Perhaps the most confounding example of divided loyalties in American politics right now is happening in the power corridors of Republican Alabama. From Montgomery to Mobile, the state’s GOP elite has stuck by President Donald Trump with a tenacity almost unmatched in the country. At the same time, those same die-hards have preserved their devotion for a native son the president publicly loathes, a man Trump humiliates with almost weekly jabs about his manhood, his accent, his stature and above all his loyalty. For months now, Trump has pounded on Jeff Sessions like a bass drum at the Auburn-Alabama game. Why, just on Wednesday, the president didn’t just criticize the man whose early endorsement had given his 2016 campaign much needed gravitas, he negated him. “I don’t have an attorney general.”
In a state where tribalism is baked into daily life—Auburn or Alabama, but never both—something almost impossible seems to be happening: Republicans are not taking sides in the bitter internecine feud between the president and his top lawman, whom he has openly fantasized about firing. Feud might be too strong a word because it suggests Sessions is punching back, which he has scrupulously avoided with the stoicism of an early Christian. But after initially backing the beloved 20-year senator, whom some call “Dudley Do-Right” and uncompromisingly moral, state Republican officials have stopped defending him. Why, is the question.
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The answer I got from numerous interviews over the past two weeks as Trump has renewed his shaming campaign is that it’s as much about fear of a Trump backlash as it is love. Conservative Alabama’s politicians love Sessions, who helped lead the state’s rightward shift, but they’re wary of the prickly, shoot-first president more. Who wants to be on the wrong side of Trump’s twitter salvos? And who wants to risk alienating a voting bloc that has remained as loyal to him as any in the nation?
Being on Trump’s wrong side is politically dangerous, and the evidence in Alabama is a fresh memory. Alabama 2nd District congresswoman Martha Roby paid a price for withdrawing her endorsement during the 2016 election over Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape. Running this year for a fifth term, she was forced into a Republican primary runoff, which she won after receiving Trump’s blessing. During the Republican primaries for lieutenant governor and state attorney general, candidates debated who was a bigger Trump booster.
It’s a different story, however, among rank-and-file voters. Some are indeed upset with Sessions over his recusal and their belief that his Justice Department has not aggressively pursued investigations of Trump’s election rival Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration. But observers on both sides of Alabama’s political spectrum predict Sessions will weather this storm among his home-state voters.
“I can pretty well guarantee that Jeff Sessions’ status has not declined one bit as a result of Trump’s attacks,” said Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus at Auburn University, who has written several books on Southern history, politics and religion.
Rather, Sessions is widely considered a shoo-in if he runs when his old Senate seat is on the ballot in 2020. It’s now held by Doug Jones, who became the only Democrat elected statewide in nearly a decade when he won Alabama’s 2017 special election to complete Sessions’ term.
Even if Trump is impeached by 2020, state Republicans are expected to back Sessions in the primary, and therefore the general election, observers say. “Trump has this unwavering support, but I don’t feel they’re going to fall out with Sessions,” said Steve Flowers, a former state representative and current commentator and columnist on Alabama politics. “Sessions would win the race going away, if he wanted to run for it.”
Trump supporters in Alabama don’t always follow the president’s lead when it comes to state politics. In the 2017 Senate special election, not only did Trump endorse Luther Strange, who lost the Republican primary, he also backed GOP nominee Roy Moore in the general election. The timing of Trump’s endorsement — the Friday before the vote — could have been crucial in a tight race with red-state Republicans struggling over accusations that Moore pursued or sexually attacked teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Out of 1.3 million ballots cast, Moore lost to Jones by some 21,000 votes.
“A lot of people who voted for Trump thought, ‘We like the president in general, but we don’t give a damn who he endorses or what he says,’” Flynt said. “There’s a kind of cantankerousness and obstinacy about Alabama voters that makes them remarkably independent.”
Alabama Republicans will stand by Sessions, in part, because they view him as an authentic conservative ideologue, and not a say-anything-to-get-elected, do-anything-once-there politician. Voters here suffer corruption fatigue, after seeing dozens of state and local officials from both parties convicted or removed, Flynt said.
“This is the only state I know of in American history where the chief administrative, legislative and judicial officials were all turned out of office on ethics violations within one year,” the historian said, referring to the ousters of Gov. Robert Bentley, House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Moore (chief justice) in 2016 and 2017. The mindset in Alabama is if you think Washington is a swamp, check out the state capital in Montgomery. “Their general perception of politicians is ‘scumbags,’” Flynt said. “Even the politicians they vote for.”
Voter perception of Sessions is different. He was a Republican leader decades before the state transitioned red, and his old-school conservative principles have only solidified, first as the U.S. attorney in south Alabama and then the state’s top prosecutor and U.S. senator, and now DOJ head.
Even critics note Sessions’ special voter appeal. “If you had to pick a person that Alabamians would say is the most authentic voice for what he believes, it probably would be Jeff Sessions,” said Flynt, who took the attorney general to task in June for misusing scripture to justify his zero-tolerance immigration policy that separated families at the Mexican border. “Completely wrong in my view, but authentic nonetheless.”
Unlike several former members of Trump’s Cabinet, there is no talk about excessive first-class plane travel by Sessions, much less whispers about using sirens to expedite street travel to Washington restaurants or proof of extravagances like having a secure cone-of-silence room installed in his office.
“I’ve never seen anyone as straight an arrow as Jeff Sessions,” says Flowers, who was in the state House of Representatives when Sessions was elected Alabama attorney general and then U.S. senator in the mid-1990s. “He is a true-blue conservative, Eagle Scout, squeaky clean. Dudley Do-Right, just shorter and straighter.”
Sessions was unopposed in the 2014 primary and general election, his last run for Senate, and he garnered roughly 60 percent of the vote in the two prior general elections against competitive opponents. “He’s very popular in this state,” said Terry Lathan, the Alabama Republican Party chairwoman. “He’s been a champion and warrior for the party.”
At the ballot box, Alabamians tend to stick by their own kind. “What it means is, if you’re from someone’s geographical locale—or to use the Southern phrase, ‘their neck of the woods’—they will vote for you because of that,” Flowers said. “If Joe Jones is running for governor from Lee County, folks in Lee and the surrounding counties are going to vote for him come hell or high water. They may realize he’s the biggest drunk in the county, but ‘by God, he’s our drunk.’”
By that yardstick, Alabama’s Dudley Do-Right presents no qualms for state Republicans.
Ultimately, getting fired by Trump may even help Sessions politically. Old-line Alabamians love their martyrs. “Historical memory in Alabama is very much associated with people who go into combat outnumbered 2-to-1 thinking they’re probably going to die, and they’re probably going to lose,” Flynt says. “But based on moral principle, you fight anyway. I think Sessions to them is the quintessential moral person.”
Few in Alabama expect Sessions to abandon his noble cause by resigning.
Many would consider it a step down to leave a safe Senate seat for what is by its very definition a temporary appointment. But for Sessions, becoming attorney general was a tangible opportunity to imprint his old-school values and moral principles on an institution he considered too liberal and lenient.
As the byproduct of a state that traditionally enforces homogeneity and resists change, it was Sessions’ way to make his corner of America what he considers great again. “Sessions, in his heart of hearts, wants to take America on a rightward path,” Flowers said.
Sessions’ philosophy also is deeply rooted in his tenure in the tough-on-crime 1980s and early 1990s when he was the U.S. attorney in Alabama’s Southern District, based in the port city of Mobile, during the height of a national cocaine epidemic. His experiences with drug-trade violence and the ongoing role of international drug cartels helped cement his viewpoints on criminal justice and immigration.
“He sees the drug problem as being one of the downfalls of America,” Flowers said. “He has a real penchant for doing away with drugs. That is why he wants to be attorney general.”
People might never realize this from reading presidential tweets, but Sessions is one of Trump’s most effective Cabinet members. He has substantially and comprehensively toughened the DOJ’s approach to immigration, equal protection, and policies on criminal charging and sentencing.
Amid Trump’s tweetstorms, Sessions has mostly kept his head down, getting as much done as he can to implement his agenda in the limited time available. “I suspect that is part of the reason he is willing to sustain this incredible criticism from the president, stuff that would cause most people to leave,” said Joyce Vance, who was U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Alabama during the Obama administration.
Sessions’ 12 years as U.S. attorney also helps explain what the president and his supporters consider his cardinal sin. Donald Trump wanted a loyal button man to kill the probe into his administration, help his friends and punish his enemies. Instead, Dudley Do-Right put Department of Justice policy above kissing his new boss’ ring.
When DOJ employees suspect they have a conflict of interest, they must contact department ethics officials for advice and are expected to follow it. “It’s longstanding DOJ policy,” Vance said. “It applies to attorneys general just like it applies to anybody else.”
Ethically speaking, Sessions had no choice but to cross the boss. That thinking is central to Sessions’ rare public response to Trump in a statement, “While I am Attorney General, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”
Even if Trump is impeached, Alabama Republicans likely would overlook Sessions’ sins because otherwise he has done pretty much what they want. Lathan, who as state GOP party chair plays a PR game of Twister while she avoids taking sides in the Trump/Sessions imbroglio, cites a long list of Sessions’ policies to control the southern border, fight the Latino gang MS-13 and battle sanctuary cities.
“Those are good things for America,” she said. “And I don’t see President Trump having conflicts or issues with all those things.”
Sessions says he’ll serve as Attorney General as long as the president will have him. And given that Trump’s temper blows hot and cold, it’s possible Sessions might linger after this fall’s midterm elections, the general over/under on when Trump will fire him.
But the president’s temper is unlikely to chill as the heat mounts from Mueller’s probe. For the first time, Sessions’ protectors in the Senate signal they are open to considering a replacement after the midterms.
That could spell the end to Sessions’ 37-year public-service career. Teaching law school or joining a think tank is the most likely private-sector option if he doesn’t retire altogether.
Sessions has the credentials and experience to be a federal judge, but the Trump administration is touting younger candidates for the lifetime appointments.
If Sessions returns to politics, his palatable options are few. After being U.S. senator and attorney general, why would he want either position on a state level? Sessions, who turns 72 on Christmas Eve, is age-barred from joining the Alabama Supreme Court. After November, the next governor’s election is in 2022.
That leaves his old Senate seat. But if he wins, don’t look for Sessions to seek vengeance on his former tormenter-in-chief. “I think the view in Washington is Jeff Sessions with a decisive vote on impeachment is Trump’s worst nightmare,” Flynt said. He disagrees. That’s not Sessions’ style.
The big question is would Sessions even want to return. He never really pursued senatorial trappings and power. He didn’t seek bring-home-the bacon committees like Appropriations, Defense or Agriculture. He was content being the most conservative person on the Senate floor.
“He’s a prosecutor at heart,” Flowers said. “I don’t know if he has the fire in his belly to go back to the Senate.”
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