have- they’re- they’re presenting with several other mental health issues as well. So again, totally different than the study that all of this is based on. And- and this is the question, this is what we’re trying to figure out. Why are we seeing this explosion in so many countries, and- and really developed countries. We’re not seeing this in- in undeveloped countries. Why are we seeing this tremendous increase? What is it that’s driving it? Is it truly I mean, is it gender dysphoria? Is it something else? Is it a mental health issue? Is it- is it- is it some sort of, you know, social media trend that is driving some, not all? Is it- what is it that led to this- this moment in time, where we are seeing this explosion.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well the data is hard, I mean, the numbers we saw, the trend is definitely up. But they’re still pretty small in terms of surgeries and mastectomies–
COX: But only in terms of surgeries–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Data.
COX: Yeah, the other data and you can look anywhere, this is not unique. Yes, there aren’t a lot of surgeries happening, but the trend, it’s not just up, it’s up exponentially. It’s- it’s- it’s a hockey stick increase.
MARGARET BRENNAN: It’s still a small percentage, though. But- but I hear your point on wanting more data. Can I ask you specifically about a bill that is now law, that- you had an interesting stance on this. You rejected the bill, initially, your legislature overrode your veto, it’s now law and it would bar transgender students from participating in girls sports. According to the reporting at the time, there were just four transgender players in the entire state–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Out of 85,000 student athletes. At the time, you are viewed for empathy when you vetoed this. You said there- ‘these are just four kids trying to get through the day, rarely is so much fear and anger been directed at so few.’ Why didn’t that call for empathy persuade your party? Why did they need to write something to effect four kids?
COX: Sure. Well, I think there’s- there’s a couple of reasons and again, they can speak for themselves. In my- in my veto letter, I said, I actually agree with what you’re trying to accomplish here. I think it is wrong to have a- a transgender female, a person who was- who was born a male taking scholarships, records, away from people–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Does that happen?
COX: The Penn swimmer is that- the example of that, right? The example that everybody uses and- and so that- that was my point, I- that should not happen. What we were negotiating in the state of Utah was something that would allow some kids to play and others not to depending on their- their physical capability. So it would have prevented the Penn swimmer in Utah, but not- not some other kids who were, you know, just trying to get along and having a good time. That’s what we were negotiating, by the way, that’s what we ended up with, because a judge put a stay on the law. And so we ended up exactly where we were negotiating. I don’t know why that- that- that- that argument didn’t hold sway. We ended up in the same place. Certainly, I do believe that there is a lack of compassion and empathy in our politics today. We are- we have a toxic division, the culture wars are happening. There are culture warriors on all sides that are, you know, trying to change you, trying to get their way, trying to cancel others, or prevent others from- from being able to do what they want to do, and it’s definitely a problem. I’m hoping that Utah can be an example of being a little better on that side. Obviously, we’re not always there. But I’m grateful to legislators who did step up, who were able to make some changes in law after the veto, we actually did change the law. And so, so we’re trying to be a little more compassionate on that side.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Because on the national level, as you just are indicating, it is resonating with someone, otherwise, you wouldn’t have all these Republican candidates for president talking about the specific issue of girls and sports: Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump. Why?
COX: Well, because I think there are some examples–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Four kids Utah? A presidential candidate has to talk about this?
MARGARET BRENNAN: I mean, one- one swimmer.
COX: I think if we had- had such a high profile, and I want to say it’s not just the Right, there are a lot of feminists that are worried about this, too, and- and rightfully so.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I guess the question is, there are lots of feminist issues that some could take up. Why this one particular one? What is it about this one issue?
COX: Well, it- probably because it’s- it’s very easy, and it’s- it’s human nature to- to other people, right? It’s- it’s human nature to treat people who are different than us with- with disrespect, and lack of dignity. And if you go back to the previous conversation we had about transgender surgeries. I mean- like- I believe that we should pause transgender surgeries and hormone blockers in transitioning among youth. I believe that. I believe that that’s the right thing to do. However, there’s- there’s a better way to do that, and a wrong way to do that. So we hosted transgender youth and their parents and families at the governor’s mansion with legislative leadership, so that they could sit down and actually talk and get to know each other. So that- so that when they were having this debate, they would know that these are real people, that these are real human beings, and they have a name and that they have a face. And I think even if we disagree, that type of- that type of dialogue, getting proximate to people who are different than us, will help us ultimately make better decisions. That allowed us to pass a million dollars in- in- in money for LGBTQ kids for additional therapy who were struggling, right? If the- seeing each other, even if we can’t agree on the final resolution. There are things we can do to treat you- treat each other with dignity and respect. And that’s what I’m trying to do. But- but politics today does not incentivize that. Politics today incentivizes me calling someone else a name, it incentivizes me denigrating someone else. That’s how I get more likes and hits on social media. It’s how I get on news programs like this usually. Thanks for having me on, even though I’m not tearing people down, I hope. But- but we as a nation need to demand better of our politicians.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So Log Cabin Republicans, a group of LGBTQ conservatives called the video that the DeSantis campaign put out on social media, ‘divisive, desperate,’ and ‘ventured into homophobic territory.’ That candidate for president, one of your fellow governors, said it’s totally fair game, and it criticized the former President for words in which he said he would help LGBTQ Americans. This is not just about clicks, they think that equals votes. So, why is Ron DeSantis wrong?
COX: Well, I don’t know that he’s wrong. I mean, we certainly have many examples of people getting elected by being extreme candidates, right? This- we- it’s not just Ron DeSantis. I mean, it’s- it’s- it’s on the right, it’s on the left. We are living in a society right now that- that rewards in the form of votes, that kind of behavior. We’ve stopped- we’ve absolutely gotten- gotten out of the business of persuasion. I’ve been reading Abraham Lincoln this week. He believed that in persuading others, you had to treat them with dignity, respect, and they would listen to you. We don’t do that anymore. What we do is we placate our base, we tear down the other side, it’s happening on the Right and the Left and I think I actually believe that most Americans don’t love it. It may lead to votes and that- that’s part of the system that that we have set up and we can have that discussion. But- but I do believe there’s- there’s polling out there that shows that most Americans are tired of the divisiveness. They’re tired of the toxic disagreement. They’re looking- they’re begging for people, there just aren’t many people out there that are willing to do it, who are willing to treat each other with dignity and respect. I believe there’s nothing more un-American as my friend says than hating our fellow Americans. I think we need to get back to- to that. And I’m hoping to do that as chair of the National Governors Association.
MARGARET BRENNAN: There are at least six current or former governors, Republican governors running for President right now. Can any of them defeat Donald Trump in a primary, to lead your party?
COX: I hope so. I like governors. I think governors are great. I think governors have real experience. The great thing about governors is we actually have to get stuff done, right? We can’t just do the performance thing. You have to- you know- potholes aren’t- aren’t partisan. You have to- you have to do those kinds of things. And I think we have lots of amazing choices. And I’m really hopeful that we- can we can turn the page and- and try something else, someone who can win, which I think is important. And I think any of- any of those governors could win and- and I certainly hope we’ll give them a chance.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you don’t mean to say in there that you’re okay with the video that the DeSantis campaign- –
COX: I- I haven’t seen the video. I’m not approving that video. But – –
MARGARET BRENNAN: — But he could defeat Donald Trump or one of the other governors we talked about.
COX: –Sure. Yeah, yeah. I think it would be great to give a fellow governor a chance.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Republicans- let’s continue this right, if I could, Republicans used to be this party of small government-government. And one of your fellow governors, Chris Sununu, was on this program recently, and he talked about another trend among conservatives. He said, who are ‘big government authoritarians.’ And he said they need to be reminded about ‘federalism, free markets, being for the voter first, being for the individual’. He was talking about Florida and the fight with Disney. Do you encourage governors to take on fights like this?
COX: By the way, Chris Sununu is much more entertaining in this seat than I am. He’s fantastic. Let me just say this, I agree with everything Chris Sununu said, he’s- he’s a governor after my own heart. I do believe that. Look, there are conservatives that I think have felt for a long time that we keep losing- we keep losing these battles. And so we’ve got to try the same tactics as the Left. We- you know- they’re using government to get their way, we’ve got to use government to get our way. It may work in the short term, I don’t think it’s a long term fix. And- and I think it’s very unhealthy, I think it’s bad for our country. I think Ronald Reagan would be very disappointed in us. This- this rise in illiberalism that we’re seeing, that we’re seeing happening all across the- across the Right. And so I would encourage my fellow governors at every time to remember where our roots are in that they do lie in those things. They lie in free markets, less government, better government, local government being better than the national government, giving- giving people an opportunity to be their best selves and not using the power of persuasion, again, and the power of example, to get what we believe in. And there- there are Americans that will flock to our cause if we do that, but when we try to use the heavy hand of government to get our way, then- then- then that can only lead to chaos and destruction down the road. And- and I think it’s a mistake.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Governor, thank you. I’m glad to have you here in person. And hope to have you back.
COX: Thank you. It’s been an honor. Thank you.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We’ll be back with a lot more Face the Nation. Stay with us.