When Jeff Sessions was preparing last fall to begin a third decade in the Senate, his future as a rock-ribbed conservative legislative force looked limitless, but just three seasons later, he’s been pushed to the precipice of his career.
The almost daily taunting he’s taking from President Donald Trump points toward one of two probably quick endings to his brief run as attorney general, quitting or getting canned.
If Sessions resigns, that probably assures his consignment to relative oblivion whenever the melodramatic story of this administration gets finalized.
But if he decides to endure the abuse until he is fired, that could give him a sort of white knight status among millions of Americans who believe in the rule of law and value an independent judicial system, which means the person in charge of the Justice Department should never bend to a president who’s trying to browbeat his way out of legal trouble.
It will be largely up to his former colleagues at the Capitol to decide whether Sessions is venerated as a martyr to such old-school civic virtues, and to the aspirational Republican conservative attribute of holding steadfastly to principle when the political winds blow every other way.
When asked, Republican senators have been uniformly supportive of Sessions during the past week. They have taken his side, not the president’s, from when Trump said he’s regretted his choice of an attorney general ever since Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation, through a series of extraordinary tweets labeling Sessions as “our beleaguered A.G.” and then “VERY weak” for not launching an investigation of “Hillary Clinton crimes,” and after reports on Tuesday that Trump has spoken with advisers about the consequences of firing Sessions and who possible replacements might be.
So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2017
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2017
Presumably, some of them are taking Sessions’ side out of loyalty to a former member of their exclusive club. But it’s also true some of them fear not only the constitutional crisis but also the political fallout that would come from a firing, which would inevitably be suspected as an effort by Trump to install an attorney general prepared to dismiss special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and thereby his investigation of connections between the Kremlin and Trump’s family, his finances and his campaign
GOP senators have not, however, moved in any proactive way to pressure the president to stick with his very first Cabinet appointment. And it’s not clear what action the lawmakers might take, except this: They could vow to oppose any formal adjournment of the Senate during August, which would prevent Trump from using his the presidential recess appointment powers to install a new attorney general during the coming break.
Change is a constant
How swiftly Sessions has been transformed — from senatorial old bull to claimant of an electoral long-shot winning ticket, then from golden boy to whipping boy of the Cabinet, and now to either hero or goat depending on Trump’s own trajectory — is more than another example of the adage that a year is a lifetime in politics. The rapid changes are a reminder that even the most workaday politicians have ways (sometimes conscious but oftentimes unwitting) of changing their own narratives so they end up with more prominent roles in history.
Before this past year, in fact, Sessions had already given one such master class in that truism.
When he was still in his 30s, his political savvy seemed sufficient to propel him from his job as the top federal prosecutor in southern Alabama, with a zeal for waging the Reagan administration’s crusade against drugs, into a lifetime appointment as U.S. District Court judge in Mobile.
But instead of quietly becoming an all-but-invisible cog in the federal judicial machinery, he acted as a prime player in one the first battles of the partisan judicial wars: A collection of racially insensitive comments (said in jest, if at all, he insisted) prompted the Senate Judiciary Committee to rebuff him in 1986, just the second judicial nominee rejected in half a century. One of Alabama’s senators, Democrat Howell Heflin, cast the pivotal vote against him.
Rather than get out of public life following that embarrassment, though, Sessions remained U.S. attorney another six years — an aspect of the story reinforcing the view that Trump is not going to succeed at pressuring Sessions to turn in his corner office keys voluntarily.
His stick-to-itiveness, in fact, allowed him to score enough crime-busting headlines across Alabama that he cruised to election as state attorney general in 1994, positioning him two years later to exact a measure of revenge by winning a Senate seat for the GOP when Heflin retired. (Sessions furthered the vindication as a freshman by claiming the first available opening on Judiciary.)
His Senate career was as much as anything about being an emblem of down-the-line partisan reliability
Over the course of the two previous administrations, he toed the party line 96 percent of the time — breaking with his fellow Republicans only 135 times on the nearly 3,100 votes when most of them opposed most Democrats. Of the GOP senators with him for that entire 16-year stretch, only two (James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming) had slightly higher party unity scores.
Similarly, Sessions voted the way President Barack Obama wanted just 45 percent of the time over eight years, the number that high only because so many roll calls were to confirm noncontroversial nominees; only five current GOP senators supported the Democratic president less often. But over the eight preceding years, Sessions voted 91 percent the way President George W. Bush was hoping; only three current GOP senators were even more loyal.
On solid ground
By the time his 20th anniversary as a senator approached, his standing in the Capitol seemed as solid as any member’s.
Trim, courtly and outwardly unpretentious, he appeared, at age 69, set for a much longer run at the Capitol. His political invulnerability in Alabama had been affirmed in 2014, when he became the first senator in four years re-elected without major party opposition in the fall or a primary challenger beforehand. And the Senate seniority system, combined with GOP term limits on chairmen, pointed to a decade ahead when he had a solid shot at claiming the gavel to Judiciary and then moving on to run the Armed Services panel, a pair of the most influential committees at the Capitol.
Plus, there seemed to be no downside potential for his decision in the winter of 2016 to underscore his tenacious conservatism by becoming the first senator to give a presidential endorsement to Trump, with whom he shared protectionist trade views and a passionate conviction that illegal immigration was the ruination of the nation.
Conventional wisdom held that Sessions could transition seamlessly from the inner circle of a sure-to-lose campaign back to the Senate, where he would be imbued with the new and important mantle of congressional spokesman for Trump’s base of white, working-class voters.
Instead, he found himself onstage in New York during Trump’s victory speech, basking in the president-elect’s praise as the “first major, major politician” savvy enough to pick the winning candidate, but unsurprising since he “is highly respected in Washington because he’s as smart as you get.”
It has been almost steadily downhill ever since. He got confirmed with just 52 votes and the backing of just one Democrat, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. And during his confirmation hearing, he made categorical statements about his lack of contacts during the campaign with Russian officials that soon enough proved to be untrue, prompting the recusal in March that the president has never tired of fulminating against.
And over the weekend, Trump lamented “a new intelligence leak” and thereby seemed to confirm The Washington Post’s reporting that, during intercepted conversations during the 2016 race, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak described to his bosses in Moscow discussions with Sessions about the campaign and Russian policy priorities — directly contradicting Sessions’s assertions that no such talks took place.
That, in turn, has prompted Democrats led by Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota to call for Sessions to return to the Judiciary Committee to answer more questions about his contacts with Russia.
Such an appearance is almost certainly on hold until Sessions’ future is settled, one way or another.