The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s hard-line actions have an intellectual godfather: Jeff Sessions

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 10. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

In jagged black strokes, President Trump’s signature was scribbled onto a catalogue of executive orders over the past 10 days that translated the hard-line promises of his campaign into the policies of his government.

The directives bore Trump’s name, but another man’s fingerprints were also on nearly all of them: Jeff Sessions.

The early days of the Trump presidency have rushed a nationalist agenda long on the fringes of American life into action — and Sessions, the quiet Alabam­ian who long cultivated those ideas as a Senate backbencher, has become a singular power in this new Washington.

Sessions’s ideology is driven by a visceral aversion to what he calls “soulless globalism,” a term used on the extreme right to convey a perceived threat to the United States from free trade, international alliances and the immigration of nonwhites.

And despite many reservations among Republicans about that worldview, Sessions — whose 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship was doomed by accusations of racism that he denied — is finding little resistance in Congress to his proposed role as Trump’s attorney general.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been implementing big changes at the Justice Department. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Sessions’s nomination is scheduled to be voted on Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but his influence in the administration stretches far beyond the Justice Department. From immigration and health care to national security and trade, Sessions is the intellectual godfather of the president’s policies. His reach extends throughout the White House, with his aides and allies accelerating the president’s most dramatic moves, including the ban on refugees and citizens from seven mostly Muslim nations that has triggered fear around the globe.

The author of many of Trump’s executive orders is senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, a Sessions confidant who was mentored by him and who spent the weekend overseeing the government’s implementation of the refu­gee ban. The tactician turning Trump’s agenda into law is deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn, Sessions’s longtime chief of staff in the Senate. The mastermind behind Trump’s incendiary brand of populism is chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who, as chairman of the Breitbart website, promoted Sessions for years.

Then there is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who considers Sessions a savant and forged a bond with the senator while orchestrating Trump’s trip last summer to Mexico City and during the darkest days of the campaign.

Trump lays groundwork to change U.S. role in the world

In an email in response to a request from The Washington Post, Bannon described Sessions as “the clearinghouse for policy and philosophy” in Trump’s administration, saying he and the senator are at the center of Trump’s “pro-America movement” and the global nationalist phenomenon.

“In America and Europe, working people are reasserting their right to control their own destinies,” Bannon wrote. “Jeff Sessions has been at the forefront of this movement for years, developing populist nation-state policies that are supported by the vast and overwhelming majority of Americans, but are poorly understood by cosmopolitan elites in the media that live in a handful of our larger cities.”

He continued: "Throughout the campaign, Sessions has been the fiercest, most dedicated, and most loyal promoter in Congress of Trump's agenda, and has played a critical role as the clearinghouse for policy and philosophy to undergird the implementation of that agenda. What we are witnessing now is the birth of a new political order, and the more frantic a handful of media elites become, the more powerful that new political order becomes itself."

Trump, who is never shy about showering praise on his loyalists, speaks of Sessions with reverence. At a luncheon the day before his inauguration, Trump singled out someone in the audience: “the legendary Jeff Sessions.”

Trump said in an email to The Post that Sessions is “a truly fine person.”

“Jeff was one of my earliest supporters and the fact that he is so highly respected by everyone in both Washington, D.C., and around the country was a tremendous asset to me throughout the campaign,” Trump wrote.

Sessions helped devise the president’s first-week strategy, in which Trump signed a blizzard of executive orders that begin to fulfill his signature campaign promises — although Sessions had advocated going even faster.

The senator lobbied for a “shock-and-awe” period of executive action that would rattle Congress, impress Trump’s base and catch his critics unaware, according to two officials involved in the transition planning. Trump opted for a slightly slower pace, these officials said, because he wanted to maximize news coverage by spreading out his directives over several weeks.

Trump makes his own decisions, but Sessions was one of the rare lawmakers who shared his impulses.

“Sessions brings heft to the president’s gut instincts,” said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser. He compared Sessions to John Mitchell, who was attorney general under Richard M. Nixon but served a more intimate role as a counselor to the president on just about everything. “Nixon is not a guy given to taking advice, but Mitchell was probably Nixon’s closest adviser,” Stone said.

In Trump’s Washington, rival powers and whispers in the president’s ear

There are limits to Sessions’s influence, however. He has not persuaded Trump — so far, at least — to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, under which children brought to the United States illegally are allowed to stay in the country.

Sessions has also been leading the internal push for Trump to nominate William H. Pryor Jr., his deputy when Sessions was Alabama’s attorney general and now a federal appeals court judge, for the Supreme Court. While Pryor is on Trump’s list of three finalists, it is unclear whether he will get the nod.

In his senior staff meetings, Trump talks about Sessions as someone who “gets things done,” calmly and without fanfare, said Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor.

“He does it in a very courtly, deliberative manner,” she said. “There’s never a cloud of dust or dramatic flourish.”

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House and informal Trump adviser, said, “Sessions is the person who is comfortable being an outsider to the establishment but able to explain the establishment to Trump. There is this New York-Los ­Angeles bias that if you sound like Alabama, you can’t be all that bright, but that’s totally wrong, and Trump recognized how genuinely smart Sessions is.”

Sessions was especially instrumental in the early days of the transition, which was taken over by Dearborn after a purge of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s associates. Sessions became a daily presence at Trump Tower in New York, mapping out the policy agenda and making personnel decisions.

Once former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was out of consideration for secretary of state, Trump considered nominating Sessions because he was so trusted by the inner circle, including Kushner, although Sessions’s preference was to be attorney general, according to people familiar with the talks.

Since his nomination, Sessions has been careful to not be formally involved even as his ideas animate the White House. In a statement Sunday, he denied that he has had “communications” with his former advisers or reviewed the executive orders.

Sessions has installed close allies throughout the administration. He persuaded Cliff Sims, a friend and adviser, to sell his Alabama media outlet and take a job directing message strategy at the White House. Sessions also influenced the selection of Peter Navarro, an economist and friend with whom he co-authored an op-ed last fall warning against the "rabbit hole of globalism," as director of the National Trade Council.

Sessions’s connections extend into the White House media briefing room, where press secretary Sean Spicer took the first question at his Jan. 24 briefing from a journalist at LifeZette, a conservative website run by Laura Ingraham, a Trump supporter and populist in the Sessions mold. The website’s senior editor is Garrett Murch, a former communications adviser to Sessions.

Another link: Julia Hahn, a Breitbart writer who favorably chronicled Sessions's immigration crusades over the past two years, was hired by Bannon to be one of his White House aides.

More mainstream Republicans have been alarmed by Sessions’s ascent. John Weaver, a veteran GOP strategist who was a consultant on Sessions’s first Senate campaign and is now a Trump critic, said Sessions is at the pinnacle of power because he shares Trump’s “1940s view of fortress America.”

“That’s something you would find in an Allen Drury novel,” Weaver said. “Unfortunately, there are real consequences to this, which are draconian views on immigration and a view of America that is insular and not an active member of the global community.”

Trump’s pick for attorney general is shadowed by race and history

Inside the White House and within Sessions’s alumni network, people have taken to calling the senator “Joseph,” referring to the Old Testament patriarch who was shunned by his family and sold into slavery as a boy, only to rise through unusual circumstances to become right hand to the pharaoh and oversee the lands of Egypt.

In a 20-year Senate career, Sessions has been isolated in his own party, a dynamic crystallized a decade ago when he split with President George W. Bush and the business community over comprehensive immigration changes.

In lonely and somewhat conspiratorial speeches on the Senate floor, Sessions would chastise the “masters of the universe.” He hung on his office wall a picture of He-Man from the popular 1980s comic book series.

As he weighed a presidential run, Trump liked what he saw in Sessions, who was tight with the constituencies Trump was eager to rouse on the right. So he cultivated a relationship, giving Sessions $2,000 for his 2014 reelection even though the senator had no Democratic opponent.

“Sessions was always somebody that we had targeted,” said Sam Nunberg, Trump’s political adviser at the time.

In May 2015, Nunberg said, he reached out to Miller, then an adviser to Sessions, to arrange a phone call between Trump and the senator. The two hit it off, with Trump telling Nunberg, “That guy is tough.”

The next month, Trump declared his candidacy. In August of that year, Sessions joined Trump at a mega-rally in the senator's home town of Mobile and donned a "Make America Great Again" cap. By January 2016, Miller had formally joined the campaign and was traveling daily with the candidate, writing speeches and crafting policies.

“Senator Sessions laid a bit of groundwork . . . on matters like trade and illegal immigration,” Conway said. “It was candidate Trump then who was able to elevate those twin pillars in a way that cast it through the lens of what’s good for the American worker.”

As Trump kept rising, so did Sessions.

“It’s like being a guerrilla in the hinterlands preparing for the next hopeless assault on the government,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative research institute. “Then you get a message that the capital has fallen.”