As you know, the president has brutally attacked Sessions for years for the then-attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation. Now that Sessions is running for the Senate again, his punishment for this apostasy has been to see Trump endorse his opponent — former college football coach Tommy Tuberville.
One interesting aspect of this whole affair has been Sessions’s response to Trump’s criticisms — in particular, what Sessions can and cannot say in response to them, which illustrates what GOP primary voters are willing to entertain in the era of Trump.
Sessions has defended his recusal in March 2017 as the right thing to do. But what he cannot give utterance to in any serious way is what it really means that Trump has spent years attacking him for it.
Trump has raged at Sessions for failing to protect him from the Russia probe, at one point even reportedly trying to pressure Sessions into reversing his recusal. In so doing, Trump has in effect declared that a key role of the attorney general should have been to function as his defender amid a lawful investigation, not just involving Trump’s campaign, but into a foreign attack on our election and democracy.
Trump even openly said in 2018 that “I don’t have an attorney general,” never mind that the AG’s role is to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
Of course, Sessions recused himself because he was legally required to do so, having functioned as a top confidant and campaign loyalist to Trump. And given Sessions’s own contacts with Russians, he was obliged to recuse himself due to his potential role in the matter being investigated, to preserve public confidence in the investigation and in the possibility of accountability for Russian subversion of U.S. democracy.
But Sessions must carefully dance around what this history really means.
Sessions can defend his own conduct, but all he can say about Trump’s endorsement of his opponent is that this represents “Washington” trying to pick Alabama’s senator.
Similarly, in May, Sessions defended himself from another Trump tirade by saying that “recusal was required by law” and that “it protected the rule of law & resulted in your exoneration.”
In other words, Sessions must cast recusal not just as what the rule of law required, but also as having been good for Trump, by claiming that allowing the process to unfold properly vindicated him. The idea that Trump was exonerated is highly questionable at best, and Sessions’s depiction obscures the ugly fact that Trump went to enormous lengths to try to impede the investigation — indeed, the effort to get Sessions to protect him was one element of that.
Sessions can’t seriously level with GOP voters about any of this stuff. Underscoring the perversity here, Sessions is actually more in sync with Trump on issues such as immigration and trade than Tuberville is.
Yet, even there, Sessions must be oblique. Sessions has pointed out that he is the one who’s truly in agreement with Trump; Sessions’s defense is that he’s the truly faithful one.
What Sessions cannot say, of course, is that all this suggests that for Trump, the imperative of defending his corruption and misconduct from accountability was and is far more important to him than any loyalty to his issue agenda. Nor can Sessions say what that really means.