Will Alabama Take Jeff Sessions Back?

He has returned to a place where he was beloved for decades to seek his former Senate seat. The only problem: He’s been scorned and humiliated by Trump — and that complicates everything.
(Photos by Elijah Nouvelage)

Has anybody ever heard of Senator Jeff Sessions?” Donald Trump teased a boisterous crowd of thousands in Mobile, Ala., in August 2015. The people erupted in cheers. They loved their senator — just as they were coming to love the New York real estate mogul who had been campaigning for president for only two months and was already thrashing the GOP establishment and leading the polls. Like Trump, Sessions bucked establishment Republicans — to say nothing of the way he triggered liberal Democrats — and the people of Alabama thanked him for it. Just the year before, they had reelected him to his fourth term, unopposed by any Republican or Democrat, with 97 percent of the vote.

“We have a man here who really helped me,” Trump told the crowd. “He is the one person I sought his counsel. Because he’s been so spot-on, he’s so highly respected.” Trump scanned the football stadium. “Where’s Jeff? Get over here, Jeff.” Trump’s face relaxed into a grin as he watched Sessions bound up to the stage. “Look at him, he’s like 20 years old,” marveled Trump. “Unbelievable guy. … Come here, Jeff. Say hello.”

With a sly smile, Sessions brandished a white Make America Great Again hat. The crowd cheered. He put it on and squared his shoulders. He took off the hat before stepping to the microphone. Sessions wasn’t ready to go all the way — not yet. Total allegiance — and an official endorsement of Trump — came six months later at another rally, when Sessions put on a red MAGA hat. This time, he didn’t take it off.

As the first sitting senator to endorse Trump, Sessions supplied an early, invaluable shot of institutional credibility at a time when other GOP lawmakers were dubious or openly hostile. Sessions traveled with Trump, advised him on national security issues, helped refine Trump’s immigration message and served as an ambassador to the establishment. After Trump’s victory, the president-elect presented his nominee for attorney general to a jubilant crowd back in Mobile. “He’s someone I’m very proud to call a friend,” Trump told the group. “Jeff is an amazing man.”

How quickly the bromance soured, at least on Trump’s end. Following Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation mere weeks after his confirmation as attorney general, Trump launched a sustained war of furious disparagement and public humiliation. “He took the job and then he said, ‘I’m going to recuse myself,’ ” Trump told Fox News in 2018. “I said, ‘What kind of a man is this?’ ” He complained to Hill.TV: “I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad.” Trump finally demanded Sessions’s resignation in November 2018, later calling the former attorney general his “biggest mistake.” As recently as this past October, Trump still hadn’t let it go. In an interview with former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, the president called Sessions “an embarrassment to the great state of Alabama.”

Fliers for Sessions and his opponent Bradley Byrne at an event hosted by the Marshall County Republican Club in Guntersville, Ala., in January. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

The hypersonic rise and pitiless fall of Trump favorites is by now a familiar arc in Washington. Yet unlike so many others whom Trump has given up on, Sessions hasn’t given up on Trump. He still believes. He still praises. Arguably, he has no choice, because he was an apostle of Trumpism — tough on immigration, skeptical of trade deals — before Trump himself entered politics.

Now Sessions seeks to be readmitted to the Eden of his own making. On Nov. 7, a year to the day after Trump fired him, Sessions, who had largely disappeared from the public stage, said on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” that he would run again for the Senate from Alabama. He also released a video declaring his unwavering fealty to Trump. Speaking earnestly to the camera, Sessions said, “When I left President Trump’s Cabinet, did I write a tell-all book? No. Did I go on CNN and attack the president? Nope. Have I said a cross word about our president? Not one time.” In a separate video highlighting his early endorsement of Trump, he once again put on a red MAGA hat.

And yet, it is far from clear that this will be enough to recover his place in the hearts of Alabama voters. Sessions, 73, is today a somewhat diminished figure in Alabama, where the president remains more popular than in almost any other state. In the March 3 primary, Sessions faces his toughest race in decades — against opponents including Tommy Tuberville, the well-known former football coach at Auburn University, and Bradley Byrne, the congressman from the Mobile area. The winner will take on Democrat Doug Jones, who in 2017 won a special election to finish Sessions’s term against controversial former judge Roy Moore (who is also running in this year’s Republican primary but is trailing).

Alabama Republicans now find themselves sorting out complicated feelings about Trump and Sessions: Can they pull the lever both for their hero president and for the former attorney general who let him down? The race is, at one level, a saga about a politician who has been cast out by Trump and now seeks to recuperate what he has lost. But it is also a test case of the difference between voters’ allegiance to Trump’s policies — policies that, after all, have no more faithful advocate than Jeff Sessions — and their personal devotion to Trump himself.

Sessions in an animated discussion with voter Barbara Clem, left, in Guntersville. His recusal in the Russia probe, Clem said later, “has tainted his whole service as far as I’m concerned.” (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

Barbara Clem appeared angry — and she wasn’t hiding it from Jeff Sessions. On a Tuesday evening in January, both Clem and the would-be senator were at a gathering of the Marshall County Republican Club in a packed oyster restaurant in Guntersville. A retired corporate counselor, Clem was wearing a red hat with “MAGA” spelled out in costume jewels that she had applied herself. Before his remarks to the group, Sessions was greeting people and stopped by her seat. An animated discussion ensued. At one point Sessions and Clem started wagging fingers at each other.

“I’m not going to vote for somebody who goes wobbly,” Clem told me later. “If he had talked to the president and the president said, ‘You need to recuse yourself,’ that would’ve been fine. But he didn’t do that. He didn’t have the courage to stand up and face the president. He hid behind this, whatever, article” — she meant a Justice Department rule — “that he’s putting [out], and I just don’t like that.” I asked Clem if she always used to vote for Sessions. “Yeah, he was great! But this just — this to me has tainted his whole service as far as I’m concerned.”

“Wobbly” was an interesting word for Clem to use — one that she probably got from Sessions himself. During his talk to the group (Byrne also spoke, and a sizable fraction of the crowd of 120 wore Byrne campaign stickers) Sessions had told the story of Margaret Thatcher instructing George H.W. Bush not to go “wobbly” on her during the 1991 Gulf War. Sessions recalled telling voters when he first ran for Senate in 1996 that he wouldn’t go wobbly on them, and he made the same vow on this night.

Sessions speaks to the crowd at the Guntersville event. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

Yet it is exactly perceptions of wobbliness and its opposite — resolve — that have taken center stage in this race. Talking with scores of GOP voters from Huntsville to Mobile and back — 100 percent of whom are enthusiastic supporters of Trump — I found a range of opinion as people described how they are wrestling with Sessions’s degree of loyalty to the president. The debate is roiling and anguished, even though the Justice Department rule that led to Sessions’s recusal is clear: You can’t supervise an investigation into a person or organization — in this case, the Trump campaign — if you’re connected with it. Sessions appeared to have no choice, but that detail now seems beside the point for Trump and his most ardent supporters.

Sessions took the rare step of discussing the recusal in his address to the gathering in the restaurant. “I usually don’t talk about it, but I got asked a couple times, ‘Why did you recuse yourself?’ ” he told the group. “Let me just tell you, there are rules in the Department of Justice, there are regulations in the Department of Justice. I was a part of the campaign. I was the national defense chairman of the campaign. I had an official title in the doggone campaign. ... And if the attorney general doesn’t follow the rules, how can he expect anybody else to follow the rules?” The last sentence earned spontaneous applause and a cry of “That’s right!”

“I don’t usually talk about the recusal, and why, and defend myself about it. But I thought it was probably well received tonight when I did. Maybe we should do more of that.”

Sessions seemed buoyed by that response when he and I sat down at a nearby table later to chat. “You know, the president was very frustrated and made his thoughts known,” he said. “So that’s a reality, and you can’t erase that, and a lot of people believe in him. ... I don’t usually talk about the recusal, and why, and defend myself about it. But I thought it was probably well received tonight when I did. Maybe we should do more of that. But I’m not into arguing about this. This is really about the future, about who can advance our agenda, who’s got a record of it.” As to what he has to offer that future as a senator, he said: “I think the Republican Party has the potential to lead the country for a decade or more, but we’ve got to consolidate what Trump has done, and give it legs.” He said he could help “build a more people-oriented party that can govern and fend off what I consider to be the extreme socialist left.”

I asked if he feels as though he must, in some sense, prove himself all over again to Alabama voters after his mixed experience as attorney general. “I don’t expect to get 97 percent against some good candidates,” he said, alluding to his unopposed romp in 2014. “And they’ve been at this for a year. I’m surprised, really, that we’ve moved so fast and seem to be in a good position. But it’s a real race.”

I told him that I had met some people in the restaurant who had voted for him before but wouldn’t again. “Look, I’ve been around a long time,” Sessions said. “You play the ball where it lies. And there’s no doubt that a number of people, strong Trump supporters, you know, believe his critique of me. And I haven’t been around [to] defensively explain it.” It had been a few years since he had been able to make his customary annual visits to all 67 Alabama counties. “So that did leave a period of time that maybe the narrative that I did wrong on the recusal was a little deeper,” he explained. “But I don’t think it’s as bad as I thought.”

Before we parted, I pointed out to Sessions that his opponents in the race are portraying themselves as more reliable backers of Trump. “It’s a question of who’s authentic,” Sessions said. “Who do you believe?”

Sessions at the Vestavia Hills Public Library, outside Birmingham, for the monthly meeting of the Mid Alabama Republican Club. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

Sessions spent the past year enjoying time with his grandchildren, traveling the country speaking to law enforcement groups, and pondering a run for Senate. “He prayed about it a lot,” Rick Dearborn, Sessions’s former chief of staff in the Senate, told me. A factor in his considerations was not wanting his public service to end on the note of being fired by Trump. “At the end of the day, everybody in public life wants to be able to write their own chapter,” Dearborn says.

But Sessions’s recent history has had the effect of making Trump the leading issue in the GOP primary: Which candidate has been or would be the strongest advocate and ally for Trump? What role might the president play in the race? Trump told associates in the fall that if Sessions tried to return to the Senate, he would attack him. So far that is looking like a Trumpian bluff.

“I hope that the president will stay out of this race,” Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, a strong Sessions supporter and fervent admirer of Trump, told me in his office on Capitol Hill in December. When Sessions announced, Shelby quickly organized 10 other Republican senators to co-sign “an open letter to conservatives” endorsing Sessions’s candidacy. It was a subtle attempt at preempting a presidential endorsement going the other way. “That’d split the caucus up,” Shelby said. If “the president got involved and half the Senate was on the other side, that’d be a nasty fight.” Shelby — who thinks Sessions “probably did the right thing to recuse himself” — is convinced that, despite Trump’s scorn, his former colleague’s name recognition and deep connections to conservative circles would give him the easiest path to defeating Doug Jones.

Still, Alabama Republicans have been reading the Trump tea leaves closely. They hung on the president’s words when reporters asked his position on the race the day after Sessions announced. “Well, I haven’t gotten involved,” Trump said. “I saw he said very nice things about me last night, but we’ll have to see. ... I haven’t made a determination.” Trump couldn’t help adding: “He’s got tough competition.” Voters also parsed the significance of Trump sitting with Byrne and other elected officials in a box at the Alabama-LSU football game in November. Then, a month later, when Byrne visited the White House for an education roundtable, Trump posed with him alone for a picture in the Oval Office (and would later tout his education bill in the State of the Union). But the president offered no public endorsement.

There has been scant public polling in the race so far, mostly from potentially biased sources. The Sessions campaign released a poll in late January showing him at 43 percent, followed by Byrne at 22 percent and Tuberville at 21 percent. The poll said Sessions’s overall favorability in the state was 72 percent. But the influential Alabama Farmers Federation, whose grass-roots political wing, FarmPAC, endorsed Tuberville, released a poll in early December that had Sessions at 35 percent, Tuberville at 31 percent and Byrne at 12 percent. (Another tea leaf: In late January, Trump tweeted the results of the farmers poll with the comment: “I LOVE ALABAMA!”) If no candidate surpasses 50 percent in the March 3 primary, the top two will compete in a runoff. Sessions has not faced a runoff since his first Senate campaign.

“As attorney general, Jeff Sessions handed the ball to the other team and walked off the field the moment play started getting rough,” argues Tommy Tuberville.

In the end, Trump may have second thoughts about sticking his neck out in another Senate race in Alabama, where his record is 0-for-2. In the special election primary runoff after Sessions vacated the seat to join his administration, Trump endorsed Luther Strange over Roy Moore, and Moore won. In the general, he endorsed Moore over Jones, despite allegations that Moore made unwanted sexual advances toward teenage girls as an adult decades ago — and Jones won, handing the Democrats their first Senate seat from Alabama in a generation.

For now, the candidates have been energetically filling the vacuum of Trump’s absence with a competition for who can pledge the strongest allegiance to the president. Sessions’s announcement video set a standard that Tuberville and Byrne seem intent on surpassing.

“As attorney general, Jeff Sessions handed the ball to the other team and walked off the field the moment play started getting rough,” Tuberville, 65, said in a statement on the eve of the impeachment trial in the Senate. “As a result, history’s greatest president will face his darkest day tomorrow as liberal Democrats looking to turn our country socialist argue for his removal from office in a bogus impeachment trial. If Jeff Sessions had stood up and fought instead of letting a bunch of anti-Trump attorneys in the Justice Department bully him into recusal, the Democrats’ persistent persecution of the president could have been stopped a long time ago.”

Byrne, 64, highlights his record in Congress of voting 97 percent with the president and his aggressive defense of Trump against impeachment. He was one of the Republicans who showily stormed the room where a House committee was taking impeachment testimony out of public view. “I think Jeff was controlled by the career people, the swamp, at the Justice Department,” Byrne told me shortly before his turn came to address the crowd in the oyster restaurant in Guntersville. He told the group: “President Trump needs a second term — right? — to finish the job.” The crowd broke into applause. “But in order to do that, he’s going to have to have some fighters there with him in the United States Senate!”

Flags supporting President Trump outside a store in Laceys Spring, Ala.
Pete Weaver at Street’s Seafood Restaurant in Bay Minette, Ala. Bay Minette is the county seat of Baldwin County, outside Mobile, where Trump got 77 percent of the vote in 2016. Weaver said he plans to vote for Byrne.
Joy Gunn at Street’s. She sees strength, not wobbliness, in Sessions’s recusal. “I have a lot more respect for him standing by what he believed in than if he had just buddied up with President Trump to do what he wanted him to do,” she says.
TOP: Flags supporting President Trump outside a store in Laceys Spring, Ala. BOTTOM LEFT: Pete Weaver at Street’s Seafood Restaurant in Bay Minette, Ala. Bay Minette is the county seat of Baldwin County, outside Mobile, where Trump got 77 percent of the vote in 2016. Weaver said he plans to vote for Byrne. BOTTOM RIGHT: Joy Gunn at Street’s. She sees strength, not wobbliness, in Sessions’s recusal. “I have a lot more respect for him standing by what he believed in than if he had just buddied up with President Trump to do what he wanted him to do,” she says.

Houston, Ala., set among the pines and lakeshores in the northwest part of the state, is the bull’s eye of Trump Country in Alabama. It sits within Winston County, where Trump got over 89 percent of the vote in 2016, his strongest support in the state. The Houston precinct itself went even more heavily for Trump, about 95 percent, according to local officials. In recognition of that extraordinary result, Trump sent a letter of thanks to the annual Ronald Reagan Dinner, says Tim Wadsworth, who represents the area in the state legislature.

If anywhere could serve as a barometer of Sessions’s support among Trump voters, it would be Houston. Sessions made one of his first campaign stops of the new year at Chef Troy’s Talk of the Town Restaurant, next door to the fire hall where the Houston precinct votes. More than a dozen local officials and party activists ate lunch with the candidate at a long table. Sessions gave no speech but had brief private conversations with each guest before eating part of a hamburger steak with onions, mushrooms, gravy and turnip greens.

“I just think he knows the Trump policies, and I think he follows the Trump policies and he’s a heavy Trump supporter,” Wadsworth, a fellow Trump originalist who had joined Sessions at that early rally in Mobile, told me at Chef Troy’s. “Bradley Byrne, Tommy Tuberville, none of those folks that are running were there in August of ’15. These folks that want to be associated by name down the road, they weren’t there from Day 1.”

Sessions “did what he thought he was supposed to do,” Randy Lee, a member of the county school board, said of the recusal. “He felt like that’s what the Constitution told him to do, and I respect him for his decision, because it eventually cost him his job. He wouldn’t be sitting right there now” — taking small bites of his hamburger steak — “if he had gone along with the president, I’m sure. I think they’ll work together when they get back there.”

Those were voices of official Winston County, the institutional view. Sessions has always found support (and campaign contributions) from institutional sectors of Alabama — political, industrial, commercial, civic, agricultural (not counting the recent defection of the farmers PAC to Tuberville).

Larry Scott, owner of Scott’s Landing bait and tackle store, with his dog Ginger in Bay Minette. Scott said he still likes Sessions. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

I left Chef Troy’s to find what others might think. Across the street is the sprawling work yard of Houston Wood, which specializes in giving a look of weathered timelessness to fresh-cut boards. I met the operation’s founder, Ellis Wade, in his trailer office. “I’m a Trump guy,” Wade declared. “Obamanomics was not good for us at all. ... The economy has never been this good. We had the busiest December we ever had.”

He used to be a Sessions guy, too — “bless his heart” — but he said he hadn’t bothered to attend the lunch for Sessions at Chef Troy’s. Now, he said, “I’m a Tuberville man.” Many factors went into his conversion, including Sessions’s increasing resemblance to “a career politician.” Wade read an interview with Tuberville in the local Daily Mountain Eagle and was impressed. When I looked up the piece later, it consisted of Tuberville taking Trumpian positions on immigration, health care, economics and trade, plus some choice zingers such as: “There is one person that changes climate in this country and that is God.”

“I didn’t see that he really needed to excuse his self,” Wade continued about Sessions. “I think he was looking at all of the pressure that was coming from the left, and there’s so much of it. Listen, I felt for him. I felt for the man, I really did.” I asked if it had been hard to hear all the harsh things Trump said about Sessions. “It was terrible hard,” Wade said, “because he has represented Alabama so good.”

Wade’s voice was sorrowful, as if he were lamenting a family member gone astray. I heard that tone many times across Alabama, as voters puzzled over what had become of the Sessions they had known before his doomed tour in the Trump administration. “I feel like that he’s lost a lot of respect,” Wade said. “And the thing of it is, there is probably no finer person than Jeff Sessions.”

A few miles down a winding road, in the town of Arley, I stopped at a coffee shop. A “Trump 2020” T-shirt was for sale for $15. On the walls were a wooden American flag and a framed jersey from the local high school with the words, “Jesus Loves Me and I Love Jesus.” Byron Farmer, a mechanic who served 17 years in the Air Force, was having the catfish with his two middle-school-aged daughters.

“Grow a backbone,” Farmer said, referring to the recusal. “To me, that wasn’t Jeff Sessions. I don’t know if he just had us all buffaloed and made us believe he was something that he wasn’t, and when he got up there he showed his true colors.” Farmer said he is intrigued by Tuberville but hasn’t decided which of the alternatives to Sessions he’ll vote for.

At another table sat Ronnie Scott and a friend. “I probably won’t support him, and I always have in the past,” said Scott. “If he was younger, he would have a chance to rebuild his credibility, but I don’t think at his age — to me, it’s a good time for him to just fade away.”

Sessions makes a campaign visit to Chef Troy’s Talk of the Town Restaurant in Houston, Ala. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

Unlike many Southern conservatives of a certain age who started as Democrats early in their careers before switching to the GOP — including Richard Shelby and Bradley Byrne — Sessions has been a self-consciously active Republican his entire adult life. He started reading the conservative journal National Review in high school. “I was able to tell Mr. Buckley” — the late National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. — “ ‘Mr. Buckley, you warped my brain when I was a teenager, and I’ve never recovered from it!’ ” Sessions said recently on the campaign trail.

In a television ad during his first race for the Senate, a boyish-looking Sessions dressed in a blue work shirt sketches aspects of the worldview that would define him: “I am a conservative, I believe in fundamental values, I believe there is truth. I believe there are principles which are unchanging, that there is a God in heaven who orders this universe, that honesty and hard work and discipline of our millions of Americans is the key to success.”

His victory margins got larger with each election as he became more popular with voters and invincible to potential opponents. Presaging Trump’s top campaign issue a decade before Trump took it up, Sessions was a leading opponent of any compromise on illegal immigration and a proponent of a border fence. He was already at work trying to scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in 2015 before Trump joined the cause and delivered the coup de grace. Stephen Miller, architect and advocate for Trump’s anti-immigrant, America-first portfolio in the White House, got his start as communications director in Sessions’s Senate office.

“I feel like that he’s lost a lot of respect,” says one voter. “And the thing of it is, there is probably no finer person than Jeff Sessions.”

There is a deep well of affection and nostalgia for this version of Sessions among Alabama primary voters — the pre-recusal Sessions, the crusading conservative senator. For many it’s enough to compensate for the ambiguities of his two-year interlude as attorney general.

“I think he’s an amazing man,” said Joy Gunn, a registered nurse for the state veterans home in Bay Minette, the county seat of Baldwin County, outside Mobile, where Trump got 77 percent of the vote in 2016. She and her husband were having the lunch buffet at Street’s Seafood Restaurant, where co-owner Eugene Overstreet displays his Purple Heart from the Tet offensive in Vietnam by the door. “He cares about the people of Alabama,” Gunn said. “He cares about the economy here. He’s always been straightforward. I was kind of sad when he went to Washington because we were losing him in Alabama, and I’m really excited about the fact that he’s coming back.” In case there was any doubt, she added: “President Trump is my president. I’ll vote for him 50 times, I don’t care.” But she sees strength, not wobbliness, in Sessions’s recusal. “I have a lot more respect for him standing by what he believed in than if he had just buddied up with President Trump to do what he wanted him to do.”

“Sessions is my man,” said Arthur Glennon Gunn, Joy’s husband and a retired Marine. He added, “Now, I love President Trump. I’ll vote for him, I don’t care what he’s running for.” I asked how he can reconcile his love for Trump and his support for Sessions given Trump’s own opinion of Sessions. “The president is the main man,” Gunn said. “And if he didn’t think Jeff Sessions should have excused his self, that’s his opinion. He’s the boss, and when he makes a decision, we all should support it, whether it’s right, whether it’s wrong.”

What gets lost in the Sessions narrative is that while Trump spent nearly two years belittling his attorney general, Sessions went about methodically dismantling significant portions of the legacy of Barack Obama’s Justice Department. “He was a staunch ally of the president’s, and that was the cruel irony of their relationship,” Charles J. Cooper, a former assistant attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and a friend of Sessions’s, told me. “He became, and for two years I believe was, President Trump’s most consequentially effective Cabinet minister.”

Under Sessions, the Justice Department rolled back federal oversight of troubled police departments, defended Trump’s immigration crackdowns and travel restrictions, reversed workplace-discrimination protections for transgender people, encouraged federal agencies to take a more conservative approach to disputes over religious freedom and became more skeptical of alleged voting rights violations. In his resignation letter to Trump, Sessions emphasized other achievements, including prosecuting a record number of violent offenders, targeting transnational gangs and cracking down on enablers of the opioid epidemic. He also took credit for a drop in violent crime and homicides.

As striking as this record is — whether one admires it or not — voters I spoke with in Alabama had not heard much about it. Trump effectively defined Sessions as the recuser, as if Sessions had done nothing to advance the president’s agenda in the 20 months afterward. “Sessions kind of disappointed me as an AG, mainly because he didn’t do an incredible amount,” said Michael Pinkston, a software engineer I met eating a bowl of ramen in Huntsville. “But as a senator, I loved him. So I don’t know if I would vote for him again.” When I mentioned some of Sessions’s record as attorney general, Pinkston replied: “It wasn’t things that made the headlines. What made the headlines was recusing himself from the Russia probe.”

“I’m so disappointed that he was there and then you didn’t hear anything else about Jeff Sessions for the entire time he was there,” said Sue Graham, an interpreter for the deaf from Sylacauga, who is voting for Tuberville. “I’m sure he did something right, but I’m not aware of anything that he did.”

Other voters spoke bitterly about Sessions’s failure to indict Hillary Clinton, agents of the so-called deep state and other Trump antagonists. “No indictments came out on the deep state — why didn’t he pursue that course of action?” said Tom Byars, a corporate public relations retiree from Tuscaloosa. At first I didn’t know what these voters meant, until I went back and read some more of Trump’s tweets about Sessions: “So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?” And: “Question: If all of the Russian meddling took place during the Obama Administration, right up to January 20th, why aren’t they the subject of the investigation? Why didn’t Obama do something about the meddling? Why aren’t Dem crimes under investigation? Ask Jeff Sessions!” To devastating effect, Trump had masterfully turned Sessions into a character — the Fool — in his political drama.

Sessions before speaking at the Alabama Sheriffs Association conference in Montgomery. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

The phone lines were jammed with a half-dozen callers stacked up on news-talk station 93.1 FM WACV in the state capital of Montgomery — slogan: “All the headlines the mainstream media won’t touch!” — where co-hosts Joey Clark and Jack Campbell chew over Alabama and national politics for three hours every weekday morning. On this Friday in January, they had asked listeners to call in to their show “News and Views” and say whom they were voting for in the Senate primary and why. They also invited me to the studio, a detail they shared on the air. “He’s here on a fact-finding mission,” Campbell told listeners. “You know, Yankee coming down here and getting in our business.”

Tuberville jumped out to an early lead in the radio straw poll. Because he’s not a politician was the leading reason his supporters gave to vote for the man they simply refer to as “Coach.” They also liked his open emphasis of his Christian faith and his promise to make education a priority.

Soon enough, callers for Byrne began chiming in, as if in response to the Tuberville surge. They said Byrne was better prepared for the blood sport of Washington. “We don’t need a football coach” in the Senate, said one. They praised Byrne’s record of cleaning up problems in the Alabama community college system as a state official and his advocacy for Trump in Congress.

“He was a staunch ally of the president’s, and that was the cruel irony of their relationship,” says Charles J. Cooper, a former Reagan official and friend of Sessions’s.

The radio hosts knew an organized call-in campaign when they saw it. “It seems to me that the Bradley Byrne people have been calling their people, because they’re all calling at the same time,” Campbell teased on the air. “With good talking points, I might add.”

I kept waiting for Sessions partisans to mount a response, but they weren’t dialing in. “We have, like, two or three callers that are still in the Sessions camp that call regularly,” Clark told me off-air, during a station break. “And also, a lot of his supporters I would guess tend to be a little older, have been around the block, so they don’t necessarily engage quite as much in talk radio.” Clark, who said he was still undecided on his primary vote, added: “I think Jeff Sessions may have had to recuse himself, but I think he was so quiet for so long that it was jarring to see him on Tucker Carlson making that announcement. It was like: Where’s this guy been? And so he needs to do a lot to repair the reputation just from his stint with the Trump administration.”

“You know, people were kind of p---ed that he announced from Washington and not from Alabama,” said Campbell, a retired political consultant and walking almanac of state GOP politics who said he is leaning toward Tuberville. “I was talking to a prominent lobbyist the other night. I was at a restaurant. And I won’t say his name because he wouldn’t want me to quote him. ... He’s with a trade association. He said, ‘Oh, we’re going to get involved in the Senate race.’ I said, ‘Who are y’all supporting?’ And he said, ‘Sessions.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘To tell you the truth, Richard Shelby told us to.’ That’s kind of interesting.”

“To me, it’s a little unfortunate the race has become who’s going to give Donald Trump the biggest hug,” Clark said.

Back to the phones. Clark couldn’t resist playing a clip of Trump recently describing his proposed name for a combined NATO-Middle East alliance (NATOME) and explaining it would be as easy to remember as his new treaty with Canada and Mexico (USMCA). “Like the song ‘YMCA,’ ” Trump said. Clark chuckled appreciatively. “That’s part of the guy’s appeal,” he told listeners as he played a few bars of the Village People anthem. “Oh, man, he’s like a stand-up comic.”

After 90 minutes, Campbell announced the results of the call-in poll, for whatever they might be worth: 24 calls for Tuberville, 14 for Byrne, 3 for Sessions.

Sessions during a news conference with the Madison County Sheriff’s Office in Huntsville. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

Violent thunderstorms and likely tornadoes were forecast, but that didn’t stop 150 people from filling a community room in the Vestavia Hills Public Library, outside Birmingham, for the monthly meeting of the Mid Alabama Republican Club on a Saturday morning in January. They wanted to hear from Jeff Sessions, after having listened to Tommy Tuberville and Bradley Byrne at previous meetings.

Here, as everywhere, some Alabama Republicans were still making up their minds, still taking the measure of the man they used to reflexively send to the Senate. And as everywhere, it was impossible to talk about Sessions without talking about Trump — and it was impossible for Sessions to talk about himself without talking about Trump.

Before the program, as Sessions mingled, club board member Randy Mazer, who used to own a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store, was chatting with Mike Morgan, also a board member. “I hope he addresses the fact of his recusal,” said Mazer, who was thinking about voting for Tuberville but hadn’t decided.

“We may have to ask him the question, put him on the spot,” said Morgan, who was leaning toward Byrne.

Someone should ask him the question,” Mazer agreed. “We come to these meetings and everybody throws softballs.”

A few minutes later, Sessions passed near and Mazer seized the opportunity. They shook hands. “I hope you’re going to address your recusal,” Mazer said point blank.

Sessions stared at him and measured his words.Well, we don’t need to argue that every day,” he said amiably. “I don’t want to do anything that — ”

I think a lot of people want to hear it,” Mazer interrupted.

(Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

“Okay, all right,” Sessions said. Then he leaned in close to Mazer as if to pass on a secret. “You know what I’m seeing?” he said. “The media has been trying to get me relentlessly to [criticize] Trump. ... I refuse because I don’t want to undermine him in any way, you understand that? So it’s a very difficult thing. Anyway, I get you.” After Sessions moved on, Mazer told me he agrees that the media is trying to exploit Sessions’s rift with Trump — but he still wanted to hear Sessions talk about the recusal.

Sessions had a much warmer exchange with Luisa Kay Reyes, a lawyer, who afterward told me that he had been right to recuse himself: “I think it speaks very well for Sessions how gallant he’s been about the whole matter. ... It’s a quality he has, and it’s why we want him back as senator.”

When it came time for Sessions to address the group as a whole, he stepped away from the lectern toward the people and adopted the deferential tone of a candidate alert to the warning signs that he has something to earn all over again. “I really just kind of want to talk to you from my heart today,” he said quietly. “I hope that you will consider me.”

He reminded the audience of his battles against “amnesty” and globalism; of how, despite having supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he agrees with Trump that foreign entanglements must be more carefully scrutinized; and of his prowess as a culture warrior: “Y’all know one of the biggest things in America today is whether or not that people actually believe there is a truth and a right and wrong. This crowd, this left-wing group, are socialist, they’re secularist, they believe in their revolution, and they don’t believe in tradition and order and law and the Constitution. It’s a big deal. I feel strongly about it, and if we do this thing right, the American people agree with us. Don’t you think?” Yes! came the reply from the audience.

But as if introducing himself for the first time, he also dwelled on his origin story as a young Republican, and his rebirth as a precocious campaigner for Trump. “I had never endorsed another presidential candidate,” he said. He argued that he is the candidate to help usher in a lasting Trumpian future. “I believe steadfastly that if this Republican Party will welcome the new voters Donald Trump identified ... and make them a part of our party enthusiastically, we can have a majority, a working Republican conservative majority in America for a decade, maybe two,” he said. The Trump voters he was referring to are working-class Americans, people who could form the backbone of what he calls a “Republican workers party.”

In his 20-minute address, he never did get around to mentioning his recusal. But he offered the pledge he has been making across the state: “I’ll say one more time, if you elect me, send me again, I won’t go wobbly on you.”

The audience clapped enthusiastically, and then a club official reported that the area was now under a tornado watch. The meeting was promptly adjourned with brave jokes about the weather. Outside, the air was gusty and strangely warm, thick with unpredictable energy. Sessions climbed into a silver SUV, intent on making the trip home to Mobile and weathering the storm.

David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us