Tensions are high right now between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump.
Trump is upset about how Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation and did not tell him he would before he took office. Trump has a legitimate grievance there—there is literally no way that Eric Holder or Loretta Lynch would have recused themselves in a similar spot during their tenures as now former President Barack Obama’s attorneys general. Nonetheless, Trump has yet to directly call on Sessions to resign, and has not fired him—despite constant griping from the opposition party media pushing for that next soundbite for him to do so and to keep the story alive.
That all being said, Sessions is a critical part of the Trump administration—and before there was a Trump administration, Sessions was a critical part of the “movement” that elected Trump to the presidency. Losing Sessions could endanger the administration and the split the critical coalition that helped Trump to the presidency. Doing that is something Trump supporters nationwide do not want to see—and in fact, with all the reports of Trump being upset after he fired Gen. Mike Flynn earlier this year, it might be wise for the president to slow down and think about this one before he fires away too harshly and quickly.
Getting someone through Senate confirmation who agrees with Trump on anything to be the next Attorney General will be next to impossible at this juncture, at least before the midterms. There are only 52 Republicans and there is basically no way that any Democrat is going to vote for a cloture for a new Justice chief at this stage of the game. But even if they would, why turn on Sessions? It doesn’t make much sense politically to turn on the guy who burned his own bridges to help win the presidency.
Trump’s questioning of Sessions hit a new level on Tuesday when, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the president said of the then-senator’s endorsement of him that it was not that big of a deal.
“When they say he endorsed me, I went to Alabama,” Trump told the Journal. “I had 40,000 people. He was a senator from Alabama. I won the state by a lot, massive numbers. A lot of the states I won by massive numbers. But he was a senator, he looks at 40,000 people and he probably says, ’What do I have to lose?’ And he endorsed me. So it’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement. But I’m very disappointed in Jeff Sessions.”
That’s not entirely true. It was actually a major decision for Sessions to step up and endorse Trump at a time when Trump’s own chief of staff Reince Priebus—then the chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC)—was trying to prevent him from winning the nomination. About two weeks before the Sessions endorsement, Trump told me at a press conference in Hanahan, South Carolina—when he was joined by now Gov. Henry McMaster, then the Lieutenant Governor—that Priebus’s RNC “was in default.”
“The RNC is in default,” Trump said when I asked him about Priebus and the infamous pledge as to whether other candidates would support the eventual nominee—who at that point appeared to be Trump. “Just so you understand, the RNC is in default. When somebody is in default, that means the other side can do what they have to do. The RNC is in default.”
The new book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency also includes critical details about how Sessions knew that endorsing Trump was a critical moment in his career. If he failed to succeed in getting Trump not only the nomination but into the Oval Office past Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the November 2016 general election, he would not have a future at all in GOP politics. Sessions bet it all on Trump, and they won.
Two weeks after Trump noted the RNC was “in default,” Sessions emerged to back up Trump publicly with an endorsement on Sunday, Feb. 28. That was before the critical SEC primaries, where Ted Cruz was attempting to sweep the South. The political class and professional GOP operatives from Washington, DC, were pushing people toward Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) as well as Ohio Gov. John Kasich—basically an “anybody but Trump” approach that would become the ever-lingering “Never Trump” operatives—ahead of those critical contests.
Only a handful of House GOP members and some Republicans from around the country had gotten on board with Trump’s campaign by this point. But in Madison, Alabama, Sessions stepped up to endorse Trump. He became the first U.S. Senator to back the now-President of the United States. It was, as we reported at the time, a “game change” moment in the campaign—as big a deal as any other moment over the two years of Trump’s meteoric rise to the Oval Office.
As we reported live from Madison at the rally where Sessions endorsed Trump, it was “the most significant endorsement any presidential candidate in the GOP can get.” I wrote from Madison after the rally:
Sessions, the intellectual leader of the future of the conservative movement, has provided the brainpower behind the populist nationalist revolt against political elites that’s been emerging since at least 2013. At a warm and windy rally here with thousands present in a packed football stadium just outside Huntsville, Sessions appeared on stage with Trump to back him for president. Sessions’ endorsement provides Trump with even more legitimacy as Trump’s two remaining serious opponents—Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX)—attempt to undermine him in a desperate bid by the donor class to regain control of the party from populists revolting in elections around the country. Sessions backing Trump is a significant blow to both Rubio and Cruz, as now the powerful Alabamian will be putting his entire operation all in behind Trump.
Trump may have eventually still won without Sessions’ backing. He was cruising to victory around the country, by that point winning New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. He had also come in second in Iowa, getting the second most votes in the Caucuses there ever to the strongest-ever performance in the Iowa Caucuses by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). But it would not have been easy.
Trump spent another two months fending off Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich. Trump never got the full support of the GOP and many of his previous opponents did not get behind his campaign. But Sessions stood by his side and helped unify and legitimize his insurgent campaign from the very beginning, ever the loyal soldier.
The hate Sessions endured from even one-time allies for breaking ranks with national Republicans to back Trump for president was immense, surpassed only by the hate Trump himself and his family have been subjected to. For instance, Sessions was called a “prostitute” by National Review—a conservative magazine—for endorsing Trump. That was hardly the worst, but it stung. Sessions stood by Trump through it all.
Sessions also helped Trump solidify the nationalist populist ideology that formed the basis for the building of the movement of hardworking Americans nationwide who turned out to vote for Trump. A deeply studied Senator on the issues of trade and immigration policy, as well as economic nationalism and American sovereignty, Sessions helped Trump message these ideas. Sessions’ right hand messaging guru, Stephen Miller, actually joined Trump’s campaign long before Sessions himself did—helping the president with his speeches and delivering policy backbones of his campaign all the way through November. Miller has now joined the White House in a senior position backing up Trump in a similar capacity to what he did during the campaign.
What is perhaps most sad about this whole episode is how much the opposition party—the fake news media—loves the Trump versus Sessions infighting. No fewer than a dozen national media outlets–all of whom hate Trump and Sessions–have begged me to come on their shows to try to drive divisions between the White House and the Justice Department. (I don’t go on fake news outlets). They are stoking the flames with the hopes of crushing the movement Trump and Sessions built together along with many other influential leaders, hunting for a scalp.
What Trump could do here is seek out a diplomatic solution with Sessions and try to salvage the relationship for the good of the country, the movement, and Trump’s core populist voters. Otherwise, it could mean a bloody mess of a nightmare in the conservative media and among Trump’s base. Sure, some would follow the president no matter what. Others, though, quite clearly would veer away from him after making such a move. He can’t afford to lose his own voters at this point, nor can he afford to lose anyone in the conservative media who’s on his side.
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