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The Fall of Jeff Sessions, and What Came After

The former attorney general is fighting for his political life in Alabama’s Senate race, in the shadow of a president who still despises him.

6/30/2020 7:10:00 PM

In ethos and in substance, Jeff Sessions had long harbored the presentiments of Trumpism, and yet no figure has been more totally cast out of Trump’s orbit, writes elainaplott for NYTmag

The former attorney general is fighting for his political life in Alabama ’s Senate race, in the shadow of a president who still despises him.

For several months before he fired Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump had telegraphed that his attorney general would leave following the 2018 midterm elections. Still, Justice Department aides were surprised when the call came quite literally the next morning. At about 10 a.m., on Nov. 7, a few of them gathered in Sessions’s fifth-floor office as John Kelly, then Trump’s chief of staff, delivered the news. Sessions asked Kelly if he could at least hold off until the end of the week. Kelly said he could not; it was either resign now, or await a presidential tweet. So Sessions’s communications director pulled out her phone and tapped out a statement from the notes she prepared the day before, just in case. “Thank you for the opportunity, Mr. President,” it concluded. Two aides grabbed it off the printer and carried it to the West Wing.

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The previous three years had transpired for Jeff Sessions like a malarial dream. There he was in early 2016, beaming from the campaign stage in the Huntsville, Ala., suburb of Madison before a crowd of more than 10,000, Trump’s prized opening act, extolling the inception of a “movement.” There he was one year later in his dream job at the Justice Department, one gear shy of skipping as he zagged through the corridors of the West Wing, greeting old campaign and congressional acquaintances as they settled into their quarters, “like a kid in a candy store,” one former White House official recalled. And there he was, just 22 days after his confirmation, issuing

from any investigation his department might undertake into charges that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election — the action that would send the dream spiraling into still weirder territory.ImageJeff Sessions in March 2017 announcing his recusal from any investigations into the 2016 presidential election.

Credit...Nicholas Kamm/Agence France-Presse, via Getty ImagesIt had all happened with astonishing speed: the reports, in January 2017, that counterintelligence agents were investigating communications between Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, and the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak; Trump’s conversation with the F.B.I. director, James Comey, six days after Sessions’s confirmation in which Trump suggested Comey drop the investigation; the revelation that Sessions, too, had met with Kislyak during the campaign, despite his claims during his confirmation hearings, under oath, that he had not. On March 2, Sessions appeared as briefly as possible before reporters to announce that he would be recusing himself from the looming Russia investigation. It was what virtually all Democrats, and some Republicans, in Congress believed he should have done. It also left Sessions a dead man walking in the halls of the White House that he had so recently skipped through, the unwitting protagonist of the era’s most vivid cautionary tale about crossing Donald Trump.

It was in his hour of darkness, after his firing, that Sessions received a call from Trent Lott. The former Republican senator from Mississippi knew something about unceremonious downfalls, his tenure as Senate majority leader cut short in 2002 following a toast to the past presidential aspirations of one Strom Thurmond. (“If the rest of the country” had voted for Thurmond in 1948, when he ran on the pro-segregation Dixiecrat ticket, Lott said, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”) But Lott had rebounded with ease, slinking back into Senate leadership before exiting politics on his own terms and settling into the life of a lobbyist. He had since acted as a kind of life coach for Senate friends — Kit Bond of Missouri, the late Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — who were considering what might come after public service, and he suggested Sessions come by his office for a talk.

When he did, Lott gave Sessions a copy of a visual aid he put together several years earlier called “The Wheel of Fortune.” The wheel, Lott told me, had a series of “spokes,” all of which represent things you might do upon leaving politics. You could join a law firm! Give speeches! Write a book! Many lawmakers became professors or sat on corporate boards. Lott walked Sessions through the pros and cons of each. And so Sessions left K Street that day encouraged anew by the wide world before him.

The problem was that, as he commenced to spin the proverbial wheel as advised, the wide world only seemed to narrow. Much of 2019 unfurled for Sessions in a series of small indignities, a continual reminder that Trump’s disfavor could cast its shadow over even a man who won his fourth Senate term entirely unopposed. According to three people familiar with the matter, shortly after leaving the Justice Department, Sessions entered talks to join the law firm Maynard Cooper & Gale, which was founded in Birmingham, Ala. With a longtime friend of Sessions’s pulling for him on the inside, the deal seemed all but done. But ultimately, the firm’s leadership decided against bringing him in, the news of which was broken to Sessions over dinner at Charlie Palmer’s in Washington. “People at Maynard obviously respect Jeff,” said one person with direct knowledge of the decision, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But I don’t think, given the manner in which he left” the Justice Department, “he could make the business case for how the work would follow.” (A spokeswoman for Maynard Cooper confirmed it had been in talks with Sessions, but declined further comment.)

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Another heave of the wheel. Sessions considered starting a think tank, an institution that would endeavor to lend a scholarly heft to the right-wing populism that he had long espoused and that was now co-defined with Trump, but he was unable to find financing for the project. At one point, he agreed to meet with agents about writing a book about the Trump agenda, but decided against it.

One spoke still beckoned. “And I have to confess, you know,” Lott recalled, “without being asked, I said, ‘Let me just say right here at the beginning: I hope that you will not think about running again for the Senate. It’s just not what it used to be.’”

On a recentJune afternoon, after a long day of running for the Senate, Jeff Sessions retired to a corner booth at a Ruby Tuesday in the south Alabama town of Bay Minette. He wore a blue-and-white gingham button shirt and gray slacks. His eyes were a touch bloodshot and bleary. He ordered a glass of peach tea and, for the second time that day, dessert. “I don’t know when I’ve had a pineapple upside-down cake,” he mused to the waitress, studying the menu. “I don’t have to eat all of it, do I?”

The day, his first on the nonvirtual campaign trail since March, began at Mac and Jerry’s, a homespun breakfast spot in Robertsdale, where Sessions seemed pleasantly surprised by the modest crowd awaiting him. Ducking in from the rain, he placed his hands on his hips and looked around for one private moment, like a birthday celebrant who couldn’t quite believe his guests had shown. “At least three people, maybe four, said: ‘Our whole family voted for you,’” he told me at Ruby Tuesday. “I like to hear that.”

Opportunities for affirmation had been few since Sessions, who is now 73, declared his candidacy for his old Senate seat last November. Despite early polls that showed him as the favorite, Sessions did not anticipate an easy primary. The field was wide, and he hoped in part to outspend his way to the top before moving on to what would likely be a race in name only against Doug Jones, the Democrat who won a special election for the seat in 2017. Instead, Sessions finished a narrow second in the primary and, per Alabama’s election rules, advanced to a runoff against the former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville. The spread of the coronavirus delayed the election until July 14. Polls have since showed Sessions trailing his opponent by as many as 20 points.

ImageSessions campaigning in Alabama in February.Credit...Vasha Hunt/Associated PressSessions can probably thank Trump for this. The president remains more popular in Alabama than in virtually any other state, and on March 10, he endorsed Tuberville in a pair of tweets, calling him a “REAL LEADER.” He has been increasingly vocal in his contempt for his former attorney general, a contempt that seems to have only sharpened with time. “Jeff, you had your chance & you blew it,” Trump tweeted in late May. “Recused yourself ON DAY ONE (you never told me of a problem), and ran for the hills. You had no courage & ruined many lives.” There had been flashes of life for Sessions in recent weeks; a few surveys, and Sessions’s internal polling, showed him closing the gap with Tuberville. Even so, he is still running behind a political novice in a Republican primary runoff for a seat he held for two decades, the loss of which would be tantamount to his final consignment to the political abyss.

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[How Alabama’s Senate Primary Became a Trump Loyalty Contest]Before voters, Sessions’s voice can seem vaguely strained, flecked with irritation, even, when unwinding the events of the past four years. It is not so much that he is tired of rehashing his decision to recuse himself, the D.O.J. regulations and whatnot that required it, though undoubtedly that is part of it. Rather, he seems cosmically bewildered as to how he got to this point: fighting for his political life just as the Republican base appears more in thrall than ever to his brand of conservatism, fielding questions about his loyalty to a president who found acceptance in the G.O.P. establishment largely through Sessions.

If many elected Republicans ultimately came to support Trump out of convenience or opportunism or fear, Sessions was — is — a true believer. The Republican Party, and even Trump’s own administration, are littered with those who, when talking to reporters, squirm to telegraph their

great personal distastefor the MAGA enterprise. Not Sessions. Today, when cornered in Capitol corridors by reporters, most G.O.P. lawmakers profess ignorance as to Trump’s latest social-media activity. But unlike the bulk of his former colleagues, the gentleman from Alabama saw the tweet. He probably loved it too.

Even in his exile, perhaps no one is as eager as Sessions to hold forth on why he likes Trump, why his party — why thecountry— so desperately needs him. Nearly every tangent in our two-hour conversation eventually arrived at this view. At one point, we were discussing Syria’s descent into anarchy over the past decade. “A banker I know from Greece,” Sessions said, “he said you could go to Aleppo, you could do business deals, you could even buy whiskey. Cross Assad, you’re in big trouble, but you could do business” before the Arab Spring. “He said, ‘There’s a difference between freedom and democracy. You need to understand this.’”

Sessions continued: “And you know who we want to run Syria? Assad. We are hoping that somehow he can get back in control. And there was no terrorism, no ISIS when he ran the place.” (ISIS emerged in Syria under Bashar al-Assad’s rule, which, while diminished, is ongoing.) “He’d kill ’em. And if you didn’t cross him, he wouldn’t kill you. And he protected Christians; they were a part of his coalition.”

Sessions referred back to an earlier moment in the conversation, when I asked him how he considered his support of Trump from the standpoint of his faith as an evangelical Christian. “You asked how Christians could support Trump,” he said. Consider Egypt’s Christian minority under president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, he said: “It’s not a democracy — he’s a strongman, tough man, but he promised to protect them. And they believed him, because they didn’t want the Muslim Brotherhood taking over Egypt. Because they knew they’d be vulnerable. They chose to support somebody that would protect them. And that’s basically what the Christians in the United States did. They felt they were under attack, and the strong guy promised to defend them. And he has.”

This reminded Sessions of the events of three days earlier, when U.S. Park Police tear-gassed protesters in Washington to make way for Trump as hestrode to the front of St. John’s Church, the basement of which was set on fire by rioters the night before. Stopping before the cameras, Trump held up a Bible. (“Is that your Bible?” one reporter asked. “It’s a Bible,” Trump responded.) “He came out there with that Bible,” Sessions said, pausing briefly to giggle, “and so all the Episcopal bishops said: ‘Ohhh! Horrible!’ You know? But this was a defender of the faith.” He continued in a faux tone of dismay: “ ‘Ohhh, his heart’s not right. He shouldn’t have held that Bible up. …’ Oh, that’s malarkey.” Sessions rolled his eyes. “Just a bunch of socialist leftists.”

Here, then, was the central paradox of Sessions’s plight. In ethos and in substance, Sessions had long harbored the presentiments of Trumpism. On immigration, trade and policing, the dusted-off rhetoric of “law and order,” his stamp on the president’s administration remains indelible. And yet no figure has been more totally cast out of Trump’s orbit.

ImageSessions sitting before the Senate Judiciary Committee after being nominated for a U.S. District Court judgeship by President Reagan in 1986.Credit...Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty ImagesIt was Washington’searly rejection of Sessions that kindled his political career to begin with. In 1986, Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions, then a United States Attorney, to a federal district judgeship in Alabama. During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a black assistant U.S. attorney testified that Sessions had once called him “boy” (which Sessions denied) and said the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot” (which Sessions said was a joke). Senators also questioned

Sessions about his prosecution of three black civil rights activists, including Albert Turner Jr., a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr. who helped lead the march from Selma to Montgomery, for voter fraud in 1985. (After the judge threw out several counts, the jury acquitted all three on the rest.) Coretta Scott King and other civil rights leaders accused Sessions of having deliberately targeted the defendants, and she urged against his confirmation.

Sessions denied claims of unfair targeting and still stands by the case. But taken together, the accusations were enough to make him the first federal district court nominee in more than 30 years not to be confirmed. And denying Sessions the critical vote needed to advance his cause to the Senate floor was the Democratic senior senator from his own state, Howell Heflin.

As for the events that followed, Sessions would never confess to something so uncouth as revenge. But in 1996, when Heflin announced his retirement, and Sessions announced his intentions not just to succeed him, but, upon election, to vie for appointment to the very Judiciary Committee that had spurned him, Sessions could not suppress a stray grin when asked to reflect on the chance of it all. “I don’t know that ‘vindication’ is the word,” he told The Montgomery Advertiser as he settled into his new office, taking a seat for the first time in Heflin’s old chair, at Heflin’s old desk. “But there is a sense that life is a wonderful thing and things do work out in the end if you keep your head up and try to do right.”

Sessions often told reporters at the start of his Senate career that he had no intention of being a “potted plant” while in office. He made the most of his coveted seat on the Judiciary Committee — where he would eventually serve as ranking member — occasionally asking judicial nominees: “Are you a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, or have you ever been?” Nineteen years before

the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Sessions tried to upend Garland’s confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on the grounds that the seat itself was a “rip-off” to the taxpayer — exasperating even the committee’s Republican chairman, Orrin Hatch of Utah, who snapped at Sessions for “playing politics with judges.”

ImageSessions with Mitch McConnell on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2001.Credit...Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly, via Getty ImagesBut it was immigration that preoccupied Sessions above all else. He fulminated about it in his floor speeches, often delivered on Friday afternoons when most of his colleagues had long since flown home for the weekend. In 2007, he led the opposition to George W. Bush’s attempt at immigration reform, calling it “no illegal alien left behind.” In 2013, as ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, he called on Republicans to quash the so-called Gang of Eight’s bipartisan immigration bill in favor of a “humble and honest populism.” “The same set of G.O.P. strategists, lobbyists and donors who have always favored a proposal like the Gang of Eight immigration bill argue that the great lesson of the 2012 election is that the G.O.P. needs to push for immediate amnesty and a drastic surge in low-skill immigration,” he wrote in a

memo. “This is nonsense.”For these tirades, Sessions was largely written off by his colleagues as a backbencher with fringe views and little influence. He earned admirers in the conservative media, however, such as Laura Ingraham and Michelle Malkin. National Review deemed him “

Amnesty’s Worst Enemy.” On the matters of refugees, civil rights and prison reform, “you knew exactly who he was,” said Al Franken, the former Democratic senator from Minnesota, who was friendly with Sessions during his tenure. “I mean, he took some really strange stances.”

And then, finally, those stances met their moment — and their candidate. Perhaps more than anything else in his political life, Sessions treasures having been the first senator to endorse Trump, in February 2016. He traveled the country as the Trump campaign’s national-security chairman, forming what felt like a preordained relationship with the man he was certain God planned to use for good. He helped craft the campaign’s immigration platform and advised Trump on whom to select as his running mate. His devotion was so total that, when Trump won, Sessions was a “shoo-in” for whatever cabinet position he wanted, according to a former senior White House official who helped lead the transition. Attorney general was his one request.

ImageSessions at Madison City Stadium, where he publicly endorsed then-candidate Donald Trump on Feb. 28, 2016, in Madison, Ala.Credit...Taylor Hill/WireImage, via Getty Images“Well, I’ll saythis,” Sessions told me: “I was surprised at how comfortable I felt about being attorney general.”

Sessions told me he was moved by the chance to act on his and Trump’s shared belief that the police were “demoralized” during the Obama years. “I said, ‘We’re going to embrace this as our mission, we’re going tobackthe police and we’re going toreducecrime.’” He began laying the groundwork for a zero-tolerance policy for illegal immigration, a crackdown on MS-13 gang members and a rollback of the civil rights agenda advanced through the Justice Department during the Obama years. But these efforts were still in their infancy when, in March 2017, he made his fateful decision.

As Sessions still maintains, he believed that in recusing himself, he was doing what anyone in his position would have been obligated to do. “There’s one term that he used to use a lot,” recalled Rod Rosenstein, who served as deputy attorney general under Sessions: “ ‘regular order.’ And what he meant by that was, let’s make sure we figure out what the rules are, and let’s make sure we’re following the rules, and let’s make sure we’re not getting distracted by inappropriate political considerations.”

But it was in the aftermath of his recusal that White House officials, particularly those who had not worked on the campaign, were suddenly enlightened to Trump’s capacity for rage. “It was really the first time I think any of us had ever seen him really blow up,” the former official recalled. “He was frustrated with press coverage of crowd sizes — yes, he was angry about that — but he had never really raised his voice or shouted. But I remember him really laying into McGahn” — Don McGahn, then the White House counsel — “and

shouting. It was very much like: ‘How did you let this happen? How did this [expletive] happen?’”At the time, Sessions had a small collection of friends and former colleagues in the White House, including Stephen K. Bannon, the chief executive of Trump’s campaign and then his chief strategist in the administration, who has called Sessions his mentor and once pushed him to run for president. Bannon, as well as Reince Priebus, then the chief of staff, got in touch with Sessions and advised him to make himself scarce for a while, to lie low until Trump’s attentions inevitably shifted elsewhere.

But for once, they didn’t. For a time, Trump kept his frustrations off Twitter, his fixation on what he called “the ultimate betrayal” manifesting itself in venting sessions with aides instead. Officials recalled how, after Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, meetings about any number of unrelated issues were derailed the moment Trump glanced at the television and saw a chyron related to the Russia investigation.

Even some aides who agreed with Sessions’s decision found themselves sympathizing with the president’s view that the existential terror of the Mueller investigation would never have emerged were it not for Sessions. (“I would have put him at the border if I’d known,” Trump would often mutter, referring to the Department of Homeland Security. “I would have put him at the border.”) More awkward for these aides was the digression into mockery of Sessions that sometimes followed. Trump would deride his accent — the slow drawl, the fact that he often paused for several seconds, sometimes midconversation, to think through his next words. Sessions also has a tendency to raise slightly up and down on the balls of his feet while standing and talking, a small tic onto which Trump gleefully latched.

Sessions’s defenders in such moments were few. Bannon, who considered Sessions to be Trump’s most effective ally from a policy standpoint, says he would try to press his case, to no avail. Some senators, including Lindsey Graham, stressed to Trump that Sessions had had no choice. Altogether silent, however, was Stephen Miller, a former Sessions aide turned Trump adviser who by now had emerged as an influential force in the White House, advancing the immigration-restriction agenda he and Sessions shared. Officials I spoke with had the impression that Miller at first retained affection for his former boss, even if he disagreed with Sessions’s decision to recuse himself. Nevertheless, “he was never going to get caught defending the guy,” a second former White House official said. “He never wanted Trump to view him as a ‘Sessions guy,’ and so whenever it came up, he just wouldn’t talk. Sometimes it even seemed like he’d find a way to leave the room.”

This appeared to stem in part from Jared Kushner’s example. Trump’s son-in-law despised Sessions, who came to be the chief opponent of Kushner’s vision for criminal-justice reform, and at least once referred to him to colleagues as a racist. It was Miller’s correct understanding early on that an alliance with Kushner was the ticket to longevity in Trump’s White House. But as Bannon pointed out to me: “Stephen Miller and the rest of the immigration gang would have gotten zero done were it not for what Sessions did at D.O.J.”

Read more: The New York Times »

elainaplott NYTmag elainaplott NYTmag Because Jeff sessions is a wimp. He was afraid of the deep state; afraid of Hillary Clinton & the anti-Christian billionaire consortium that backed her up. People like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein. Trump’s a real man. Trump is fearless. realDonaldTrump DonaldJTrumpJr

elainaplott NYTmag He had a shred of old school political savvy-something that just wouldn’t fly in the Trump NewWorld Order. Comparativel, he will go down as one of the ones who had ‘integrity’ in this administration elainaplott NYTmag Cancer JoeThe46 elainaplott NYTmag elainaplott NYTmag Stupid Jeff , He got what he deserved for going with Trump. No pity for those that put personal advancement over country. Stupid Jeff lost out in all ways. Hope for the same end for all Trump supporters.

elainaplott NYTmag 🤣🤣🤣🤣 elainaplott NYTmag Sessions learned the hard way that being a mini-me is not all it's cracked up to be. elainaplott NYTmag The man did POTUS complete injustice by accepting AG nomination knowing full well he would abdicate his most important responsibility of maintaining control over DOJ to lesser mediocrities in matter of Trump Russia collusion. If Eric Holder did this to Obama you’d be apoplectic.

elainaplott NYTmag Every person who comes into Trump’s center of gravity eventually gets burned. The ones who are still in his orbit will find out what it feels like to be cast out of EVERYONE’S orbit in the next 4-6 months! elainaplott NYTmag That’s where Trump is heading! 🇺🇸 elainaplott NYTmag I really don’t understand the point of this.

elainaplott NYTmag elainaplott NYTmag Well he is all the same madman as fake 45,he just had something left of professional integrity and,at least openly,refused to commit obvious crimes and treason. And that doesn't fly with a criminal like fake 45! elainaplott NYTmag Well deserved ! elainaplott NYTmag The MAGA movement is bigger than Trump the man...sad you rejects still haven't figured that out. No jeffsessions hasn't been cast out. Some were disappointed in his performance. Jeff is still a patriot that loves this country. We're allowed to disagree on this side.

elainaplott NYTmag Oh please. Sessions is Trump just shorter , 200 lbs lighter, and speaks with a southern accent. elainaplott NYTmag So many forces arrayed against Trump and his treatment of subordinates does him no good. elainaplott NYTmag No pride, no self-respect.. elainaplott NYTmag Imagine being this man with so little self-respect, so few principles, and questionable ethics.

elainaplott NYTmag Thoughts & Prayers elainaplott NYTmag Predictable. Trump will, eventually, throw everyone under the bus when it profits him. elainaplott NYTmag No pride, no self respect... elainaplott NYTmag elainaplott NYTmag Just a reminder, jeffsessions is responsible for the children in cages policy, as well as rollback of civil rights protection and voting rights. Fuck Jeff Sessions.

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