The Trials of Jeff Sessions: Trump’s Radical Attorney General
On April 11th, about a month after recusing himself from the Russia investigation and earning the wrath of the president, Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to Arizona, whose border with Mexico he calls “ground zero” in the fight against illegal immigration and drug trafficking. It was a hot, sunny day in Nogales, where Sessions, in a large gray baseball cap, toured the frontier with border officials. During the past two decades, as the junior senator from Alabama, Sessions helped scuttle comprehensive immigration reform, twice. He was also known for his position on drugs, notably marijuana, which he regards as a gateway to harder substances and thinks should be criminalized even for medicinal use. Ending illegal immigration, and opening a new war on drugs, are now his signature issues at the Justice Department.
Donning his jacket and tie, Sessions spoke to reporters just a few feet from the 20-foot-high steel fence. Some protesters had gathered along the perimeter; one defiantly held up a giant American flag, another waved a sign that read “No Wall” and “Tiny Racist Hands Off.” Even though violent-crime rates in many border towns have been falling steadily for the past five years, Sessions cast Nogales as a battleground. “It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand,” he said, a little awkwardly. As penned by his speechwriters, the line read, “…where we first take our stand against this filth.” But Sessions, who’s not a particularly eloquent speaker, skipped the word “filth” – “that’s not a word a good Southern Christian gentleman would use,” one Alabama political acquaintance explains. Otherwise, though, Sessions stuck to the script, painting a dark, apocalyptic picture of “criminal aliens” and “document forgers” streaming up from Mexico, and murderous “transnational gangs” turning U.S. cities and suburbs into “war zones.”
It was familiar rhetoric for anyone who’d ever heard one of Sessions’ anti-immigrant speeches, though many of his Senate colleagues had long tuned him out. “It was like a running joke, what a wackadoodle he was,” one Senate staffer tells me. Now, as the staffer and others have marveled, the wackadoodle runs the Justice Department. “This is a new era,” Sessions said in Nogales. “This is the Trump era.” He seemed delighted.
Until very recently, it was broadly acknowledged that Sessions, an ally to Trump’s on-again, off-again consigliere and general agent of chaos, Steve Bannon, was the most ideologically simpatico and therefore most powerful member of Trump’s Cabinet. Sessions was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump, in February 2016, and helped legitimize the New York real-estate developer’s conservative bona fides to the Republican base. He became a crucial ambassador to two of Trump’s core constituencies: religious conservatives and the ethno-nationalists represented by right-wing radio and Breitbart News. His unwavering stance that immigration hurts American workers is one of the cornerstones of economic populism, which re-entered the Washington dialogue during the 2013-14 debate on immigration reform, but roiled GOP politics in earnest starting around the time Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015. Two of Sessions’ former aides, Stephen Miller and Rick Dearborn, now serve as Trump’s senior policy adviser and deputy chief of staff.
Despite the general dysfunction that’s mired Trump’s time in office – “What you hear from career folks in the Justice Department is that it’s just crisis after crisis because of what the White House is doing,” a D.C. lobbyist tells me – Sessions has nonetheless managed to carry out the Trump agenda with remarkable speed. Since being confirmed in February, he has revived the federal government’s contracting with private prisons, imposed aggressive “criminal immigration enforcement” guidelines, sent dozens of federal judges to the border to speed up deportation trials, and threatened to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities like New York and San Francisco if they refuse to fully cooperate with federal immigration officials.
As attorney general, Sessions has faced opposition from a long list of civil-rights groups and advocates concerned over his stances on drugs, voting rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, sentencing, terrorism and policing, in addition to immigration. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says the Trump agenda is, in many respects, “inconsistent with the law,” and he has launched legal challenges to the administration’s environmental and education policies, not to mention the so-called travel ban, which has also been fought in federal courts in Hawaii and Maryland. By most accounts, Sessions – that rare and potentially dangerous politician, the true believer – appears to welcome the ideological showdown. “Sessions has always been on the right side of the fight,” says Sam Nunberg, an early adviser to the Trump campaign.
The irony, of course, is that Sessions’ most formidable opponent to date has been the president himself. Trump blames his attorney general for the appointment of Robert Mueller, the special counsel digging into every facet of his campaign and much of its finances. In the past few weeks alone, the president lambasted Sessions on Twitter as “weak” and “beleaguered,” harassing him to open a new investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. Sessions, according to DOJ policy, had no choice but to recuse himself from the Russia probe – his reported off-book chats with then-Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak aside, the department’s standards of ethical conduct prohibit any official from investigating a campaign they once advised. Trump doesn’t see it that way. “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself?” he groused to The New York Times on July 19th. “If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.” In a subsequent interview, with The Wall Street Journal on July 25th, Trump described the recusal as “disloyal to the office of the presidency.”
The Justice Department didn’t respond to request for comment, though in a brief news conference the morning after Trump’s outburst to the Times, the attorney general said he loved his job and intended to continue in it “as long as that is appropriate.” Months before speaking out publicly about the recusal, Trump reportedly tried to reason with his attorney general, who was unyielding. By May, things had soured so much, Sessions reportedly offered to resign – something he has not denied – but Trump refused. Things continued to spiral downward. In June, Sessions insisted on publicly going before the Senate Intelligence Committee, offering somewhat ambiguous testimony that angered the president even more.
According to accounts in the Times, Washington Post and Politico, among others, Trump fumed to his aides on a regular basis about the attorney general’s recusal. “It was known by anyone who had a pulse how the president felt about Sessions,” says Nunberg. Several Trump advisers I’ve talked to say they believe Sessions was the wrong choice for attorney general. “Justice is the most powerful office in the government,” says a longtime political strategist. “You need a guy who’s a bulldog, and that’s not him.” Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie would be more combative, he notes. “They would never have let the situation deteriorate into having a special counsel.”
Now, as the scandal has seemingly closed in on Trump and his family, the president has publicly lashed out at his attorney general. When Don Jr. was brought into the investigation, that was the final straw, says one Sessions ally of the recent revelations that the president’s son met with a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Clinton. “Trump will have to fire him,” he says. “And he’s not going to do that because it will be terrible politically. Trump wants Jeff to use the power of the Justice Department to defend him. That’s obviously what he wants. But Jeff is not going to weaponize the Justice Department – for anybody.”
Trump’s repeated humiliation of Sessions angered Republicans, who at the time were caught in the health-care debate. Shortly after Trump referred to Sessions as “VERY weak,” a slew of GOP senators, some of them fiercely opposed to Sessions’ hardline policies, took to Twitter to defend his integrity and “unwavering commitment to the rule of law,” as North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis put it. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a frequent adversary of Sessions, declared that there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump fired his attorney general. Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, indicated the Senate would block any effort to replace Sessions during the August recess, or later.
The attack on Sessions was also a tactical misfire in the eyes of Trump’s base. “YOU said your administration would not pursue Hillary,” syndicated radio host Mark Levin wrote in a Facebook post on July 25th. “Though I personally disagree with Sessions recusing himself, you’ve no more loyal person. He was the first senator to endorse you. He campaigned for you. He left the Senate to serve you. Sessions is pursuing your agenda at DOJ.” Rush Limbaugh called Trump’s harassment of Sessions “unseemly.” Even Breitbart, Trump’s staunchest ally in the media, condemned it.
It is somewhat unclear, given Sessions’ public testimony, why Trump was so surprised at the recusal. When asked about Russian meddling in the 2016 election during his January confirmation hearing, Sessions said he’d seek legal counsel from the DOJ ethics office to avoid any conflicts. Sessions also pledged to recuse himself from any investigation pertaining to Clinton’s e-mails, on the basis that he’d criticized Clinton while campaigning for Trump. The attorney general, he said, should never act “in any way that would suggest anything less than political objectivity.”
“I’m not sure that given this situation, Trump really understood what he was getting with Jeff Sessions,” says one GOP source close to Sessions, who, he notes, is an Eagle Scout. Trump reportedly was blindsided by the news that Sessions was recusing himself. But some of Sessions’ friends and former colleagues find it incomprehensible that Sessions wouldn’t have tried to inform the president, especially given that DOJ protocol requires officials to inform the White House of any action like a recusal.
In March, Politico reported that an explosive meeting in the Oval Office took place following Sessions’ announcement, where Trump directed his ire at White House Counsel Don McGahn. It’s McGahn’s office that would have received the call from Justice. Several sources tell Rolling Stone they believe such a call was made, and ignored. “The one thing Jeff does is follow the law and abide by the rules,” says an ally of the attorney general. “Do you think Jeff Sessions recused himself without telling the president or trying to tell the president? Of course not. It makes no sense.” (The White House declined to comment.)
The relationship between the attorney general and the president goes back to 2005, when Sessions read a story in the conservative New York Sun that quoted Trump. The billionaire took issue with a $1.2 billion proposal to overhaul the New York headquarters of the United Nations, arguing he could do it for half the cost. A longtime budget hawk and crusader against government waste, Sessions invited Trump to testify before a Senate subcommittee on the U.N. renovation. Trump, in his second year of hosting The Apprentice, readily agreed.
Trump went to Washington that July and delivered a rambling, 20-minute tutorial on the construction business – most New York contractors, he said, were “major slime” – while getting in plugs for his own U.N. Plaza property, the supposedly 90-story Trump World (in fact, there are closer to 70 floors), which he’d built for around $350 million. He told the committee he’d recently met with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to propose that he manage the renovation project. Annan had listened politely, and then ignored him. “No response,” said Trump. “They didn’t really care.”
Sessions praised Trump’s expertise as “the premier real-estate developer in New York.” The two men later bonded on trade. Both opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the growing interference of multinationals, or what Sessions often called “soulless globalism.” In 2015, Sessions introduced Trump at his first major stadium rally, in Mobile, Alabama, and Trump went on to enjoy stratospherically high support in the state – in February, he had an 88 percent approval rating among Republicans, nearly 70 percent of whom “strongly” approved of his performance, according to Politico.
Now, in Alabama, Trump’s betrayal of Sessions feels personal. “It’s like he’s attacked a family member,” one Alabama Republican tells me. “You don’t know how many times people asked me during the campaign, ‘Can we really believe Trump?’ And I said yes.”
Alabama political writer John Archibald, who wrote a column in June urging Sessions, not wholly unironically, to leave Washington and run for Senate – “You can hold on to yourself, salvage your dignity and independence and cling to your own moral high ground. Before it crumbles around you” – recently reflected on how Sessions’ ability to weather torment has made him a hero in the eyes of Alabama Republicans. “What’s important to understand about Alabama politics is that right now, Jeff Sessions represents a fairly perfect picture of where we’re at, and also, unbelievably, where the country is at,” he tells me. “The vast majority of people in Alabama would agree with what Sessions says and what he does. Now, most politicians come to power using that [law-and-order] rhetoric as a model.” Archibald and other local journalists have come to refer to it as the “Alabamafication of America.”
This isn’t the first time Sessions has been publicly shamed. In 1986, when he was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, he was rejected for a federal judgeship by a GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee on the grounds that his views on race and civil rights, as alleged by testimony from, among others, a former African-American employee and Coretta Scott King, made him, in the words of Sen. Edward Kennedy, a “throwback to a shameful era.” Sessions denied the accusations, but the shadow of racism has followed him ever since, notably during his confirmation hearings, when some of the now-30-year-old charges were brought up again. As I was writing this story, a leading Alabama Democrat e-mailed to beseech me not to be too “soft” on the attorney general: “Be reminded that it was Sessions who said, ‘I used to think the KKK was a pretty good group of guys until I learned they smoked pot.’ ” Sessions has said the comment, from the early 1980s, was meant as a joke. “Don’t get woozy,” the Alabama Democrat said. “He’s not a victim.”
There are two opposing views of Sessions, each in its own way valid. One paints him as an ideological Forrest Gump, who somehow found his way to the most prominent law-enforcement job in the country. The other portrays a savvy political operator who carefully strategized his rise while appearing to have no real interest in electoral politics. “I never saw him as political,” says Willie Huntley, a Mobile attorney who was a federal prosecutor under Sessions. “But Jeff was a strong Republican who believed in some very strong ideas.”
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III – named for Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederacy’s president and commanding general, respectively – was born in Selma, Alabama, in 1946. He was raised in tiny Hybart, a hardscrabble town in Alabama’s Black Belt, named for the rich soil that fostered the cotton plantations of the Deep South. Today’s inhabitants are largely “poor whites descended from plantation families and poor blacks descended from slaves,” says Archibald. “In some ways, you can still see the Jim Crow South, where a white family, no matter how poor, can still hold onto that plantation mentality.”
Sessions’ father was an avowed segregationist and a staunch Republican in a state that had been Democratic since Reconstruction. During the early years of the civil-rights movement, populist Republicans found common ground with Southern Democrats who feared the inclusive platform of their national party. Sessions, who rode a segregated school bus to his all-white high school, was by all accounts almost oblivious to the racial politics of the period, though he was far more attuned to Alabama’s economic struggles, the result of a wave of modernization that led to the closing of local mills and factories, and coincided with an influx of cheap foreign goods and immigrant labor.
In a January 2017 profile, The New York Times noted that during high school Sessions became enamored with Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo, which highlighted the schism between the Republican Party establishment of Nelson Rockefeller and its right wing. The book, noted the Times, rallied conservatives to “topple the party’s kingmakers and compromisers,” laying the groundwork for Barry Goldwater, and foreshadowing what would come decades later with the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. The book also floated conspiracy theories about the shadowy “Bilderbergers,” a network of global financiers and political elites who Schlafly accused of secretly controlling the world.
After high school, Sessions enrolled at Huntingdon College, in Montgomery, and later at the University of Alabama law school. In 1975, he took a job in Mobile as a federal prosecutor for Alabama’s Southern District. Clubby Mobile, with its antebellum mansions and Mardi Gras societies, was the antithesis of his hometown in Monroe County. Its financial elite were country-club Republicans who scorned Alabama’s segregationist Democratic governor, George Wallace, and looked down on the rural whites who had flocked to Mobile in search of jobs after World War II. Sessions joined a small but scrappy group of GOP activists eager to shake up the political makeup of the city and the state. “There were maybe 30 or 40 of us, and we struggled to find anyone willing to join,” says Armand DeKeyser, a fellow Mobile Republican. “We had meetings in an old after-hours bank lobby.”
Political corruption is as embedded in Alabama’s DNA as its subtle sense of persecution, a leftover from Reconstruction, as some see it, that was expertly exploited by politicians from Wallace to Richard Nixon. Sessions, appointed U.S. attorney in Alabama’s Southern District in 1981, made it his mission to go after corruption, which meant going after Democrats with a ruthless determination. “Alabama politics was just awash in cronyism, and Sessions was the opposite of a crony,” says Mobile investigative journalist Eddie Curran. “He was fresh-faced, straight-laced, well-groomed and convincingly passionate about his conservative ideology.” With a starry-eyed reverence, admirers referred to their federal prosecutor by his first name. “Not just Jeff, but ‘Jeff!’ ” says Curran. “He was pretty much the least likely politician to be paid off with money or favors, which obviously made him like Superman.”
According to a number of Alabamans, of both parties, Sessions’ rejection for the federal bench, in 1986, was the defining moment of his political trajectory. “The worst thing people who don’t like Jeff Sessions ever did was deny him that federal judgeship, because he would have been a judge long ago and Democrats outside of southern Alabama would probably never have known his name,” says Jerry Lathan, a longtime Sessions supporter in Mobile. “It made him a cause among Republicans. We resented deeply that Jeff was treated so badly and victimized.”
Bill Britt, who edits the prominent political news site the Alabama Political Reporter, notes that branding Sessions a racist only galvanized his supporters in the state. “The worst thing you can say about a Southerner is he’s a racist,” says Britt. “Whatever Jeff Sessions actually is – and I know some diverse folks who worked with him who vehemently deny that he’s racist – people saw what happened with that court appointment as something that made this guy who they didn’t see as a racist have a national reputation as a racist.” And that, if anything, set him on the path to national politics, says Britt. “You have to understand Alabama.”
In 1994, Sessions launched a run for Alabama attorney general. After details began to leak out suggesting the sitting governor, Jim Folsom Jr., had broken ethics laws – information uncovered by Sessions’ own opposition-research team – Sessions accused his opponent, the incumbent, of being too soft on the governor. Once he became attorney general, Sessions announced his plans to investigate Folsom, who was then out of office, which some believe helped Sessions with his next campaign, for Senate, in 1996. “Creating that stink around Folsom helped him in his run,” says Chip Hill, an Alabama Democratic strategist, who believes this amounted to an abuse of power – albeit one that wasn’t illegal. When Sessions’ successor in the attorney general’s office, William Pryor, took over, he revealed that the state had quietly dropped the investigation of Folsom the year before.
Not a natural campaigner, Sessions was in some ways an even worse politician. In Washington, he was once again an outsider, but this time to an even more insular society with indecipherable rules. Elfin and with a reedy voice, he was dwarfed by lions of the Senate like Edward Kennedy and Strom Thurmond. He was awkward at cocktail parties, seemingly incapable of mingling. “You know how some of these guys just innately know how to shake your hand, talk to you for a few minutes, make you feel like you’re the only person in the room and then move on?” says DeKeyser, who joined Sessions’ Senate office as chief of staff. “Jeff would go to a reception and talk to one person for as long as that one person wanted to talk to him. … He always struggled.”
But among Republicans, he also had “a certain cachet,” says Paul Rosenzweig, a longtime national-security expert. “Sessions came in as a sort of hero, the guy who won the Senate seat even though he was denied the federal bench seat.” He was the polar opposite of Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, a transactional politician who “never met a building he didn’t slap his name on,” as one Alabama politico puts it. By contrast, Sessions was a “fearless defender of conservative values” whose job, if all else failed, was to obstruct, Rosenzweig says. “Jeff Sessions was Ted Cruz before Cruz was Cruz.”
Immigration had been on sessions’ radar since at least 1984, when he visited the border during an annual U.S. attorneys conference held in San Diego. Peter Nunez, who was then U.S. attorney for San Diego, where roughly 500,000 people were detained for crossing illegally each year, says, “You could stand on the U.S. side, look over to Mexico and see thousands of people waiting for the sun to go down so they could rush the border with impunity. It was a spectacle.” Sessions, Nunez recalls, was stunned: “I’m sure there were a number of other U.S. attorneys who were horrified by what they saw as well, but none of them became a senator.”
Nunez now heads the Center for Immigration Studies, which, along with the Federation for American Immigration Reform and NumbersUSA, provides the data and intellectual heft behind the anti-immigration movement. All three groups were conceived by John Tanton, a population-control advocate who has spoken favorably of maintaining a “European-American” majority. “If you’re a Republican who came to D.C. skeptical of immigration, you can’t go to the center-right groups,” explains a former adviser to a senior Republican senator. “None of them engage on immigration, or if they do, they parrot ‘secure the border’ talking points. So they go to these crazy groups.”
As immigration was becoming increasingly politicized in the 1990s, Numbers-USA president Roy Beck arranged a meeting with Sessions, who he thought might be a receptive ally in the fight for tough border-enforcement policy. Between 1990 and 2000, Alabama’s Hispanic population tripled from 25,000 to 76,000, many of them doing the low-paying, often grueling work in the agricultural fields or chicken-processing plants that once sustained the state’s working class. Beck had barely launched into his pitch before Sessions “began finishing my thoughts,” he says, and detailing how Alabama’s poultry industry was now dependent on immigrant labor. Beck was impressed. “This was someone who hadn’t just read about people who worked at jobs on the edge of economic survival, he’d been around them his whole life. He knew about the poor working class.”
Back in the Senate, Sessions was increasingly frustrated with the backroom deals and compromise solutions that were the bread and butter of policymaking. During his freshman term, he had frequent run-ins with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who, as DeKeyser recalls, often urged Sessions to be more flexible. “Trent would say, ‘I’m trying to move legislation along. You can’t be pure on everything.’ But Jeff wanted the leadership to take more principled stands. Coming to Washington can harden your opinions, and Jeff thought compromising was not achieving the goals.”
In 2006, three years into Sessions’ second term as senator, the Bush administration decided to overhaul the country’s immigration policies, a longtime campaign promise that Bush wanted as a cornerstone of his legacy. In May that year, Bush called for a bill that, while tightening border security, would also be more “welcoming” to the nation’s 11.6 million undocumented immigrants. Sessions, with little experience sponsoring significant legislation, opted to lead the bill’s opposition. “I felt like somebody should take it on,” he told an Alabama journalist.
Over the next year, Sessions became a fixture on the floor of the Senate, seizing every opportunity to rail against immigration reform and the “masters of the universe,” as he called Chamber of Commerce types. His rhetoric at times betrayed an obvious ignorance of the people he was trying to block. “Fundamentally,” he said in May 2006, “almost no one coming from the Dominican Republic to the United States is coming because they have a skill that would benefit us and that would indicate their likely success in our society.”
The Bush camp tried to marshal its resources. “I sat in meetings where the president would send three Cabinet secretaries up to the Hill to personally negotiate this deal,” says Rosenzweig, who was then at the Department of Homeland Security. A “Grand Bargain,” as it was hailed, was reached between the Democratic and GOP leadership, with support from business and lobbying groups. “This was high-stakes negotiations, and they thought they had a deal – they did have a deal,” says Rosenzweig. “But Sessions mustered enough opposition to beat it.”
On June 28th, 2007, a coalition of Republican senators backed by more than a dozen Democrats and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, defeated the bill, 53-46. “That’s when Sessions became Sessions,” says Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, a leading immigration-rights advocacy organization. “He became ensconced as this leader who’d stood up to the elites and the RINOs and gave Bush a bloody nose. And he got lots of love and credit for that.”
It was a resounding defeat for Bush and his backers, including then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose hopes for a “bipartisan accomplishment,” as he said, ended in “bipartisan defeat.” “It was a passable bill but for Sessions,” says Rosenzweig, who believes the compromise bill would have helped to stave off the rise of the anti-immigration rhetoric that defined the 2016 election season. “There is a direct line from that incident to Donald Trump. A resolution in ’06 would have gone a long way to strengthen border security. It would have put limits on legal migration and provided a path to citizenship – it would have placated people who later gave in to the Trump phenomenon.”
As Sessions fostered his image as the Senate’s anti-immigration warrior, he began to show up at conferences sponsored by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a far-right charity that calls itself a “school for political warfare.” Horowitz, 78, is a former Sixties radical who has been described as an “intellectual godfather” to the nativist right. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls him the “godfather of the modern anti-Muslim movement.” His animus for Democrats, whom he calls “Godzilla,” is substantial, and he blames Republicans – whom he refers to as “Bambi” – for “ducking” when accused of things like racism or homophobia. Sessions, it turned out, was one of the few Republican politicians he could connect with. “My problem with Republicans is they don’t fight,” Horowitz says. “Paul Ryan is a very intelligent wonk, but he doesn’t have a clue. I liked Jim DeMint, but he thinks Republicans have to tell stories. That’s not the problem.”
In 2009, Horowitz introduced Sessions to his protégé and fellow Southern Californian, Stephen Miller, then a twentysomething aide to Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Horowitz has known Miller since Miller was a student at Santa Monica High School, where he became a minor celebrity for taking on his school’s liberal orthodoxy – which included pressuring administrators to reinstate the Pledge of Allegiance after September 11th. Sessions hired him to work in his press office, and four years later, Miller became the senator’s director of communications. “People on the Hill thought they were crazy,” one GOP consultant tells me. “You’d hear people talk about Sessions’ office: ‘You know that lunatic Stephen Miller? I mean, the guy’s insane.’ ”
When Congress decided to take up comprehensive immigration reform again, in 2013, Sessions tried to reprise his role as the leader of the opposition, comparing the bill, forged by the bipartisan Gang of Eight, to a rotting mackerel. But this time, Sessions didn’t have the support. American companies had come to rely more on foreign workers. And after Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2012, many conservatives were wary of appearing too hostile to immigration reform. “Only Jeff Sessions was saying immigration was bad for America,” says Sharry.
Sessions offered 51 amendments to the immigration bill, only two of which passed. During one deliberation, Sharry recalls, Sessions introduced an amendment that would heavily limit legal immigration and impose harsher crackdowns on the undocumented – a similar draconian approach had been tried in Alabama in 2011. The move garnered only one vote. Not even fellow conservatives like Ted Cruz or Mike Lee supported him. “The look on his face,” Sharry says. “He was stunned. … I guess he didn’t realize how isolated he was.”
A number of mainstream politicians, including, according to DeKeyser, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Al Franken, forged collegial relationships with Sessions in the Senate. “People really like him,” one former Hill staffer tells me. “But on immigration and criminal justice, those are issues where he’s just kind of out there.”
Where Sessions wasn’t marginalized, though, was in the far corners of right-wing media, notably Breitbart, whose support Miller had carefully nurtured. In January 2013, as the Gang of Eight negotiations were heating up, Bannon held a dinner for Sessions at his Capitol Hill townhouse, known as the “Breitbart Embassy.” As Joshua Green writes in his book Devil’s Bargain, Bannon asked Sessions to run for president. He wouldn’t get the nomination, Bannon said. “However, we can bill you as the agrarian populist and take trade and immigration and pull them toward the top of the party’s issue list.” Sessions declined the offer, but Bannon continued to promote him on Breitbart as “the intellectual thought leader of the nation-state conservative movement.”
Immigration reform eventually died in the House, but Sessions continued pressing his case, printing a handbook, written by Miller, outlining everything that was wrong with the bill. In 2014, the Horowitz Freedom Center awarded Sessions the Annie Taylor Award for courage – named for the first person to successfully go over Niagara Falls – which, last year, was given to former Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos. A June 2016 profile of Miller in Politico described the effort to defeat comprehensive immigration reform as Sessions’ “single-most influential act.” But a number of other observers say Sessions had little to do with it. “The House didn’t take up the bill because they didn’t want to give Obama a win before 2014,” says Sharry. “This wasn’t a right-wing rebellion, like in 2007. John Boehner didn’t want to lose his speakership.”
In February 2015, Breitbart hosted an event at the CPAC conference in Maryland. It was a small gathering, away from the main stage where men like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were taking conciliatory stances on immigration in anticipation of their presidential bids. Sessions, who spoke on immigration, noted that there were two conferences going on: the public event, where would-be candidates lay out their views, and the unseen realm, where they solicited support from donors. “I’ll tell you one thing: It’s the people of this country that run this country,” he said. “Votes trump money. People trump money. … And you’ve got relatives and friends, and we’ve got working people all over the country that are very ready to abandon this leftist, state-ist, amnesty, open-borders policy that threatens their jobs, wages and future of themselves and their children.”
A Breitbart reporter in the room named Lee Stranahan was impressed: “Sessions actually said, ‘Look, I’m a populist’ – it was the first time I heard that word used in a Republican context. It was pretty much the ideological blueprint for the populism Trump ran on.” Between 2013 and 2016, Sessions did 18 radio interviews with Breitbart, 14 of them with Bannon, who later told The New York Times Magazine he regarded Sessions as a “mentor” in grassroots populism.
After the GOP captured the Senate in 2014, as the Times noted this past year, Sessions, a ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, was passed over for the chairmanship as “payback” for his relentless opposition to immigration reform. It left him the chamber’s most senior member without a committee leadership role. “Honestly, I didn’t see Sessions as very ambitious – if he was, he wasn’t doing a good job of it,” says Nunberg, who assumed Sessions would live out his days in the Senate, “destroying immigration reform whenever it came up.” But Nunberg had also heard Sessions on Mark Levin’s radio program, as well as on Breitbart, and thought he might be a good surrogate for Trump. “Look, the Republicans kind of treated him the way the Democrats treated Bernie Sanders – like this weirdo extreme outsider. My instinct even then was we’re going to get this guy to endorse, and we’re going to give him a seat at the table.”
When Sessions was running for re-election in 2014, unopposed, Trump sent him a $2,600 campaign donation. “It was 100 percent in preparation for a run,” says Nunberg, who shortly afterward helped launch Trump’s exploratory committee. The next summer, Trump met with Sessions to talk about trade and immigration. “[Trump] called him a ‘tough guy,’ which is, you know, high praise,” Nunberg says.
In May, Nunberg called Miller, who’d admired Trump’s hardnosed stance on immigration since he’d first articulated it, around 2014. “Stephen and I had a mutual hatred of Rubio,” Nunberg says. “Frankly, my view was that Trump may not get the nomination, but neither will Marco or Jeb. And Miller liked that.” As Green writes, so did Bannon, who, though backing Cruz at the time, brokered a deal in January 2016 with Trump’s then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to hire Miller as an aide. Bannon then turned to Sessions. Trump could be the vessel for their ideas; he might also, Sessions knew, cost him his political career. “Can he win?” Sessions asked Bannon. “One hundred percent,” Bannon replied. “If he can stick to your message and personify this stuff.”
On February 28th, 2016, Sessions, donning a red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN cap, joined Trump at a rally in Madison, Alabama, and endorsed him. “He probably thought about his career in the Senate and his ability to implement his agenda, and looked at Trump like a lottery ticket,” says conservative economist Bruce Bartlett. “Might be 100-to-1, but if he won, he’d have this power to do the things he’s wanted to do.”
For the conservative base who cared about immigration and felt betrayed by politicians like Ryan and Rubio, Sessions’ endorsement spoke volumes. “If Sessions got behind Trump, that meant it was real,” says Stranahan, who left Breitbart and now co-hosts a radio show on the Kremlin-backed network Sputnik. “It meant Trump actually- meant it on immigration; he wasn’t just mouthing platitudes like other politicians.”
Sessions and Miller are attributed with crafting Trump’s position on immigration, which, according to Sharry, for much of the primary season was the only fleshed-out policy on the campaign’s website. (“It was pretty obvious to us that Sessions took a look at Trump, who isn’t long on policy, and thought, ‘Wow, here’s something I could work with,’ ” Sharry says. “I don’t think Trump even knew what was in that policy.”) In fact, Nunberg tells me, “You know, it was me and [Trump adviser] Roger Stone who suggested that ‘Build the Wall’ thing. We thought it was fucking genius. It’s marketing, it’s branding. Mexico would pay for it, it’s licensing. It’s what he does. It’s Trump!”
Friends from Alabama, though, were surprised by Sessions’ choice. “They’re very different people,” one longtime friend of Sessions’ told me over lunch in Mobile. He had his own doubts about Trump. “I remember it was somewhere during the campaign when some of those things that were, let’s say, ‘unsettling’ about the Republican nominee came out. Well, it was just shocking. So I called Jeff and I said, ‘I need you to help me with this…’ ”
Sessions, as he recalled, told him that “Donald is a warrior” and “he’s not going to change.” He added that Trump was “right on a lot of what we need to do.”
Now, Sessions has been caught up in Trump’s long battle to free himself of the Russia investigation. In June, Sessions’ appearance in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a hearing he requested to be made public, was in many ways a Rorschach test for how Americans viewed the embattled attorney general, and to a degree, the Russia scandal overall. He was, to some, defensive and evasive, refusing to answer questions about his or the president’s conduct, claiming “executive privilege,” and seeming to cave during grilling by California Sen. Kamala Harris, who bore into Sessions in a way that made him “nervous,” as he said. Sessions was also classically defiant, an honorable man, as he cast himself, who wanted to set the record straight about suggestions he may have colluded with the Russians, which he called an “appalling and detestable lie.”
The hearing was carried live across the Internet and on every cable-news channel, garnering nearly as much interest as ex-FBI chief James Comey’s testimony the week before. Once it was over, Sessions went back to work, as he continues to do, even as Trump publicly berates him. During a two-day trip in late July to El Salvador, where he reinforced the administration’s war on the MS-13 gang, Sessions told Tucker Carlson that Trump’s remarks were “kind of hurtful,” but ultimately the president remained “steadfastly determined to get his job done, and he wants all of us to do our jobs. And that’s what I intend to do.”
“Anybody who thinks that Jeff Sessions should abandon the ultimate power position in our justice system to do the things he’s dedicated his life to because the president spouted off inappropriately – that’s just foolish,” says Lathan, the Mobile Republican. “But if they want to underestimate him, fantastic. That’ll make it easier to accomplish what he wants to do.”
Sessions has given his opponents plenty to work with in the past few months. In April, the attorney general ordered a broad review of the federal “consent decrees” and similar agreements made during the previous administration with nearly two dozen law-enforcement agencies to reform troubled police forces. He also reversed former Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to end mandatory-minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses by directing prosecutors to always pursue “the most serious, readily provable offense.” In July, Justice tacitly approved a Texas voter-identification law that is considered one of the country’s most restrictive. A couple of weeks later, Sessions announced a plan to reinstate the use of civil asset forfeiture, a controversial federal program that makes it easier for police to seize cash and property, permanently, from suspects who haven’t been charged with a crime. This policy, long condemned by members of both parties, seemed a bridge too far even for the National Review, a staunch supporter of Sessions, whose July 20th editorial nonetheless lamented the attorney general’s “determination to prove an atavistic drug warrior.”
On August 1st, The New York Times disclosed a plan by the Justice Department to investigate and potentially sue colleges and universities whose affirmative-action policies it viewed as discriminatory toward white applicants. The following day, Trump endorsed a new Senate immigration proposal to greatly reduce the number of immigrants admitted to the United States by switching to what it called a “merit-based” system that would give preference to English speakers. Sessions has also announced the department is now tripling its investigations of leaks to the media, which meets one demand Trump has made of him.
“I don’t think Sessions cares very much whether Trump is happy with him or not as long as he remains free to implement his plans,” says Bartlett. “What you’re seeing here is a president who doesn’t know and doesn’t care, and an attorney general who has a very clear and thought-through agenda that he’s been working on for 30 years.”