Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions is speaking out — at length — about how presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump first caught his notice in 2005, and why he endorsed him over Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for president.
“Well, I had met Trump once before when he testified before a committee that Sen. Tom Coburn and I hosted to deal with the excessive expenditures to refurbish the U.N. building in New York,” Sessions said, adding that the projected cost for the project was $1 billion. Trump had built Trump Tower in Manhattan for $200 million and didn’t know why it would cost five times as much for renovations.
“I could do it for $500 million, what they’re going to spend $1.6 billion for. The only difference is my job would be better,” Trump had said at the time in 2005.
“He was a magnificent witness,” Sessions said on Glenn Thrush’s “Off Message” podcast. “The reporter who asked me about his testimony said: ‘Sessions gushed about his testimony.’ But it was remarkable. It was clear. He knew exactly how you should refurbish a building. He pointed out event after event that were wasteful, and he promised if it were given to him he would save the U.N. $1 billion in doing it.”
Trump came by Sessions’ office to visit with the senator and his staff after delivering his testimony, Sessions said. “That was really the first time.”
Eleven years later, Trump launched his presidential bid and again Sessions took notice: Trump developed similar nationalist views on immigration and attracted crowds of shocking size only two months after announcing his run.
“I had not been in any way involved in planning the event in Mobile [Alabama],” Sessions said. “And I had something else to do, but it became clear that it was going to be such a big event, that I should be there.”
“He had already adopted my immigration views, in large part. And he was saying things that I thought were valuable about immigration… He had a strong view that we were going to end the lawlessness at the border, we would use a wall, and then he laid out other principles of immigration, many of which were consistent with what I have said.”
“He also had begun to question trade, which I had begun to question also. I’ve been previously… I’ve voted for almost all of these trade agreements, but had come to believe they were not working for the average American,” he said.
“My view was: This excessive flow of immigration was impacted adversely the wages of the American people, which is a plain fact. I also concluded that the trade agreements weren’t working as promised, and [were] depreciating the wages, the manufacturing base, and the jobs of Americans, and they both needed to change, and he was out there.”
Sessions said he was “intrigued” by Trump and remarked on how early in the race the campaign drew tens of thousands of people to attend his rally. “It got the whole country’s attention.”
“I liked that hat,” Sessions said — he had briefly worn a white “Make America Great Again” hat while on stage with Trump in August. “We do need to make America great again. And I put his hat on for a little bit, but I didn’t endorse him, but I thanked him for coming, thanked him for raising the issues that were important, thanked him for talking about immigration, and considering the views that we worked on for a number of years on what a good immigration policy would be.”
“But he captured the audience. It was an incredible crowd,” he added. “If you think about it, that was 25,000 or more people, more than a year ahead of the election. I’ve never seen that kind of crowd. In the last weeks of an election, but not that far out.”
“I’ve had very little negative pushback. I think people in the Senate know that I have believed for a number of years, and have been outspoken, that we need to listen to what the American people are telling us. And we need to focus more on the wellbeing of people who make lower wages, $50,000 and below.”
Asked what made him grant his endorsement to Trump in February rather than rival Cruz, with whom Sessions has worked with in Congress on immigration issues, Sessions said Trump discussed the dire economic straits poorer Americans faced “more clearly.”
“He believed that the whole history of trade agreements — most of which I’ve supported over the years — have not been effective. And I’ve come to believe he’s right!” Sessions added his turnaround on trade came about in recent years as he watched trade deals sold as a benefit to Americans gut the middle class.
“I supported the Korean trade agreement in 2011. They promised when it was signed, President Obama said it would increase our exports to Korea by $10 billion a year. Well, that creates jobs in America. That sounds good. Last year, 2015, there was no increase like billions of dollars,” he said firmly. “There was like a $100 million increase in our exports to Korea. Whereas their imports to us went up $12 billion, and our trade deficit increased 240 percent. Same thing happened with China. I voted for that — one of the worst votes I believe I’ve cast. I voted for that in 2000 in and the numbers are the same.”