"I leave elective office with my integrity in tact," Jeff Sessions said Tuesday night following his rout at the hands of former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville in a runoff for the Alabama Republican Senate nomination. "This chapter of my life is closed."
Sessions didn't name the chapter that had just closed but, if he had, it would have been titled: "The Trump Years." And it would read like a tragedy.
Let's leaf through it.
In mid 2015, Sessions was just settling in to his fourth term representing Alabama in the Senate, having been unopposed by any Democrat in his 2014 reelection race. In his late 60s at the time, Sessions could comfortably expect to hold his seat for as long as he chose -- given his popularity in the Alabama and the state's overwhelming Republican bent.
But, Sessions, who had been nominated to be a federal judge by Ronald Reagan in 1986 only to see the Senate block his nomination due to allegations of racism, wanted more. He longed to be attorney general of the United States. (He had been attorney general in Alabama prior to winning his Senate seat in 1996.) The problem? Sessions, who has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate and had emerged as the loudest voice in the chamber on the threats posed to the country by illegal immigration, was not someone all that well regarded by the establishment of the party. Assuming former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination at the time, won the primary, there was a roughly 0% chance Sessions would be the next attorney general. Ditto if Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was the nominee. Or even Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Then Donald Trump announced his run for president on June 16, 2015. And promised to build a "big" and "beautiful" wall along the southern border to keep the "rapists," drug-dealers and other assorted criminals out of America. Trump, unlike all of the rest of the contenders for the Republican nomination, didn't have much of a political inner circle. And he was expressly running against the sort of establishment types that had dismissed Sessions as a serious player.
Sessions didn't endorse Trump right away, however. He didn't get to the Senate -- and stay there -- by being dumb. No point in throwing away an endorsement on a guy who flames out within a few months -- as everyone expected Trump to do. But, as it became more and more clear that Trump's campaign was striking a chord with Republican primary voters sick of status quo politicians, Sessions saw an opportunity. A chance to grab the golden ring that seemed so unobtainable just a few months before.
"At this time in American history we need to make America great again," Sessions told a large and loud crowd on February 28, 2016, in Madison, Alabama. "I am pleased to endorse Donald Trump for president of the United States." It made him the first senator to endorse Trump. And, yes, it was a gamble since the Super Tuesday primaries were two days off -- and it wasn't yet clear whether Trump would be the nominee or, even if he was, if he had a chance at actually being elected to the White House. But it was a bet worth making in Sessions' mind. Because, if Trump did manage to win, then he could give Sessions the one thing he had always dreamed about: Trump could make Sessions the Attorney General of the United States.
And then, unbelievably, it all happened -- just as Sessions had hoped. Trump won the nomination. Then he beat Hillary Clinton. Then, on November 16, 2017, he nominated the Alabama senator to be the next AG. "Jeff has been a highly respected member of the U.S. Senate for 20 years," Trump said in a statement announcing the pick. "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."
Sessions could be forgiven, at that moment, for a bit of self-congratulation. He had bet huge on a massive longshot -- and won. Except that this bet was on Donald Trump. And Donald Trump wasn't done with Sessions. Not by a long shot.
In retrospect, Sessions got, roughly, two months of doing his dream job without much trouble. Then came March 3, 2017, when he announced that he had decided to recuse himself from the ongoing Justice Department probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. That choice came after it was revealed that Sessions, in the course of his confirmations hearings to be AG, had not fully disclosed his contacts with Russians during the 2016 campaign. In Sessions' mind, it was the only way of protecting the sanctity of the investigation -- and to allow Trump to be, ultimately, cleared without people thinking that his attorney general had biased the conclusions.
Trump, uh, didn't see it that way. As the investigation came to further and further engulf his presidency, Trump turned on Sessions -- casting his AG as the sole reason for all of the troubles he was enduring. (That idea -- that the eventual special counsel probe was all Sessions' fault is, of course, ridiculous.) This, from The New York Times in September 2017, captures how quickly Trump soured:
"Shortly after learning in May that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate links between his campaign associates and Russia, President Trump berated Attorney General Jeff Sessions in an Oval Office meeting and said he should resign, according to current and former administration officials and others briefed on the matter.
"The president attributed the appointment of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to Mr. Sessions's decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department's Russia investigation — a move Mr. Trump believes was the moment his administration effectively lost control over the inquiry. Accusing Mr. Sessions of 'disloyalty,' Mr. Trump unleashed a string of insults on his attorney general."
Oomph. And, here's what's worse: Concerned about how it would look if he fired Sessions in the middle of the Mueller probe, Trump went another route: He tried to humiliate Sessions into quitting. For more than a year.
Trump called Sessions "mixed up and confused." He called him "weak." He called him "disgraceful." He called him "scared stiff and missing in action." He called him "beleaguered." He reportedly referred to him as "Mr. Magoo." And then, on the day after the November 2018 election, Trump fired Sessions.
Sessions might have reasonably assumed that the Trump chapter of his life was over. Nope!
When Sessions announced his plan to seek his old seat in the Senate in 2020, Trump made very clear that he wanted anyone but his former AG in the job. He endorsed Tuberville and tweeted a string of attacks on Sessions through the primary and runoff process.
"3 years ago, after Jeff Sessions recused himself, the Fraudulent Mueller Scam began," Trump tweeted on May 22. "Alabama, do not trust Jeff Sessions. He let our Country down. That's why I endorsed Coach Tommy Tuberville (@TTuberville), the true supporter of our #MAGA agenda!" Then, on Sunday, Trump wrote this: "Big Senate Race in Alabama on Tuesday. Vote for @TTuberville, he is a winner who will never let you down. Jeff Sessions is a disaster who has let us all down. We don't want him back in Washington!"
It worked. Tuberville, who had never run for office before and whose campaign platform was essentially that he supported Trump more than Sessions, crushed the former senator 61% to 39% on Tuesday night. Trump, always one to gloat, took to Twitter to celebrate: "Wow, just called! @TTuberville - Tommy Tuberville WON big against Jeff Sessions."
See, that's the thing with making a bet on -- and with -- someone who is fundamentally untrustworthy. He can change the rules in the middle of the game. He can turn what looks like a big win into an absolute nightmare. And that's what Trump did to Sessions. He didn't just embarrass him. He destroyed him, politically.
Don't feel bad for Sessions, though. He knew what he was getting into when he endorsed Trump way back in February 2016. He wanted something so bad that it blinded him to the sort of person he was gambling on. And what happened Tuesday night was that big bet going bust. Totally and completely.