With the insurgent campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders on the ropes, it’s easy to forget that four years ago another insurgent campaign was trending in a very different direction. In late February 2016, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama offered an endorsement of Donald Trump at a rally in Madison, Ala., becoming the first sitting senator to endorse the New York businessman. While the endorsement came as a surprise at the time, it shouldn’t have been unexpected. At that Madison rally, Sessions leaned into Trump’s signature issues in making the case for his candidate, lamenting the establishment’s inability to fix the broken immigration system and attacking free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Sessions’s own positions had long been friendly to those laments. He was endorsing a distinct Trumpian agenda as much as he was the man himself.
Indeed, Sessions has remained remarkably faithful to the America First agenda that animated much of President Trump’s candidacy, both throughout and after his tumultuous tenure as U.S. Attorney General. Last November, one year to the day after resigning his post as top cop at the President’s request, Sessions appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to announce his candidacy for his former seat in the U.S. Senate in 2020. “Republicans haven’t been pushing hard enough to advance the Trump agenda,” Sessions told Carlson, “I’ve pushed his immigration agenda, his trade agenda, and began to work towards a more realistic foreign policy that doesn’t get us into endless wars. I think [Trump] was right about all three of those. That’s where the American people are. And the Republican Congress needs to listen to that.”
Now, it’s evident that perhaps the president needs to listen to that too. Trump announced last night on Twitter (where else?) his endorsement of former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville in the upcoming run-off for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Alabama—against Sessions. Tuberville is a thoroughly conventional Republican, which has led to some questionable campaign moves for someone Trump touted as a “REAL LEADER” and “strong on Crime and the Border”. Last May, the Tuberville campaign announced the addition of Rob Jesmer to its media team. Jesmer’s previous experience includes time as Campaign Manager at FWD.us, a Mark Zuckerberg founded and funded group that focused on “Reforming our immigration and criminal justice systems”—and whose suggested reforms essentially read as the opposite of “strong on Crime and Border”.
Jesmer was not an anomalous hire for the Tuberville campaign. The candidate himself has given some curious remarks on immigration for someone seeking to align himself with the president’s agenda. In a speech this past August, Tuberville outlined his immigration stance, saying, “There are people coming across the border that need jobs…and we want them to come over here…Let em’ come in and become citizens like we all became citizens.” The Sessions campaign has seized on these remarks in an attempt to paint Tuberville as pro-amnesty. Tuberville has vehemently deemed the attacks “fake news.” But suffice it to say there is daylight between Tuberville’s immigration stance and the President’s hard line in 2016.
Lurking in the background of Trump’s endorsement of Tuberville, of course, is Sessions’ acrimonious relationship with the president ever since Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation while Attorney General. And herein lies the fatal flaw of the Trump presidency. Sessions recusing himself from overseeing an investigation into a campaign of which he was a part—again, Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump and remained formally involved with the campaign throughout the election—was a no-brainer. Instead of viewing recusal as betrayal, Trump could have considered why Sessions was so involved with his campaign as to require recusal in the first place. Trump’s rhetoric, particularly on his key issues of trade, immigration, and foreign policy, was a welcome departure from the more libertarian and neoconservative stranglehold on acceptable Republican discourse that existed on those issues. Jeff Sessions was among the first to see the shift that the Trump movement represented. His endorsement of Trump was based on substance, not celebrity. And ultimately, it looks like that’s caused the split.
Even the most ardent Trump backers will often admit the president’s intemperance and petty personal feuds can be counterproductive. This latest Sessions episode shows just how handicapping these flaws can be. Trump deserves credit for intuitively recognizing the hunger among the electorate for a retooling of our national priorities towards a more America First perspective. He had the courage to stand up to the establishment—and, crucially, the willingness to actually win that other insurgents lack. But by allowing trivial, ultimately pointless personal grievances (the Russia probe, after all, led to nothing) to trump (no pun intended) the coalition building necessary to enact his distinct policy agenda, Trump appears willing to consign the actual work of his presidency to the same GOP lifers who vehemently opposed his ascension—and now staff his administration. It’s no wonder we have corporate tax cuts, missiles lobbed erratically at the Middle East, and no border wall. Sessions would be an ally to Trumpian policy on each core issue—but it appears that being an ally to Trump the man matters more.