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Take Five: Pete Sessions

‘People don’t want to make tough votes anymore,’ Texas Republican says

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, appears in his office in the Rayburn House Office Building on July 22.
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, appears in his office in the Rayburn House Office Building on July 22. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When Heard on the Hill restarted these Take 5 interviews after a few years’ hiatus, we began by asking freshman members. Thanks to a quirk in how we initially tallied “first elected in 2020,” that list included Pete Sessions. The Republican represented Texas’ 5th and 32nd (two versions) districts outside Dallas from 1997 until 2018, when he lost to Democrat Colin Allred, and then Waco’s 17th starting in 2021.

In an interview conducted this summer, we asked Sessions why he couldn’t stay away, what’s changed on the Hill since he was a real freshman, and why he went out of his way to defend Anthony Gonzalez, a Republican who voted to impeach Donald Trump over Jan. 6. Along the way, he talked about magic and treating political opponents fairly, which may or may not be the same thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: What was the first record (or cassette tape) you ever bought? 

A: The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Running.” 

Q: You’ve spent more than 20 years in Congress. What’s changed since you first came here?

A: People’s ability to want to come up and vote. I think people don’t want to make tough votes anymore. And they used to want to.

Q: After you lost in 2018, you moved back to your hometown of Waco to run in a heavily Republican district. Why did you decide to come back to Congress?

A: The year that I was out, Congress demonstrably changed itself. And it became apparent to a lot of people that we need to win back the majority. I had represented about 60 percent of the district before, so I had a large group of people saying we think you ought to run, people from the old part of the district. And so I did. It was an open seat.

Q: You led an effort back in 2016 to get magic recognized as an art form and a national treasure. Do you know any magic tricks?

A: No, though I’ve met David Copperfield. The best I can do is win at a game of hearts. And sometimes that’s magic in our family. Our family is a bunch of cutthroat hearts players. 

Q: You were a pretty early supporter of President Trump, and you said his first impeachment was one of the things that drove you to run again in 2020. But a while ago in the hallway, I heard you come to the defense of GOP Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who voted to impeach the second time. You said he was “doing a hell of a job.” I was surprised by that, given your support of Trump and your vote on Jan. 6 to challenge the results of the presidential election.

A: I want you to know there are people in this conference, Republicans and good conservatives, who do not have to agree with every single person or every single thing. There are people who admire [Gonzalez] greatly, for taking the stand and being forthright. I do admire him.

What we were seeking to do [on Jan. 6] is to have each of the states relook at [the election]. We’re not people with an axe to grind, but who want to make sure the process worked correctly. When you have viewpoints about huge numbers of abnormalities, they need to be addressed, not blown away.

And so I think it’s appropriate that we actually go back and do an audit to figure out what happened. I mean, Exxon, AT&T — every company I’ve ever worked for has had an audit. Why would we be afraid of an audit, why would the Attorney General, the United States? [Ed. Note: There is no evidence of substantial fraud in the 2020 election.]

On Jan. 6, there were votes that were not enough to even overturn the election, and we felt like that was a reasonable position to take. We believe if we had challenged enough states to challenge the outcome, then we should have been called what we were. We did not, and yet we were called things that were inappropriate and unfair and unnecessary.

[As for Trump,] I served as chairman of the House Rules Committee during two of those years that he was president, and engaged him on a number of issues and a number of ideas, some that he even listened to. And we did not always agree. 

I think what Mr. Gonzalez did [in the impeachment trial] was representing his district and his ideas and his viewpoint of what he saw. But I don’t think it had really anything to do with Donald Trump. It was how he listened to the facts of the case.

If you do any historical viewpoint on me as chairman of the Rules Committee, it would say I was the most fair and forthright chairman. I allowed every single member — and I can give you 10 Democrats who will still say this openly to me today — to come and express themselves. No five minute rule. Talk as long as you want.

[We shouldn’t] get away from listening to each other, being professional, letting people represent their own district, just to kowtow to a party or a person in the party. The president does not hold unanimous consent over anyone.  

Quick hits

Last book you read? “At the Center of the Storm” by former CIA Director George Tenet. It is utterly amazing, and I’m just now finishing it. Even if you don’t read the whole book, read the first four chapters — they really are the essence of government and administration.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? You see it play out every day in this town that when someone thinks they can go it alone, that’s a mistake. You’ve got to be straight up with people. I’m very close to Greg Meeks, and I’m very close to a guy named Henry Cuellar, and these relationships were formed when they were in the minority and we were in the majority, and yet they’re playing out right now, aren’t they? 

Your least popular opinion? Probably one related to abortion. I tend to talk about how important life is and the opportunities that lie with decision-making.

America’s best president? Teddy Roosevelt.

Closest friend in Congress across the aisle? Greg Meeks.

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