So Long, Jeff Sessions
Jeff Sessions represented white people in Alabama in the U.S. Senate for 20 years, from 1997 to 2017. But after a brief, controversial stint as U.S. attorney general, the 73-year-old found himself on the wrong side of President Trump, and on Tuesday he couldn’t even manage to win his party’s primary to reclaim his old job. In fact, he didn’t even come close, losing to former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville by more than 20 percentage points.
The runoff landslide was not surprising. Tuberville already defeated Sessions in the initial primary on March 3rd, largely if not entirely due to Trump’s vendetta against his former attorney general, which led him to endorse the football coach. “I will tell you, I got to know Jeff Sessions very well,” Trump said on a conference call Monday night with Tuberville and his supporters. “I made a mistake when I put him in as the attorney general. He had his chance, and he blew it.”
Sessions is one of a handful of former high-ranking Trump appointees the president has slandered since they left the administration. In the case of Sessions, the public attacks began while he was still in office. For the unforgivable sin of recusing himself from the Russia investigation — an antiquated act of duty after disclosing his contacts with a Russian official — Trump routinely harassed his attorney general on Twitter before finally firing him in November 2018. Trump has continued to reference Sessions in his rants about the Mueller investigation. He also called appointing him the “biggest mistake” of his presidency.
Though he recused himself from the Russian investigation, during his time as attorney general Sessions did wonders for Trump’s racist agenda. Sessions was a driving force behind the administration’s family separation directive at the border, instituting a “zero tolerance” policy for undocumented immigrants attempting to cross into the United States. This meant adults were prosecuted as criminals, which meant they were separated from any minors they brought with them. “If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them,” he said in 2018. “We’ve got to get this message out. You’re not given immunity.” Sessions later defended the policy by citing the Bible.
Sessions’ career began in earnest in 1981, when Reagan nominated him to be a U.S. attorney, and his passion for the War on Drugs (drug offenses made up a whopping 40 percent of his convictions) helped land him a nomination for a federal judgeship in 1986. But the nomination never made it to the Senate floor after multiple racist comments Sessions had made were brought up during testimony. Among them were attacks against the NAACP and a mention that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Coretta Scott King even wrote a letter opposing his nomination, noting his attempts to suppress the voting rights of elderly black people in Alabama.
After serving as Alabama’s attorney general from 1995 to 1997, Sessions entered the U.S. Senate, where he laid the groundwork for the agenda he would take up as Trump’s attorney general, which continues to inspire Trump’s platform and thinking. He opposed multiple immigration reform acts, argued that immigration should be skill-based, held that undocumented immigrants should not be offered a pathway to citizenship, and lobbied for more robust fencing along the southern border.
Sessions also pulled the party to the right on criminal-justice issues, staunchly opposing sentencing reform and blocking bipartisan efforts like the 2016 Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which was supported by conservatives like Chuck Grassley, John Cornyn, and then-House Speaker Paul Ryan. He supported civil asset forfeiture, which essentially allows law enforcement to seize property at will, and consistently advocated for harsher penalties for drug-related offenses, while vehemently opposing the legalization of marijuana. While still a senator in 2016, he argued in front of the Senate that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” before calling the drug “a very real danger.”
Given his record on racism, it shouldn’t be surprising that Sessions was one of the first prominent supporters of Trump’s presidential campaign, which was launched under the idea that America needs to do more to stop Mexican rapists from crossing the border. Sessions’ loyalty landed him the attorney general nomination, and once confirmed, his power to enact the racist agenda he championed in the Senate grew exponentially. He gave local U.S. attorneys more power to prosecute recreational marijuana users, which stood to affect people of color, who have been disproportionately targeted for marijuana prosecution, drawing harsh bipartisan condemnation. He defended Trump’s Muslim ban. He advocated for voter-suppression measures like purging rolls of inactive voters. He cleared the way for law enforcement to acquire military equipment. He supported private-prison expansion. He fought against DACA. The list goes on. Though he held his position for fewer than two years, Sessions may have been responsible for the implementation of more racist policy than anyone who has passed through the Trump administration.
But the Mueller investigation is what affected Trump directly, and as the race between Sessions and Tuberville took shape last fall, Trump became a full-throated supporter of the latter, who made his alliance with the president a centerpiece of his campaign. It was a death knell for Sessions in a state that has supported Trump more than anywhere else in America. Sessions’ nearly 35 years of public service was irrelevant; Trump wanted a former football coach with no political experience to win — or, more accurately, he wanted Sessions to lose — and that’s what was going to happen.
The president twisted the knife on Twitter for a final time as Tuesday’s primary drew near, writing that Sessions is “a disaster who has let us all down.”
Big Senate Race in Alabama on Tuesday. Vote for @TTuberville, he is a winner who will never let you down. Jeff Sessions is a disaster who has let us all down. We don’t want him back in Washington!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 11, 2020
Early on, Sessions tried to play up the fact that he was one of the president’s first supporters. “As everyone knows, President Trump and I have had our ups and downs,” Sessions wrote in a statement announcing his candidacy last November. “But here’s the important part: the President is doing great work for America. When President Trump took on Washington, only one Senator out of a hundred had the courage to stand with him: me. I was the first to support President Trump. I was his strongest advocate. I still am. We must make America great again.”
The statement was a pathetic, futile attempt to realign himself with a president he knew would not endorse him. Sessions may have been one of his first supporters, but Trump’s definition of loyalty includes a mandate to sacrifice one’s reputation, violate one’s oath of office, and break innumerable laws (and often all of the above) in order to protect him. Sessions learned this the hard way, and the slight of only going 99 percent of the way there has now cost him his career in politics.
What does that mean for the rest of us? Probably not too much. Whoever won the GOP primary was going to be the favorite — in heavily Republican Alabama — to defeat Democratic incumbent Democrat Doug Jones this November. (Jones, you may recall, got the seat by beating a GOP primary winner who was credibly accused of initiating a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old.)
“We must stand behind him in November,” Sessions said in conceding Tuesday night. “Doug Jones does not need to be our voice in Washington. He wishes to see the policies of Nancy Pelosi prevail over conservative Alabama principles.”
Tuberville, a MAGA guy himself, was unsparing of Sessions during the campaign: “He’s been out of the swamp for less than two years, and now he’s itching to go back,” he tweeted in November. “He’s another career politician that the voters of Alabama will reject. As AG, he failed the president at his point of greatest need.”
But the two appear to have mended fences now that the primary is over. “I just talked to Senator Sessions and he was awesome,” Tuberville said in his victory speech Tuesday. “He said, ‘Coach, I’m all in.'”
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