Jeff Sessions is in a surreal place. He spent 20 years as a senator from Alabama, followed by 21 months as U.S. attorney general, and now he is in a tightly competitive race to win back his old Senate seat. He was the first important national figure in government to endorse candidate Donald Trump back in early 2016. That endorsement was an important boost for Trump, whom other Republicans were dismissing at the time. The newly elected Trump picked Sessions for attorney general.
At the Justice Department, Sessions worked hard to implement the president’s agenda on issues like immigration and crime. But as far as relations with Trump were concerned, it all went to hell in early March 2017 when Sessions, who had been on the job all of 21 days, recused himself from supervising the Trump-Russia investigation.
Driven by Democrats and their allies in the press, the Russia issue picked up steam in Trump’s early months. But it truly exploded on May 9, 2017, when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The resulting firestorm led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller — an appointment made by Sessions’ second-in-command, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was in charge of the Russia matter after Sessions recused himself.
Trump blamed it all, or nearly all, on Sessions, and he never forgave him. Sessions remained in the job until November 2018, but Trump clearly could not stand the man he chose to head the Justice Department.
Fast forward to today. Deep-red Alabama has a Democratic senator, Doug Jones — that’s another, equally odd story — who is now up for reelection. There was a March primary to pick the Republican candidate, who will almost certainly defeat Jones in November.
Sessions finished a close second to former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who won by a little less than two percentage points. A runoff is scheduled for July 14.
President Trump not only supports Tuberville, but he has been bashing Sessions left and right. First, Trump said Sessions begged him on four separate occasions for the attorney general job. “I never begged for the job of attorney general, not four times, not one time, not ever,” Sessions said.
Sessions also released an “Open Letter to the People of Alabama” in which he explained in detail why he believed then, and believes now, that his recusal was required by law and was the only course he could take.
That didn’t assuage Trump one bit. A few days ago, the president tweeted, “3 years ago, after Jeff Sessions recused himself, the Fraudulent Mueller Scam began. Alabama, do not trust Jeff Sessions. He let our country down. That’s why I endorsed Coach Tommy Tuberville.”
That was finally it for Sessions, who responded with obvious irritation. “Look, I know your anger,” he tweeted to the president, “but recusal was required by law. I did my duty & you’re damn fortunate I did. It protected the rule of law & resulted in your exoneration. Your personal feelings don’t dictate who Alabama picks as their senator, the people of Alabama do.”
The political world’s collective response was: “Whoa! Now this is getting interesting.”
Then Trump upped the ante again. “Jeff, you had your chance & you blew it,” he tweeted. “Recused yourself ON DAY ONE (you never told me of a problem), and ran for the hills. You had no courage, & ruined many lives ...”
“Mr. President, Alabama can and does trust me, as do conservatives across the country,” Sessions responded. “Perhaps you’ve forgotten.”
Who knows where it could go next? On Monday, I asked Sessions if he was surprised by the degree to which Trump seems to hold the entire Russia investigation against him. “Yes, I am surprised about that,” he said. “But his frustration is not all unjustified. It’s becoming more and more clear that there were problems with this investigation. There may have been political bias. [Current Attorney General Bob] Barr is exactly right that we need to know whether commencing an investigation of a campaign had sufficient predicate.”
I mentioned to Sessions that Trump’s last interventions in an Alabama Senate race, when he first backed losing Republican primary candidate Luther Strange and then losing Republican general election candidate Roy Moore, resulted in the election of the current Democratic Sen. Doug Jones.
“He did make two recommendations, both of which the voters did not follow,” Sessions said. “I would just say that indicates Alabamians do make their own decisions.”
“In this instance,” Sessions continued, “the president’s personal frustrations — he’s asking the people of Alabama basically to effectuate his personal feelings about this issue. I’m asking them to send a senator who can best advance Alabama values, Trump values, Sessions values, to make a decision based on what’s best for Alabama.”
How many times does a top Republican Senate candidate refer to the Republican president’s “personal feelings”? Sessions finds himself in an unprecedented situation only partially of his own making. But he is convinced he was correct in recusing himself from the Russia investigation, even if it means losing.
“My conscience is clear,” Sessions said. “Doing the right thing is more important to me than even my own political career.”