Jeff Sessions: How he lost Donald Trump’s support (and how he got it in the first place) – Donald Trump’s America
Donald Trump has had a fractured relationship with Jeff Sessions for much of his presidency. (Reuters: Jonathan Ernst)
It’s no surprise that Donald Trump has finally sacked Jeff Sessions. Here are some of the things he had to say about his Attorney-General over the past year and a bit:
- “If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else” (July 19, 2017)
- “Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes” (July 25, 2017)
- “I put in an Attorney-General who never took control of the Justice Department” (August 23, 2018)
- “I don’t have an Attorney-General. It’s very sad” (September 18, 2018)
For a long time, followers of US politics have been asking themselves not just if, but when, Mr Sessions would go. And this timing, just after the midterms, had been expected.
But given their fractured relationship, you might be wondering how Mr Sessions and Mr Trump ever became political allies in the first place.
Let’s take it back a bit.
Sessions was the first US senator to support Donald Trump’s campaign for president
The former Alabama attorney-general and US attorney, who had been a senator since 1997, shared the then-presidential candidate’s tough stances on crime and immigration.
He backed Mr Trump’s promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico and opposed any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
“This isn’t a campaign, this is a movement,” he told a Trump rally in Alabama.
The announcement of his endorsement on February 28, 2016, came at a crucial time as Mr Trump was trying to maintain momentum during the Republican primaries.
He was to become a key surrogate (or supporter) of the Trump campaign, and became the chair of its national security advisory council.
He was selected as Attorney-General following Republican election victory
It was a charged confirmation process, in which Democrat Elizabeth Warren was silenced after she read from a letter by a civil rights activist who had accused Mr Sessions of using “the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens”.
But Mr Sessions got through it 52 votes to 47 in February 2017.
Here’s what Mr Trump said at the time when announcing Mr Sessions as his choice:
“He is a world-class legal mind and considered a truly great attorney-general and US attorney in the state of Alabama. Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him.”
But this is how Mr Trump recounted the lead-up to Mr Sessions’ selection in an interview with political website The Hill in September 2018:
“He went through the nominating process and he did very poorly. I mean, he was mixed up and confused, and people that worked with him for, you know, a long time in the Senate were not nice to him, but he was giving very confusing answers. Answers that should have been easily answered. And that was a rough time for him.”
It all turned sour in March 2017 following Sessions’ confirmation
That’s when Mr Sessions recused himself — or stepped aside — from oversight of the Russia investigation.
The backstory is that he’d said during his confirmation hearings that he hadn’t had communication with the Russians during his time on the Trump election campaign.
But The Washington Post revealed in March 2017 that he’d actually had two undisclosed meetings with Russia’s ambassador, one of which took place in September 2016 in the then-senator’s office.
There were immediate calls for Mr Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, which is what he then did.
That left the investigation in the hands of Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein, who two months later appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to take charge of it.
Mr Trump has since had to deal with what he has called a “rigged Russia witch hunt“, and the relationship has never recovered.
There were strong hints in July 2017 that Trump was looking to fire Sessions
That’s when Mr Trump made the comment that he would have picked someone else as Attorney-General if he’d known Mr Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
It’s also when he accused Mr Sessions of being weak on Hillary Clinton and her use of a private email server during her time as US secretary of state.
It may have been on the advice of aides that Mr Trump didn’t sack Mr Sessions earlier.
But he was also protected for much of his time in office by the support of Senate Republicans, including judiciary committee chairman Chuck Grassley, who had said he wouldn’t schedule a confirmation hearing for another attorney-general if Mr Trump fired him.
More recently, however, that support had faded, with Mr Grassley suggesting he might have time for a hearing after all.
His eventual sacking, the day after the midterm elections, was the first of what could end up being a string of exits. And it could have an impact on the future of the Russian investigation.