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The Fall of Jeff Sessions, and What Came After

The mantra was: “Back to the men and women in blue,” Sessions told me. “The police had been demoralized. There was all the Obama — there’s a riot, and he has a beer at the White House with some criminal, to listen to him. Wasn’t having a beer with the police officers. So we said, ‘We’re on your side. We’ve got your back, you got our thanks.’” (Asked whether this was a confused reference to the meeting Obama had with the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who had been wrongfully arrested entering his own home, and the police officer involved in the arrest, a Sessions spokesman declined to elaborate.)

Sessions seemed annoyed when I asked if he would support measures to reform law enforcement if he were re-elected. “I suppose we could do a survey about police —” he began. He paused for nine seconds and sighed, slumping slightly against the booth. “And see how they — whether their training is at the highest level or not.” A few minutes later he returned to the subject: “I think you should probably have some money for actually training for riots,” he said. “That’s what really needs to be done. Not tell the police, ‘If you were just more sensitive, riots wouldn’t occur.’”

He called Secretary of Defense Mark Esper “immature” for saying he did not support Trump’s threat, amid the nationwide protests following George Floyd’s death, to invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows a president to domestically deploy military troops to restore order. “Who cares what he thinks?” Sessions said. “The president can ask for his advice, or not ask for it. There’s one commander in chief of the United States military, Mr. Secretary. Not Esper.” It was every civil servant’s duty, he went on, to obey his or her commander with enthusiasm, or quit. “Who do you think runs this country?”

One theory holds that Sessions’s extreme fealty to the president was, in fact, what prolonged his problems with him. Sessions was willing to endure Trump’s personal derision in order to realize their shared vision for the country. Trump, on the other hand, seemed unnerved that anyone’s policy goals could outweigh their pride. And so with every sunny response to his insults, Trump’s disdain for Sessions deepened. “So many people in the White House thought the way to build a better relationship with Trump was just to agree with him on everything and praise him to the hilt and be sycophantic and plug those gaping insecurities that fuel his narcissism,” the first former White House official said. “When the reality is that once you actually give in to him like that, he detests you for it.” (The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

That dynamic has continued to plague Sessions in Alabama, where many Republican voters will brook no dissent of Trump but also question a man who appears disinclined to defend his own honor. On May 22, after Trump excoriated Sessions yet again on Twitter (“Alabama, do not trust Jeff Sessions. He let our Country down”), Sessions decided, for the first time, to push back. “Look, I know your anger, but recusal was required by law. I did my duty & you’re damn fortunate I did,” Sessions tweeted. “It protected the rule of law & resulted in your exoneration. Your personal feelings don’t dictate who Alabama picks as their senator, the people of Alabama do.” All told, one campaign aide told me, the composition of the tweet involved perhaps a dozen advisers and approximately 100 emails.

Sessions’s former colleagues, caught up in their own delicate dances with Trump, apparently see little upside to encouraging Sessions publicly, or even discussing their friendship with him. Of the many Republican senators I reached out to for this article, only Richard Shelby, Sessions’s old colleague in Alabama’s Senate delegation, agreed to talk. “I think Alabama would do well by sending him back, but you know, that’s ultimately up to the people,” Shelby told me. “We’ll see what happens in July. I have no idea.”

In the past four months, meanwhile, Trump and Tuberville have spoken frequently by phone, sometimes as often as twice a week. In mid-June, Tuberville joined the president on Air Force One when it landed in Dallas. When we spoke at Ruby Tuesday, Sessions acknowledged Tuberville’s appeal. College-football coaches, particularly in the Southeastern Conference, know how to pitch, how to sit in a living room with a skeptical recruit and his family and sell them on a future. And Tuberville’s pitch now, as Sessions, describing one recent campaign ad, characterizes it, is as follows: “ ‘I support Donald Trump. God sent Donald Trump, and I’m going up there and I’m going to do something. I’m strong; I yelled at the referee.’” (Tuberville’s ad used a clip of him, in his Auburn days, berating an official on the field.) “Well, people like that. That’s a Trump — a Trump thing.”


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