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Inside Sessions’ Failed Comeback Bid

The former attorney general’s issue-focused campaign was thumped by a details-free newcomer Tuesday night.

Jeff Sessions met an inglorious end to his political career Tuesday night.

The seventy-three year-old former U.S. Attorney General and conservative hardliner was dispatched in a sordid, Southern and sweltering summer Senate primary. He lost 60.7 percent to 39.3, in a race marked by pitiful turnout– a concerning subtext for Republicans this autumn.

“To the people of Alabama, I want to thank you for your support over the years,” Sessions said. “We fought a good fight in this race. And we have taken our case to the people of Alabama, and the people of Alabama have spoken. They want a new leader– a new, fresh face to go to Washington.” Tommy Tuberville triumphed. Tuberville is a peripatetic former college football coach who once coached the Auburn University Tigers — in a state where football is often coterminous with faith and family — to an undefeated season. 

Previously, it was Sessions who was undefeated, having never lost a Senate race since his ascent to the upper chamber in the mid-Nineties. Previously, he was the Yellowhammer State’s attorney general and its southern district’s U.S. Attorney. Not electorally, but his earlier bid for a judgeship was quashed in the U.S. Senate over concerns raised by the NAACP and other groups (though the American Bar Association overwhelmingly rated him “qualified”). But until Tuesday, Sessions had never been defeated at the ballot box. And if the beginning of Sessions’ career was marked by defeat at the hands of the left wing, the end of it was defined by a vituperative vendetta launched by the right wing, namely the president himself. 

“Wow, just called! @TTuberville – Tommy Tuberville WON big against Jeff Sessions,” Donald Trump tweeted. “Will be a GREAT Senator for the incredible people of Alabama.” To those Republicans who could work up the nerve, Trump’s sussed nature was condemned. “This was always going to be a tough race for Sessions, thanks to the disloyal, narcissistic, blame-shifting ignoramus in the White House,” said author Ann Coulter, perhaps Trump’s first celebrity backer. “Jeff was the first elected official to support you,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, noted to the president. “Seems loyalty is expected from you but not granted.”

Sessions was actually preceded in formal support by several House members, but he appeared at Trump rallies starting in the summer of 2015, not long after Trump rocketed to surprise pole position in the polls. It was a convulsive moment for a motley crew of activists who had long sought to steer the Republican Party in a less corporate direction. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is known to regale attendees at the “Breitbart embassy” in Washington how last decade he, Sessions and then-Sessions aide Stephen Miller sat down in his dining room and plotted the future.  

But Trump banged on the table to prevent Sessions’ return to Washington. Though Trump’s first Senate backer in 2016, the president never forgave the Alabamian for recusing himself in what would become the special investigation led by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III. Most legal experts concluded that Sessions had little choice — as a political supporter of Trump’s during the campaign who came in contact with senior Russian officials (Russia, of course, was the subject of the investigation, the conclusions of which fell far short of some of the more unhinged speculations about Trump’s relationship with Moscow). 

Sessions’ successor William P. Barr — who is seen as more of an enforcer for Trump than the former senator — nonetheless conceded in his own confirmation hearing that Sessions likely took the appropriate measures, consistent with his oath as a lawyer. “I am not sure of all of the facts, but I think he probably did the right thing recusing himself,” Barr told the Senate, while emphasizing the seriousness of the inquiry. “I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt.” Yet Trump’s zeal for reprisal was logorrheic, taking the unusual step of intervening repeatedly in the primary.

Never one to interrogate his own hiring procedures, Trump in May said Sessions was not “mentally qualified” to have been attorney general, though Trump appointed him.  The president is either not briefed or not interested in the record of the alternative he’s whisked over the Republican finish line. Tuberville’s victory speech was seen as well-meaning mush from a political novice, signaling (in front of an Alabama jam band) archetypical concerns about veterans’ care, and recalling the story of his father’s Purple Heart. But he did not remind the Trump partisan crowd that his senior political advisor said in 2016 that the New York wheeler-dealer was a “psychopath” and that he didn’t want him to be the president. 

Sessions privately doubtless has concluded something similar himself, but he continues to defend Trump as a vessel for ideas the moment cries out for. Sessions, while noting his personal fissure with the president, casts himself as a champion of “the Trump agenda” — that is, the trade protectionist, immigration restrictionist and foreign policy restrainer platform Trump originally earned buzz for. 

By his own standard, Sessions’ record is uneven. He voted for the Iraq War, as well as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), though he (many would argue, presciently) voted against normalized trade relations with Beijing. In comments during this campaign, Sessions, unlike many leaders of his generation, presents himself as something of a changed man. “I have come to understand that the neocon foreign policy, the libertarian free market ideology, beyond common sense, was not healthy,” Sessions told The American Conservative this spring. 

Sessions’ command of the facts was decidedly flawed during this campaign. In an interview with the New York Times’ Elaina Plott, he appeared to disastrously recall that Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was “some criminal.” The African-American’s erroneous arrest outraged the nation in 2009, and ended up being a marker of things to come. For a politician navigating the waters of a rapidly diversifying nation with an increasingly fragile social fabric, these are not small slip-ups and unhelpfully played into an impression of Sessions as a relic— as a mere bigot. 

But the career Republican’s concession speech Tuesday was marked by bespoke substance and an almost anti-partisanship. The American people “think we have gotten involved in too many wars that don’t have an end to them, have not served the national interest, and [haven’t] even helped the people we thought we were trying to help,” Sessions said. “The American people are right in my opinion. They are essentially correct.” Such concerns were “a huge factor” for Trump’s ability to win in 2016, Sessions argued.

“Too often we have allowed the focus to be… on Wall Street… and not enough on the struggles of that single mom who’s got to buy four truck tires for her old car. It’s going to cost six hundred dollars and she doesn’t have it and it has to go on a credit card that charges twenty-five percent interest,” Sessions said. “I mean this is the world that most Americans live in. And we need to be more sensitive to it. And I think they’re right about where we are. …Those are the kinds of issues we should be advancing. I want to see our Congress do so. And I think the party that does will be the party that can govern in the years to come.”



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