Former attorney general Jeff Sessions plans to announce as soon as Thursday that he will run for his old Senate seat in Alabama, according to three people familiar with his plans, setting the stage for a potentially contentious Republican primary with President Trump at the center and control of the Senate possibly at stake.
Sessions, whose turbulent two-year stint in the administration ended in dramatic fashion when he was forced out by Trump in November 2018, would enter with strong name recognition and deep institutional ties in the state and elsewhere. He held the seat for two decades before he became Trump’s first U.S. attorney general.
But the wild card in the race will be Trump, and whether he will weigh in against his former attorney general and in favor of other Republicans who have already announced their candidacies. Trump remains popular in the state and plans to attend the University of Alabama’s football game against Louisiana State University in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday.
Trump never forgave Sessions for recusing himself from the Justice Department investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, frequently berating him on Twitter for a move he viewed as a betrayal.
The president has discussed attacking Sessions with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and McConnell has shared that he also has concerns about Sessions running because it could create a messy primary contest for a seat Republicans feel they have to win, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue. Trump has repeatedly denigrated Sessions to allies and White House aides in recent days, people familiar with his comments said.
Sessions has not spoken with either Trump or McConnell about his plans to run, according to people familiar with the matter. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Sessions is scheduled to appear on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program on Thursday.
The Alabama race could factor heavily into determining which party controls the Senate following the 2020 election. Republicans are defending 23 seats, compared with just 12 for the Democrats. Republicans hold a 53-to-47 advantage and have long been hoping to oust Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.). They are wagering that his defeat would help offset any losses in other battleground states and protect the GOP’s majority.
“This is a nightmare for D.C. Republicans that just want to defeat Doug Jones,” said Dan Eberhart, an oil industry executive and a GOP donor who plans to back Sessions. “This is going to tie Trump and McConnell in knots.”
Jones delivered the GOP a stunning setback by flipping the seat in 2017. He defied the state’s strong conservative tilt with a victory over Republican Roy Moore, who faced allegations that he made sexual advances on teenagers when he was in his 30s.
A representative for Jones on Wednesday declined to comment on Sessions, citing a desire to wait until he officially enters the competition.
Jones’s defeat of Moore was seen as one of the low points of Trump’s first two years in office, demoralizing party leaders and straining the relationship between the president and McConnell. Top Republicans have had their eyes on reclaiming the seat since.
But first, they will have to settle their nomination fight, the contestants for which will soon be finalized ahead of the Friday filing deadline. The primary is March 3.
The field already includes Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), who had been seen as a leading candidate. In a statement, Byrne signaled that he would not be deterred by the entrance of Sessions and foreshadowed a line of attack against the former attorney general.
“From the Mueller investigation to this impeachment sham, President Trump has been under constant attack,” said Byrne, referring to the former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “I won’t sit back and watch them destroy our country. Alabama deserves a Senator who will stand with the president and won’t run away and hide from the fight.”
Also running for the Republican nomination are former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, state Rep. Arnold Mooney and Moore, who has acknowledged interactions with the women who accused him but has denied any sexual contact. Tuberville and Byrne have led in public and internal GOP polling.
But Trump looms larger over the contest than any other Republican. He has even joked to senators and White House aides that he would move to Alabama and compete against Sessions himself in the primary, two people familiar with his comments said.
Sessions and Trump were once staunch allies. As a candidate, Trump drew a large crowd at a campaign rally in Sessions’s hometown of Mobile, Ala., in 2015 and brought Sessions onstage. The event was seen as a key early demonstration of Trump’s popularity in the Deep South.
But the relationship soured over time due to Sessions’s recusal from the Russia probe, and its deterioration became a nasty public spectacle that played out on Trump’s Twitter feed. Professionally, it officially ended a year ago when Sessions resigned at Trump’s request after a dispute with the president that had erupted into public view.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said that he spoke with Sessions this week but that the former senator and attorney general did not indicate to him directly whether he would run. Shelby said he spoke with Trump two months ago about Sessions’s potential candidacy and that “he was not exactly on board.”
“He’ll be a factor,” Shelby said of Trump. “But I think if Sessions runs, he’d be a formidable candidate. But you have to win it on the battlefield.”
Sessions has largely stayed out of the public eye since his dismissal last fall. But he spoke at Northwestern University earlier this week, where he declined to directly criticize the president and praised the administration's policies, according to the school’s student newspaper.
“I had never watched [Trump’s] program on TV, I didn’t know how many people he’d fired — maybe I’d have been more careful,” Sessions said, according to the Daily Northwestern. “The president is allowed to fire you, but fortunately he doesn’t get to shoot you.”