MOBILE, Alabama — Jeff Sessions took the stage Tuesday night near the Alabama gulf coast with the same certitude he’d displayed on another, bigger stage across town almost five years ago. Donald Trump’s vision, the former attorney general declared anew, is right for America.
Yet this occasion couldn’t have been more different.
Neither Trump nor the boisterous throngs they’d greeted together at an August 2015 stadium rally were anywhere to be seen as Sessions calmly conceded defeat in Alabama’s Republican Senate runoff. The outcome ended Sessions’ hopes of returning to the Senate seat he abandoned to join Trump’s administration and instead left him to defend his honor one last time against the unlikely president he’d helped elect but then angered.
From the White House, Trump tweeted his joy over the stinging defeat of the former Justice Department chief he’s chastised since Sessions recused himself in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
“I leave elected office with my integrity intact,” Sessions said, initially standing alone before his grandsons joined him in front of reporters. “I hold my head high.”
For Trump, the outcome mixes vengeance and vindication. A turncoat, as he sees it, lost. And the president’s preferred candidate, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, won handily, immediately becoming a strong challenger to vulnerable Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in November.
Tuberville, not coincidentally, boasts a profile not unlike Trump, the former reality television star turned politician.
Tuberville, 65, has never held public office but comes to the political arena with a well-known brand. He embraces Trump and sells himself as an outsider, a conservative culture warrior. Jones, Tuberville told his supporters Tuesday, threatens Alabama with “New York values.” The president, a New York native, wrote Tuesday night on Twitter that Tuberville would be a “GREAT senator.”
Sessions, for his part, seemed eager to move on from a primary fight that saw Tuberville call him “weak” and a “disaster.” He pledged to help Tuberville defeat Jones in November, offering seemingly typical statements about party unity. But Sessions took special care when discussing the matter that dominated and ultimately doomed his comeback attempt.
“Let me say this about the president and our relationship. I leave with no regrets,” the 73-year-old Sessions said. “I was honored to serve the people of Alabama in the Senate, and I was extraordinarily proud of the accomplishments we had as attorney general.”
That includes, he emphasized, stepping away from the Russia investigation.
“I followed the law, I did the right thing, and I saved the president’s bacon in the process,” Sessions said, repeating his argument that his recusal helped lead to the president’s “exoneration.”
“I took the road less traveled, didn’t try to excuse myself or get in a fight or undermine the leader of our country and the great work he has to do,” Sessions said, calling that “an honorable path.”
He also alluded to what drew him to Trump in the first place — similar views on immigration, trade and the chumminess of Washington.
Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump in the 2016 primary campaign, but even that didn’t necessarily mean Trump had the approval of a heavyweight. Sessions, once Alabama attorney general and a U.S. attorney under President Ronald Reagan, had been elected to the Senate in 1996. But he went to Washington as a determined budget hawk.
He focused on judicial confirmations — partly because of his own rejected nomination to the federal court during the Reagan administration. He pushed for a harder line on immigration, sometimes criticized U.S. foreign policy and railed against the bipartisan push for more relaxed international trade. And he tied those positions together as a conservative agenda aimed at working-class Americans he said are ignored by establishment powers.
For years, that made him a relative outlier among Capitol Hill Republicans. He was overshadowed back home by Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, who’s been in the Senate since 1987. Yet in Trump, Sessions finally found his vessel. And despite all the brow beating, Sessions said Trump and those issues remain the right path for the GOP and the country.
“I think it’s time for this Republican Party to listen to the Donald Trump agenda because he has talked about those things frankly and openly,” Sessions said Tuesday night, adding that the president can win a second term — as long as he “stays on message.”
Story by Bill Barrow and Kim Chandler.