Former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions has officially joined Alabama’s 2020 Senate race as political observers wait to see whether President Donald Trump — the man who publicly forced him out from atop the Department of Justice (DOJ) last year — can remain on the sidelines.
Though there have been whispers for a while that Sessions might be considering a bid for his old Senate seat, he officially made his campaign announcement last week in a primetime interview on Fox News.
The political media’s focus of Sessions’ campaign so far has been his tumultuous relationship with Trump, which began to quickly deteriorate after he recused himself from overseeing a DOJ investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 election. The president has publicly blamed Sessions for the nearly two-year investigation that followed under the leadership of special counsel Robert Mueller.
Sessions has maintained he has no regrets about his decision to recuse himself from an investigation that overlapped a campaign he was closely involved with, telling Fox host Tucker Carlson last week he was only doing “what I had to do under the rules of the Department of Justice.”
Last November, only a few days after the 2018 midterms, Sessions resigned “at the president’s request” after months of routine public criticism from Trump. Despite that, Sessions has continued to support Trump and his agenda — a point he makes crystal clear in the first ad released by his campaign.
“When I left president Trump’s cabinet, did I write a tell-all book? No. Did I go on CNN and attack the president? No. Have I said a cross word about our president? Not one time,” Sessions says in the 30-second spot. “First, that would be dishonorable. I was there to serve his agenda, not mine. Second, the president is doing a great job for America and Alabama and he has my strong support.”
Specifically, Sessions has highlighted his support for Trump policies on immigration, trade and his recent push to get American soldiers out of what the former attorney general (AG) called “endless wars.” Sessions also noted he supported similar positions long before Trump took Republican politics by storm in 2016.
Sessions said he’s hopeful the president will consider the work he’s done over the past 20 years, if he does decide to weigh in on the race. Speaking to Carlson, he also seemed to acknowledge getting his seat back wouldn’t be a given, but he also still believes he has more to contribute in the Senate.
“It’s not ‘my’ seat in the Senate, but I believe I have something to give. I have some convictions that I think need to be pushed,” Sessions said. “We need to get some of the Republicans moving. They haven’t been pushing hard enough to advance the Trump agenda, and so that’s what I look forward to doing.”
One thing that bodes well for Sessions is he still has quite the war chest left over from previous races — about $2.5 million coming out of the gate, according to recent campaign filings. That puts him on the same playing field as some of the most prolific fundraisers in the crowded Republican primary.
With the announcement, Sessions joins a list of GOP candidates that includes U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, State Rep. Arnold Mooney and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, among others.
The winner will take on Democratic Sen. Doug Jones for the seat he claimed in a 2017 special election.
Trump enjoys as much support in Alabama as anywhere in the country, and political observers believe a lot of Sessions’ political fate will hinge on how the president responds to his campaign. Fortunately for Sessions, his old boss seems to be staying on the sidelines for now.
When asked if he would endorse Sessions the day after his announcement, Trump said he hadn’t decided.
“Well, I haven’t gotten involved,” Trump told reporters from Politico and other outlets. “I saw he said very nice things about me last night, but we’ll have to see. I haven’t made a determination.”
During an interview with former Fox 10 News anchor Bob Grip last week, Sessions got a lot more candid about his relationship with Trump, which he said was full of “ups and downs.” Yet, he also seemed confident Trump can remain neutral and let Alabamaians decide their next senator.
“The President … he’s very strong in his beliefs and I understood it. It was a very difficult time for him,” Sessions told Grip. “I think from what he said just today and yesterday — in the case — he’s certainly neutral on this race. He’s not going to take sides in it. His son, Don Jr., who is a friend, said the same thing in Birmingham last night. And I think Vice President [Mike] Pence did. So I feel very good about that.”
But regardless of what the president says or tweets, other GOP primary candidates have already shown a willingness to attack the former AG for his handling of the Russia investigation. A political action committee supporting Tuberville has already launched an ad referring to him a “traitor.”
Following Sessions’ nomination for AG, Byrne released a lengthy statement praising him as “the perfect pick” for the position, but his tune seems to have shifted as rumors of a Sessions senate bid solidified. He has recently targeted Sessions in soundbites while playing up his loyalty to Trump.
He told the Associated Press last week that “Alabama deserves a senator who will stand with the president and won’t run away and hide from the fight,” when asked about rumors of Sessions joining the race. Despite that, Byrne also recently said he and Sessions “have a lot of respect for one another.”
Outside of the other candidates in the race, Sessions does appear to have maintained a fair amount of support among Republican senators. Last week, his campaign released an “open letter to conservatives” penned by 11 GOP senators who are backing Sessions in the race.
Atop the list was Sessions’ longtime Alabama counterpart in the high chamber, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby.
“Jeff Sessions is a good friend and a respected former colleague,” Shelby wrote. “I believe he is well suited to return to his role as United States Senator for the state of Alabama, where I served with him for more than 20 years. He has my full support and endorsement.”
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