In the Weeds: Sessions campaigns as the consistent conservative he’s always been

In the Weeds: Sessions campaigns as the consistent conservative he’s always been

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

PRATTVILLE, Ala. – Jeff Sessions hasn’t changed.

That’s his message to voters as he campaigns to be elected back to the Senate seat he held for 20 years before leaving it to become Attorney General of the United States. He wants Republicans in Alabama to remember the rock-ribbed conservative who often irritated his party’s leadership by pushing his unique brand of conservatism that heavily influenced today’s Trump agenda.

But as he exits the passenger door of a black SUV and strides by himself into the Courtyard Marriott hotel, it’s clear a lot has changed for Sessions.

Gone is the accompaniment of a large staff and security detail. The last time I interviewed Sessions, he arrived at our family’s 2018 Auburn tailgate in a flurry of lights and sirens with about a dozen federal security agents, at least as many local and state law enforcement and several staff members alongside him. That comes with the territory when you are the nation’s top law enforcement official.

More than a year later, on a Friday in Prattville, a suburb fifteen miles up Interstate 65 from the State Capital of Montgomery, Sessions had no entourage, but for a handful of campaign workers waiting to meet him in the lobby.  He’s back on the campaign trail, slogging around to small towns and shaking every voter’s hand. It’s a conspicuous change of scenery from the highest levels of government, but one Sessions’ seems entirely comfortable with as we find a small conference room to begin our interview.

A lot has happened in the last five years for Sessions. He became among then-candidate Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters and delivered an early endorsement in August of 2015 that gave the brash, unconventional Trump needed credibility in the GOP primary. President Trump rewarded him by appointing him attorney general, the pinnacle of Sessions’ career and a major opportunity for someone who has worked as a both a U.S. attorney and Alabama’s attorney general before spending years championing law and order issues in the Senate.

After 20 months as AG, Sessions resigned in November 2018 at the request of the president, who had grown increasingly frustrated by the ongoing Mueller investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 campaign and blamed Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing it. Though Sessions repeatedly justified his recusal as following longstanding Department of Justice policy – he was part of the 2016 Trump campaign and thus a subject of the investigation – Trump never seemed to get over it, and the issue continues to drag Sessions as the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate enters the homestretch.

Just days before the qualifying deadline in November 2019, Sessions shocked Alabama’s political world by announcing he would run for his former seat. With his general popularity among the GOP electorate still high, many political experts predicted Sessions would runaway with the race and win the more than 50% needed to avoid a runoff. That hasn’t happened, as most polls, including a recent Alabama Daily News / Mason-Dixon poll, show Sessions still in a tight race with two other top contenders: former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville and 1st District Congressman Bradley Byrne. The ultimate winner will go on to face incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in November’s general election.

Just more than a week out of the primary, Sessions is criss-crossing the state to remind Republican voters why they liked him in the first place and kept sending him to the Senate. During a 20 minute sit-down interview for Alabama Daily News and its news partners, Sessions discussed his reasons for running, answered critics about his recusal from the Russia investigation, responded to attacks from opponents while launching a few of his own, and talked about what role he’d like to play returning to the Senate.

Listen to the full interview in our latest episode of “In the Weeds” with Alabama Daily News, a podcast about state politics and policy. Read the full interview via the transcript below.

Todd Christian Stacy Hello, sir. Thanks for coming “In the Weeds” today. Last time we spoke, at least on the record, you were Attorney General of the United States. 

Jeffery Beauregard Sessions, III Todd, it’s been an exciting time to be able to participate in a lot of the great issues of our time. 

TCS Well, a lot has happened since then. Let me just ask you about the Senate race. Why are you running? After all that’s happened over the last several years, why run again for this seat in the Senate? 

JBS We have an opportunity right now that we cannot miss. When President Trump is re-elected, and I think he will be, he will have an opportunity for a year or so to avoid becoming a lame duck to get some things done. We have the momentum. I think he can have a nice victory. Maybe we can even gain in the House and take the House back – who knows? But if we don’t get some things done to fix problems facing this country quickly, then we won’t get them done. I believe there’s an opportunity to end the lawlessness at the border and bring the whole system under control, create a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest. That’s what I’ve worked on for over 10 years. I’m the leading expert out of House and Senate on that. The leading voice on that subject, Tommy Tuberville, does not get it. Actually, he’s wrong about it. He says people just want jobs. They come across the border. We want them to have jobs and become citizens. This is not the philosophy that Alabama needs to send to Washington. We need to… if you don’t have a passionate voice and a deep understanding of these issues, the pressure is always to go soft and liberal. It just is. And so I think he was in error about that very deeply and it would be a mistake for Alabama not to send a clear, strong, able voice on this issue. Secondly, he’s also said some very bad things about trade. He says he is against tariffs. Well, that’s the dividing line between Donald Trump and the globalists. Donald Trump says you’ve got to use your tools – tariffs – to bring these people to the table. That’s what he did with Mexico and Canada. That’s what he’s had his initial success with with China. If you don’t have the guts and the will to do that, you will never bring China to the table. And he needs our support. He needs, desperately, every Republican to support him in that effort. And if we do, we’ll have a historic gain with China. It will be so great for American manufacturing. We can protect jobs for working Americans. So those are things that I feel real deeply about and I have given years of my life to. I have not changed one bit. I have not changed in my relationship and my support for Donald Trump. I have not changed in my philosophy. So I think that I am able to be more effective than any other candidate, mainly because I care about it so deeply. And secondly, I know the issues [better] than other candidates at this point in time. 

TCS Interesting for you to go ahead and set some contrast with Tuberville there because that’s my next question.  There’s a lot of people that say in this environment, the three of you – you, Coach Tuberville and Congressman Byrne – in this Senate environment might not vote differently. Right? It’s pretty clear cut. Maybe in the old days, maybe there would be some variations on things. But, generally, a lot of people say you would vote the same. Is that not the case? Or if so, I mean, what’s the real difference? 

JBS Let me say it this way. In a campaign like this one in Alabama, where the voters are very strongly in favor of the Trump agenda, you can expect all of them to say they’re going to vote the same way. What’s important is – who is authentic about it? Who has a record? Who has been effective in actually stopping the amnesty bill that would not have brought law enforcement to immigration? Who led the fight? Out of 535 members of Congress, I was the No. 1 fighter, not only on immigration, but against this trade bill, this Trans-Pacific trade agenda that would create a almost European Union where 12 countries would come together and the sultan of Brunei would have the same vote as the President of the United States. I led the fight against that. And Donald Trump came along and he hammered it and it was dead. 

But until then, the first vote was all but five Republicans supported that thing. That was a disaster. Senator Shelby, Cruz, Rand Paul. 

TCS It was Cruz’s bill at first. 

JBS Well, he changed and voted against it. But really, I think I helped lead him to that. I went down into the basement and I read the deal, I exposed what it was all about. So I guess what I would say to you, why not tell the people of Alabama? I haven’t changed. I remain vigorous and strong on these issues. And I’ve proven that I am authentic about it and can actually win battles. I think that is much better than somebody who also is sending very mixed messages. I mean, his when he says he’s 100 percent free trader, that’s not Donald Trump’s message. Donald Trump is a fair trader. This is a huge thing. So he says I’m 100 percent free trader. I don’t like tarrifs. I don’t agree. He said with President Trump’s handling of the China matter. We would never have had a victory if Trump had been strong and firm on that and brought them to the table. So I’m really worried about. I do not sense that Tommy Tuberville is going to be a passionate advocate for the great values of Alabamians. 

TCS You mentioned your relationship with President Trump. That has been the point of attack from your opponents. They have zeroed in and pointed to his obvious displeasure with you. Fair or not, it at least it looks that way on Twitter. Hasn’t gotten over the recusal. And you’re not the only one who’s been on the receiving end of his displeasure, obviously. But it’s it matters because he’s the President of the United States and the most important issue in this race. So, let’s say you go back to the Senate. Let’s say you win. Can that relationship be repaired? What’s the future there? 

JBS Well, I think I have my head and heart right about this. I’ve given, you know, a lot of thought. I want President Trump to be successful. I support his agenda. That’s why I was the first senator in the Congress to endorse him. So I want him to be successful. I’m going to be a great ally for him in the Senate because I’ve been fighting for these issues before he announced for the presidency. And so, yes, I think I can work with him. And I would remind everyone, of course, that he said not long ago that he would support whoever the people of Alabama chose. And Vice President Pence said the same thing. So did Donald Trump, Jr, he said whoever the people of Alabama support is OK with us. So that’s what I think is important. I’m asking the people of Alabama. I want them to know I haven’t changed. I still remain and believe I’ll continue to be his No. 1 supporter in the Senate because I understand what he ran on. I went to rallies with him in Washington State in Arizona, in Phoenix, where he set out his immigration policy, Pennsylvania multiple times. Multiple times in Florida. I saw those crowds. I heard what he was saying to them. I understand his message. I know why he was able to draw in new voters to the party, that a Republican Party that gets narrow and not reaching out to new voters, is not going to win. It’s going to be a disaster and the socialists could win. We need to see what President Trump is saying, why those crowds came out and still do with such enthusiasm. 

We need as a party to make clear that we’re not holding our nose and wrinkling our nose up at President Trump. But we understand what he’s saying. We enthusiastically support him. Many Republicans don’t quite get that. And they need to be pushed and they need to be reminded that these are great American people who work every day, probably make below median income struggling to get by. And they need to know that this Republican Party cares about them, understands their problems, and have got policies that will help them do better. And they’ve done better under President Trump. We should celebrate that and drive that message, which I think is not being effectively done. 

TCS Why do you think he hasn’t gotten over the recusal? 

JBS Well, it was a big thing. And it caused great disruption for him. And it seemed to go on far longer than any of us would have thought possible. They turned every rock over three times. 

TCS Mueller? 

Mueller did. He brought in a group of lawyers that way. That was clearly appeared to be a biased or at least clear to be strong Democrats and Hillary Clinton supporters. And that caused disturbance. But I recused, fundamentally, because I was such a part of the campaign. 

TCS Right. 

I mean, I was with him. I was on the campaign. I had a title. I was a national security chair and I nominated him at the Republican convention. He called me on nothing o’clock that day and said, I want you to nominate me at five o’clock tonight. And so those are the kind of things that put me in that position. And they were investigating me – make no mistake about it. So I can’t you can’t supervise your own investigation. That’s just not possible. But I was confident that there was absolutely no collusion. I never doubted that he would be cleared and he has been cleared. 

TCS You mention the convention, I just have this image in my head of Rick (Dearborn) on the floor pumping up the crowd in a neon hat or something. 

[Laughter]. 

JBS It did happen. 

TCS  You mentioned pushing the party. You’ve done that in the past. And people play different roles in the Senate. You were never a potted plant. You were an instigator, a messenger for conservative causes, sometimes that, you know, leadership didn’t appreciate being pushed that much: on immigration, on trade, on budgets. So looking to going back to the Senate, is that the same kind of role you want to play? Do you want to transition into other sort of parochial interests? What’s the role you want to play? 

JBS There are two key aspects of being a United States Senator. One we had mentioned, and that is to protect the interests of the state of Alabama and the people of Alabama. That is a huge job. Well, look, nobody else in this Senate race spent 20 years going into 67 counties every year, working with our Austal shipyards in Mobile with 4000 people. I was there when we brought it on line. It came out of my [Senate Armed Services] Subcommittee on Sea Power, and we’ve nurtured that. And it’s got some uncertainty now, there’s some danger there. Fort Rucker, we’ve fended off every attempt to erode Fort Rucker and we’ve actually increased it. Then you got Maxwell Air Force Base and the Gunter Annex in that great computer center that we’ve helped defend and expand. And we look forward to the F-35 coming here. Then the Anniston Army Depot, which is a key economic driver in the Anniston-Gadsden region, and that’s going to be under challenge. And then even more so is the incredible high tech defense contracts and NASA contracts in Huntsville. That’s one of the most remarkable things that Redstone Arsenal. So you’ve got not only the military there, you’ve got Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman with thousands of employees. Those employees are making missiles, satellite data, a new supersonic hypersonic weapon system that’s got to be developed. Lockheed is building a missile plant in Courtland in north Alabama and they’ve already got one in Troy. I’ve been at the beginning of all of that. 

TCS Sounds like you want back on Armed Services. 

JBS Well, I do. And Chairman Jim Inhofe of the Armed Services Committee is one of my best friends and he has told me he wants me on the committee and he’d like for me to chair a subcommittee. Senator Shelby and I have been good partners on this, and he is very generously helping me in this race, because we’ve got an opportunity to keep the economic development going. The other candidates, well, I guess Congressman Byrne knows about Mobile and Austal, but he’s not represented these other bases in the state like I have, and Tommy Tuberville has no experience in this at all. So I do think that I can hit the ground running, both to protect Alabama, our interests and to advance the agenda that Alabamians believe in – our values – nationwide. 

TCS Well, speaking of committees, has the majority leader indicated anything about seniority? That that was a question really when you get in the race to begin with. I’m not clear. Did he say that you could have it back? Some of it or all of it? 

JBS No, I I’ve explained this clearly. You don’t get to come in and jump over people who are committee chairman now and that kind of thing. But I would be the senior person in my class. I would get the first pick of my committees, for Alabama’s interest and my own experience. I was at the 10 years in the Army Reserve. I’m the only veteran in the race except Judge Moore, who certainly was a West Point graduate. But I think that that would be a good fit for me, both for Alabama’s interests and my own. But there’ll be other committees, too, that I would be able to participate in. 

TCS You were Ranking Member on [the Senate Budget Committee] for a while. What are we going to do about the debt?  It’s one of these issues that I never can quite figure out. Like nobody really talks about it anymore. But it’s, what, $22 trillion now? Is that something you would want to get involved in, budget stuff? 

JBS Yes. So, we’re gonna have to. It’s a thankless task. I led the fight when we were in the minority and I was the ranking Republican, the senior Republican on the Budget Committee, where we talked about where the Democrats were not even going produce a budget because it showed how big their deficits were and they didn’t want to do it. And they went to three years and I started making speeches, if you remember. Four hundred days without a budget. Five hundred sixty nine days of no budget. Seven 700 days without a budget. It became a big issue in the campaign. Republicans took back the Senate and that and with a big victory and that was a big issue. Then, one of my colleagues who was senior to me took the chairmanship of the Budget Committee and Republicans could be rightly criticized for not wanting to talk about it anymore when they had the majority. So I think the Republicans are going to need to be pushed to begin to seriously consider this. Let me just say this, fundamentally: we spend $4.7 trillion; a trillion of that is borrowed and that’s been going on for a long time. You can’t operate when you borrow 20 percent or more of what it takes to run your government. At some point we will have reaction, adverse economic reaction. It was predicted to occur sooner. I warned that it could occur sooner. It hasn’t occurred yet. Inflation and taken off the currency and on interest rates had gone up. So now people think is just not going to happen. That’s not accurate. We will face a reckoning someday. 

TCS It’s just awkward because everybody’s kind of enjoying these, you know, appropriations deals that happen. 

JBS Yeah, and we got things we promise, you know, we want to do. I really do think we need a national infrastructure bill and the president will bring that up. You know, I think we’ve got to do that. But there are ways to cut spending. It is not true that you can’t cut spending. We can do it. There will always be some pain, but I don’t think be any kind of devastating results of managing our money better ending wastefulness and fraud. 

TCS Last question. Everybody’s following the race at this point. It’ll be one week to go. Well, two questions, actually. What has to happen in the next week to make this your campaign successful? And then looking forward, assuming there’s a runoff, what has to happen in the runoff to make you ultimately the nominee? 

JBS I think what I want the people of Alabama to know is I have not changed. I remain committed to President Trump’s agenda and his success because it’s my agenda, it’s Alabama’s agenda. I’m not going to stop fighting for that. I’m not going to be a potted plant. I’m not going to go up there and wimp out. And I think my – looks like No. 2 competitor in Coach Tuberville –is not firm and clear on the top two issues I think that will be decisive in the next year: trade standing up to China, protecting our manufacturing and immigration, ending lawlessness, creating a system, as President Trump wants to do, that serves the national interest. So those are huge issues and we’ll need to talk about that all week. 

TCS Is it fun being back on the trail? 

JBS It’s been fun, actually. It’s exciting. You meet good people, a lot of old friends and a lot of new friends. So, it’s been rewarding. But we’re in a race fully understanding the people of Alabama are going to make a decision that will be very important about what kind of leader they want to send to Washington. They know where I stand. They know that I’ve advocated for our values. Now, I’m going to remind them of that. But it’s not about the past. It’s about the future. Who can protect our interests the best right now? Who can advance Alabama’s interests when we have this window of opportunity with President Trump to get things done? Who can help him the most? I believe I’m the best person for both those. 

TCS Thanks for taking the time.