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For several months before he fired Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump had telegraphed that his attorney general would leave following the 2018 midterm elections. Still, Justice Department aides were surprised when the call came quite literally the next morning. At about 10 a.m., on Nov. 7, a few of them gathered in Sessions’s fifth-floor office as John Kelly, then Trump’s chief of staff, delivered the news. Sessions asked Kelly if he could at least hold off until the end of the week. Kelly said he could not; it was either resign now, or await a presidential tweet. So Sessions’s communications director pulled out her phone and tapped out a statement from the notes she prepared the day before, just in case. “Thank you for the opportunity, Mr. President,” it concluded. Two aides grabbed it off the printer and carried it to the West Wing.
The previous three years had transpired for Jeff Sessions like a malarial dream. There he was in early 2016, beaming from the campaign stage in the Huntsville, Ala., suburb of Madison before a crowd of more than 10,000, Trump’s prized opening act, extolling the inception of a “movement.” There he was one year later in his dream job at the Justice Department, one gear shy of skipping as he zagged through the corridors of the West Wing, greeting old campaign and congressional acquaintances as they settled into their quarters, “like a kid in a candy store,” one former White House official recalled. And there he was, just 22 days after his confirmation, issuing the terse statement recusing himself from any investigation his department might undertake into charges that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election — the action that would send the dream spiraling into still weirder territory.
It had all happened with astonishing speed: the reports, in January 2017, that counterintelligence agents were investigating communications between Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, and the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak; Trump’s conversation with the F.B.I. director, James Comey, six days after Sessions’s confirmation in which Trump suggested Comey drop the investigation; the revelation that Sessions, too, had met with Kislyak during the campaign, despite his claims during his confirmation hearings, under oath, that he had not. On March 2, Sessions appeared as briefly as possible before reporters to announce that he would be recusing himself from the looming Russia investigation. It was what virtually all Democrats, and some Republicans, in Congress believed he should have done. It also left Sessions a dead man walking in the halls of the White House that he had so recently skipped through, the unwitting protagonist of the era’s most vivid cautionary tale about crossing Donald Trump.
It was in his hour of darkness, after his firing, that Sessions received a call from Trent Lott. The former Republican senator from Mississippi knew something about unceremonious downfalls, his tenure as Senate majority leader cut short in 2002 following a toast to the past presidential aspirations of one Strom Thurmond. (“If the rest of the country” had voted for Thurmond in 1948, when he ran on the pro-segregation Dixiecrat ticket, Lott said, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”) But Lott had rebounded with ease, slinking back into Senate leadership before exiting politics on his own terms and settling into the life of a lobbyist. He had since acted as a kind of life coach for Senate friends — Kit Bond of Missouri, the late Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — who were considering what might come after public service, and he suggested Sessions come by his office for a talk.
When he did, Lott gave Sessions a copy of a visual aid he put together several years earlier called “The Wheel of Fortune.” The wheel, Lott told me, had a series of “spokes,” all of which represent things you might do upon leaving politics. You could join a law firm! Give speeches! Write a book! Many lawmakers became professors or sat on corporate boards. Lott walked Sessions through the pros and cons of each. And so Sessions left K Street that day encouraged anew by the wide world before him.
The problem was that, as he commenced to spin the proverbial wheel as advised, the wide world only seemed to narrow. Much of 2019 unfurled for Sessions in a series of small indignities, a continual reminder that Trump’s disfavor could cast its shadow over even a man who won his fourth Senate term entirely unopposed. According to three people familiar with the matter, shortly after leaving the Justice Department, Sessions entered talks to join the law firm Maynard Cooper & Gale, which was founded in Birmingham, Ala. With a longtime friend of Sessions’s pulling for him on the inside, the deal seemed all but done. But ultimately, the firm’s leadership decided against bringing him in, the news of which was broken to Sessions over dinner at Charlie Palmer’s in Washington. “People at Maynard obviously respect Jeff,” said one person with direct knowledge of the decision, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But I don’t think, given the manner in which he left” the Justice Department, “he could make the business case for how the work would follow.” (A spokeswoman for Maynard Cooper confirmed it had been in talks with Sessions, but declined further comment.)
Another heave of the wheel. Sessions considered starting a think tank, an institution that would endeavor to lend a scholarly heft to the right-wing populism that he had long espoused and that was now co-defined with Trump, but he was unable to find financing for the project. At one point, he agreed to meet with agents about writing a book about the Trump agenda, but decided against it.
One spoke still beckoned. “And I have to confess, you know,” Lott recalled, “without being asked, I said, ‘Let me just say right here at the beginning: I hope that you will not think about running again for the Senate. It’s just not what it used to be.’”
On a recent June afternoon, after a long day of running for the Senate, Jeff Sessions retired to a corner booth at a Ruby Tuesday in the south Alabama town of Bay Minette. He wore a blue-and-white gingham button shirt and gray slacks. His eyes were a touch bloodshot and bleary. He ordered a glass of peach tea and, for the second time that day, dessert. “I don’t know when I’ve had a pineapple upside-down cake,” he mused to the waitress, studying the menu. “I don’t have to eat all of it, do I?”
The day, his first on the nonvirtual campaign trail since March, began at Mac and Jerry’s, a homespun breakfast spot in Robertsdale, where Sessions seemed pleasantly surprised by the modest crowd awaiting him. Ducking in from the rain, he placed his hands on his hips and looked around for one private moment, like a birthday celebrant who couldn’t quite believe his guests had shown. “At least three people, maybe four, said: ‘Our whole family voted for you,’” he told me at Ruby Tuesday. “I like to hear that.”
Opportunities for affirmation had been few since Sessions, who is now 73, declared his candidacy for his old Senate seat last November. Despite early polls that showed him as the favorite, Sessions did not anticipate an easy primary. The field was wide, and he hoped in part to outspend his way to the top before moving on to what would likely be a race in name only against Doug Jones, the Democrat who won a special election for the seat in 2017. Instead, Sessions finished a narrow second in the primary and, per Alabama’s election rules, advanced to a runoff against the former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville. The spread of the coronavirus delayed the election until July 14. Polls have since showed Sessions trailing his opponent by as many as 20 points.
Sessions can probably thank Trump for this. The president remains more popular in Alabama than in virtually any other state, and on March 10, he endorsed Tuberville in a pair of tweets, calling him a “REAL LEADER.” He has been increasingly vocal in his contempt for his former attorney general, a contempt that seems to have only sharpened with time. “Jeff, you had your chance & you blew it,” Trump tweeted in late May. “Recused yourself ON DAY ONE (you never told me of a problem), and ran for the hills. You had no courage & ruined many lives.” There had been flashes of life for Sessions in recent weeks; a few surveys, and Sessions’s internal polling, showed him closing the gap with Tuberville. Even so, he is still running behind a political novice in a Republican primary runoff for a seat he held for two decades, the loss of which would be tantamount to his final consignment to the political abyss.
Before voters, Sessions’s voice can seem vaguely strained, flecked with irritation, even, when unwinding the events of the past four years. It is not so much that he is tired of rehashing his decision to recuse himself, the D.O.J. regulations and whatnot that required it, though undoubtedly that is part of it. Rather, he seems cosmically bewildered as to how he got to this point: fighting for his political life just as the Republican base appears more in thrall than ever to his brand of conservatism, fielding questions about his loyalty to a president who found acceptance in the G.O.P. establishment largely through Sessions.
If many elected Republicans ultimately came to support Trump out of convenience or opportunism or fear, Sessions was — is — a true believer. The Republican Party, and even Trump’s own administration, are littered with those who, when talking to reporters, squirm to telegraph their great personal distaste for the MAGA enterprise. Not Sessions. Today, when cornered in Capitol corridors by reporters, most G.O.P. lawmakers profess ignorance as to Trump’s latest social-media activity. But unlike the bulk of his former colleagues, the gentleman from Alabama saw the tweet. He probably loved it too.
Even in his exile, perhaps no one is as eager as Sessions to hold forth on why he likes Trump, why his party — why the country — so desperately needs him. Nearly every tangent in our two-hour conversation eventually arrived at this view. At one point, we were discussing Syria’s descent into anarchy over the past decade. “A banker I know from Greece,” Sessions said, “he said you could go to Aleppo, you could do business deals, you could even buy whiskey. Cross Assad, you’re in big trouble, but you could do business” before the Arab Spring. “He said, ‘There’s a difference between freedom and democracy. You need to understand this.’”
Sessions continued: “And you know who we want to run Syria? Assad. We are hoping that somehow he can get back in control. And there was no terrorism, no ISIS when he ran the place.” (ISIS emerged in Syria under Bashar al-Assad’s rule, which, while diminished, is ongoing.) “He’d kill ’em. And if you didn’t cross him, he wouldn’t kill you. And he protected Christians; they were a part of his coalition.”
Sessions referred back to an earlier moment in the conversation, when I asked him how he considered his support of Trump from the standpoint of his faith as an evangelical Christian. “You asked how Christians could support Trump,” he said. Consider Egypt’s Christian minority under president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, he said: “It’s not a democracy — he’s a strongman, tough man, but he promised to protect them. And they believed him, because they didn’t want the Muslim Brotherhood taking over Egypt. Because they knew they’d be vulnerable. They chose to support somebody that would protect them. And that’s basically what the Christians in the United States did. They felt they were under attack, and the strong guy promised to defend them. And he has.”
This reminded Sessions of the events of three days earlier, when U.S. Park Police tear-gassed protesters in Washington to make way for Trump as he strode to the front of St. John’s Church, the basement of which was set on fire by rioters the night before. Stopping before the cameras, Trump held up a Bible. (“Is that your Bible?” one reporter asked. “It’s a Bible,” Trump responded.) “He came out there with that Bible,” Sessions said, pausing briefly to giggle, “and so all the Episcopal bishops said: ‘Ohhh! Horrible!’ You know? But this was a defender of the faith.” He continued in a faux tone of dismay: “ ‘Ohhh, his heart’s not right. He shouldn’t have held that Bible up. …’ Oh, that’s malarkey.” Sessions rolled his eyes. “Just a bunch of socialist leftists.”
Here, then, was the central paradox of Sessions’s plight. In ethos and in substance, Sessions had long harbored the presentiments of Trumpism. On immigration, trade and policing, the dusted-off rhetoric of “law and order,” his stamp on the president’s administration remains indelible. And yet no figure has been more totally cast out of Trump’s orbit.
It was Washington’s early rejection of Sessions that kindled his political career to begin with. In 1986, Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions, then a United States Attorney, to a federal district judgeship in Alabama. During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a black assistant U.S. attorney testified that Sessions had once called him “boy” (which Sessions denied) and said the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot” (which Sessions said was a joke). Senators also questioned Sessions about his prosecution of three black civil rights activists, including Albert Turner Jr., a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr. who helped lead the march from Selma to Montgomery, for voter fraud in 1985. (After the judge threw out several counts, the jury acquitted all three on the rest.) Coretta Scott King and other civil rights leaders accused Sessions of having deliberately targeted the defendants, and she urged against his confirmation.
Sessions denied claims of unfair targeting and still stands by the case. But taken together, the accusations were enough to make him the first federal district court nominee in more than 30 years not to be confirmed. And denying Sessions the critical vote needed to advance his cause to the Senate floor was the Democratic senior senator from his own state, Howell Heflin.
As for the events that followed, Sessions would never confess to something so uncouth as revenge. But in 1996, when Heflin announced his retirement, and Sessions announced his intentions not just to succeed him, but, upon election, to vie for appointment to the very Judiciary Committee that had spurned him, Sessions could not suppress a stray grin when asked to reflect on the chance of it all. “I don’t know that ‘vindication’ is the word,” he told The Montgomery Advertiser as he settled into his new office, taking a seat for the first time in Heflin’s old chair, at Heflin’s old desk. “But there is a sense that life is a wonderful thing and things do work out in the end if you keep your head up and try to do right.”
Sessions often told reporters at the start of his Senate career that he had no intention of being a “potted plant” while in office. He made the most of his coveted seat on the Judiciary Committee — where he would eventually serve as ranking member — occasionally asking judicial nominees: “Are you a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, or have you ever been?” Nineteen years before the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Sessions tried to upend Garland’s confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on the grounds that the seat itself was a “rip-off” to the taxpayer — exasperating even the committee’s Republican chairman, Orrin Hatch of Utah, who snapped at Sessions for “playing politics with judges.”
But it was immigration that preoccupied Sessions above all else. He fulminated about it in his floor speeches, often delivered on Friday afternoons when most of his colleagues had long since flown home for the weekend. In 2007, he led the opposition to George W. Bush’s attempt at immigration reform, calling it “no illegal alien left behind.” In 2013, as ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, he called on Republicans to quash the so-called Gang of Eight’s bipartisan immigration bill in favor of a “humble and honest populism.” “The same set of G.O.P. strategists, lobbyists and donors who have always favored a proposal like the Gang of Eight immigration bill argue that the great lesson of the 2012 election is that the G.O.P. needs to push for immediate amnesty and a drastic surge in low-skill immigration,” he wrote in a memo. “This is nonsense.”
For these tirades, Sessions was largely written off by his colleagues as a backbencher with fringe views and little influence. He earned admirers in the conservative media, however, such as Laura Ingraham and Michelle Malkin. National Review deemed him “Amnesty’s Worst Enemy.” On the matters of refugees, civil rights and prison reform, “you knew exactly who he was,” said Al Franken, the former Democratic senator from Minnesota, who was friendly with Sessions during his tenure. “I mean, he took some really strange stances.”
And then, finally, those stances met their moment — and their candidate. Perhaps more than anything else in his political life, Sessions treasures having been the first senator to endorse Trump, in February 2016. He traveled the country as the Trump campaign’s national-security chairman, forming what felt like a preordained relationship with the man he was certain God planned to use for good. He helped craft the campaign’s immigration platform and advised Trump on whom to select as his running mate. His devotion was so total that, when Trump won, Sessions was a “shoo-in” for whatever cabinet position he wanted, according to a former senior White House official who helped lead the transition. Attorney general was his one request.
“Well, I’ll say this,” Sessions told me: “I was surprised at how comfortable I felt about being attorney general.”
Sessions told me he was moved by the chance to act on his and Trump’s shared belief that the police were “demoralized” during the Obama years. “I said, ‘We’re going to embrace this as our mission, we’re going to back the police and we’re going to reduce crime.’” He began laying the groundwork for a zero-tolerance policy for illegal immigration, a crackdown on MS-13 gang members and a rollback of the civil rights agenda advanced through the Justice Department during the Obama years. But these efforts were still in their infancy when, in March 2017, he made his fateful decision.
As Sessions still maintains, he believed that in recusing himself, he was doing what anyone in his position would have been obligated to do. “There’s one term that he used to use a lot,” recalled Rod Rosenstein, who served as deputy attorney general under Sessions: “ ‘regular order.’ And what he meant by that was, let’s make sure we figure out what the rules are, and let’s make sure we’re following the rules, and let’s make sure we’re not getting distracted by inappropriate political considerations.”
But it was in the aftermath of his recusal that White House officials, particularly those who had not worked on the campaign, were suddenly enlightened to Trump’s capacity for rage. “It was really the first time I think any of us had ever seen him really blow up,” the former official recalled. “He was frustrated with press coverage of crowd sizes — yes, he was angry about that — but he had never really raised his voice or shouted. But I remember him really laying into McGahn” — Don McGahn, then the White House counsel — “and shouting. It was very much like: ‘How did you let this happen? How did this [expletive] happen?’”
At the time, Sessions had a small collection of friends and former colleagues in the White House, including Stephen K. Bannon, the chief executive of Trump’s campaign and then his chief strategist in the administration, who has called Sessions his mentor and once pushed him to run for president. Bannon, as well as Reince Priebus, then the chief of staff, got in touch with Sessions and advised him to make himself scarce for a while, to lie low until Trump’s attentions inevitably shifted elsewhere.
But for once, they didn’t. For a time, Trump kept his frustrations off Twitter, his fixation on what he called “the ultimate betrayal” manifesting itself in venting sessions with aides instead. Officials recalled how, after Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, meetings about any number of unrelated issues were derailed the moment Trump glanced at the television and saw a chyron related to the Russia investigation.
Even some aides who agreed with Sessions’s decision found themselves sympathizing with the president’s view that the existential terror of the Mueller investigation would never have emerged were it not for Sessions. (“I would have put him at the border if I’d known,” Trump would often mutter, referring to the Department of Homeland Security. “I would have put him at the border.”) More awkward for these aides was the digression into mockery of Sessions that sometimes followed. Trump would deride his accent — the slow drawl, the fact that he often paused for several seconds, sometimes midconversation, to think through his next words. Sessions also has a tendency to raise slightly up and down on the balls of his feet while standing and talking, a small tic onto which Trump gleefully latched.
Sessions’s defenders in such moments were few. Bannon, who considered Sessions to be Trump’s most effective ally from a policy standpoint, says he would try to press his case, to no avail. Some senators, including Lindsey Graham, stressed to Trump that Sessions had had no choice. Altogether silent, however, was Stephen Miller, a former Sessions aide turned Trump adviser who by now had emerged as an influential force in the White House, advancing the immigration-restriction agenda he and Sessions shared. Officials I spoke with had the impression that Miller at first retained affection for his former boss, even if he disagreed with Sessions’s decision to recuse himself. Nevertheless, “he was never going to get caught defending the guy,” a second former White House official said. “He never wanted Trump to view him as a ‘Sessions guy,’ and so whenever it came up, he just wouldn’t talk. Sometimes it even seemed like he’d find a way to leave the room.”
This appeared to stem in part from Jared Kushner’s example. Trump’s son-in-law despised Sessions, who came to be the chief opponent of Kushner’s vision for criminal-justice reform, and at least once referred to him to colleagues as a racist. It was Miller’s correct understanding early on that an alliance with Kushner was the ticket to longevity in Trump’s White House. But as Bannon pointed out to me: “Stephen Miller and the rest of the immigration gang would have gotten zero done were it not for what Sessions did at D.O.J.”
Indeed, during the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Sessions was arguably more successful than anyone else in Trump’s cabinet in advancing the president’s professed goals. If anything, Sessions told me, his only regret was not more forcefully advocating them. He recounted the outrage over his use of Scripture to defend border agents separating migrant children from their families, calling it “totally ridiculous.” “I was right about that,” he said. “I wish I’d fought it.” Then, in a disturbing, guttural voice, he mocked much of the nation’s reaction: “Nooooo, this is a poor child! They just want a job!” From law enforcement to immigration to the war on drugs, Sessions’s conviction that the Obama administration had coddled criminals motivated much of his agenda. And unlike many of the president’s appointees, Sessions “actually understood what the levers of power were to effect change,” said Vanita Gupta, who led the Civil Rights Division during Obama’s second term. “So he was actually pretty effective at killing big areas of some of the highest-profile work the Civil Rights Division had been doing.”
Sessions reversed an Obama-era policy that specified protections for transgender workers against discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Sessions, the department also filed briefs in support of states fighting court orders to curb potential voting rights infringements such as voter-ID laws. On his last day in office, Sessions formalized a policy that made it harder for the Justice Department to enter into consent decrees with local governments — policing reforms enforced by a federal judge, which were a cornerstone of Barack Obama’s police-reform agenda and central to the role the federal government played in police-brutality cases in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and elsewhere.
The mantra was: “Back to the men and women in blue,” Sessions told me. “The police had been demoralized. There was all the Obama — there’s a riot, and he has a beer at the White House with some criminal, to listen to him. Wasn’t having a beer with the police officers. So we said, ‘We’re on your side. We’ve got your back, you got our thanks.’” (Asked whether this was a confused reference to the meeting Obama had with the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who had been wrongfully arrested entering his own home, and the police officer involved in the arrest, a Sessions spokesman declined to elaborate.)
Sessions seemed annoyed when I asked if he would support measures to reform law enforcement if he were re-elected. “I suppose we could do a survey about police —” he began. He paused for nine seconds and sighed, slumping slightly against the booth. “And see how they — whether their training is at the highest level or not.” A few minutes later he returned to the subject: “I think you should probably have some money for actually training for riots,” he said. “That’s what really needs to be done. Not tell the police, ‘If you were just more sensitive, riots wouldn’t occur.’”
He called Secretary of Defense Mark Esper “immature” for saying he did not support Trump’s threat, amid the nationwide protests following George Floyd’s death, to invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows a president to domestically deploy military troops to restore order. “Who cares what he thinks?” Sessions said. “The president can ask for his advice, or not ask for it. There’s one commander in chief of the United States military, Mr. Secretary. Not Esper.” It was every civil servant’s duty, he went on, to obey his or her commander with enthusiasm, or quit. “Who do you think runs this country?”
One theory holds that Sessions’s extreme fealty to the president was, in fact, what prolonged his problems with him. Sessions was willing to endure Trump’s personal derision in order to realize their shared vision for the country. Trump, on the other hand, seemed unnerved that anyone’s policy goals could outweigh their pride. And so with every sunny response to his insults, Trump’s disdain for Sessions deepened. “So many people in the White House thought the way to build a better relationship with Trump was just to agree with him on everything and praise him to the hilt and be sycophantic and plug those gaping insecurities that fuel his narcissism,” the first former White House official said. “When the reality is that once you actually give in to him like that, he detests you for it.” (The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
That dynamic has continued to plague Sessions in Alabama, where many Republican voters will brook no dissent of Trump but also question a man who appears disinclined to defend his own honor. On May 22, after Trump excoriated Sessions yet again on Twitter (“Alabama, do not trust Jeff Sessions. He let our Country down”), Sessions decided, for the first time, to push back. “Look, I know your anger, but recusal was required by law. I did my duty & you’re damn fortunate I did,” Sessions tweeted. “It protected the rule of law & resulted in your exoneration. Your personal feelings don’t dictate who Alabama picks as their senator, the people of Alabama do.” All told, one campaign aide told me, the composition of the tweet involved perhaps a dozen advisers and approximately 100 emails.
Sessions’s former colleagues, caught up in their own delicate dances with Trump, apparently see little upside to encouraging Sessions publicly, or even discussing their friendship with him. Of the many Republican senators I reached out to for this article, only Richard Shelby, Sessions’s old colleague in Alabama’s Senate delegation, agreed to talk. “I think Alabama would do well by sending him back, but you know, that’s ultimately up to the people,” Shelby told me. “We’ll see what happens in July. I have no idea.”
In the past four months, meanwhile, Trump and Tuberville have spoken frequently by phone, sometimes as often as twice a week. In mid-June, Tuberville joined the president on Air Force One when it landed in Dallas. When we spoke at Ruby Tuesday, Sessions acknowledged Tuberville’s appeal. College-football coaches, particularly in the Southeastern Conference, know how to pitch, how to sit in a living room with a skeptical recruit and his family and sell them on a future. And Tuberville’s pitch now, as Sessions, describing one recent campaign ad, characterizes it, is as follows: “ ‘I support Donald Trump. God sent Donald Trump, and I’m going up there and I’m going to do something. I’m strong; I yelled at the referee.’” (Tuberville’s ad used a clip of him, in his Auburn days, berating an official on the field.) “Well, people like that. That’s a Trump — a Trump thing.”
But in Sessions’s eyes, Tuberville is poised to be yet another Republican who claims to support Trump in public while actively working against Trumpism. Congress is full of them now, Sessions says, lawmakers nursing an “ideological obsession” with free markets and free trade and open borders. “Like Tommy Tuberville says, ‘I’m 100 percent free market, I don’t believe in tariffs. …’ There are a lot of Republican senators that believe that. Some of ’em have probably said it. Most of them are too devious and gutless to say it.”
“Our moral duty is to citizens of the U.S.,” Sessions said, picking up the theme again later in the conversation. “Nation-states are not gone, they’re not out of date. America is not an idea, Paul Ryan — it’s a nation.” He began to bang his fists as he spoke, sending the silverware and ice in his peach tea aquiver. “It’s a secular nation-state. It has” — another bang — “rules.”
I had pointed out earlier that Trump’s hatred of Sessions stemmed from Sessions’s following the rules. “Well, he’s not a lawyer — he’s a doer,” Sessions replied. “I knew that when I signed on. But he’s been law-and-order for the most part, about supporting police.”
“You get to pick and choose in what areas?” I ventured.
“I didn’t expect him to be perfect. Nobody’s perfect. He’s new to Washington; he’s not a lawyer. He has less confidence in this legal system than I do, I’ll acknowledge that.”
“Did you think he had confidence in you?” I asked.
“Mm-hmm,” Sessions said. He paused to eat a forkful of pineapple cake. “He thinks what was done to him was wrong, and he thinks I could have stopped it. And he’s not interested in details.” He blotted his mouth with a napkin and laughed.
Sessions’s current existential tremors are not limited to regret for losing the president. Trump’s show of force in Washington in early June, and the police crackdowns on protesters in cities across the country, were a maximal expression of the law-and-order vision advanced by Sessions. But as the nation reckons with that vision, it is difficult to deduce any great rallying around it; even Republicans voters, who broadly do not support the Black Lives Matter movement, are more likely to support it now than they were before the protests following George Floyd’s death, according to recent polling. Trump left Sessions, yes, but there seems about the candidate a dim unease that his country may have left him, too.
And so, having spent the past hour and a half recounting scenes from his life that perhaps did not make sense to him, he suddenly seemed anxious to anchor himself in the few that still did. Toward the end of the conversation, he commenced upon recollections of Camden, Ala., where he grew up. “It was an idyllic period,” he said. “Sort of a window. End of an age.”
I had driven to Camden the week before, a Black Belt town of some 2,000 people just off the Alabama River. When I arrived, I met Fleet Hollinger, a childhood friend of Sessions’s. In his black pickup, a heavy rain thrashing against the windshield, we steered through the sliver of downtown where the two movie theaters once stood, where, Hollinger recalled, you could catch a Gene Autry double feature for a dime. About 10 miles down the road was the Sessions family home, the slightly pitched roof and kerosene heater and mildew creeping up the front-porch screen. There was Bell’s Landing Presbyterian, est. 1819, behind which his parents are buried. For Sessions and his friends, summer Sundays began with the morning service there and ended in the swimming hole nearby. “Nobody didn’t really have anything, but we didn’t know it,” Hollinger said. “We were happy like we were.”
As Sessions tells it, life in Camden was ordered and disciplined and dependable. No wheels of fortune spinning in the wind. He careened from one reminiscence to the next — going barefoot to school, the beautiful Beth Jones, Miss Watson’s trigonometry class. At one point, his communications director had nudged him to wrap up. But 20 minutes later, Sessions was still there, seemingly in a daze, plucking at footnotes from a past life. “It was segregated,” he acknowledged, “so we had those, we had advantages from … ” He trailed off. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he said, his voice barely above a mumble, trying to articulate what had made that time so singular. “I’m at a loss, actually. I haven’t quite got — figured that out yet.”
He seemed quietly desperate to reaffirm the conviction borne out of his upbringing, that in politics as in Eagle Scouts, there is still regular order, and all things work together for the good of those who follow it. “Like, well, a federal retirement will pay me just about as much as being a senator,” he said. “I’ve got 10 grandchildren and they’re all doing well. I’ve got a home in Alabama, a place in the country to hide out in if I need to. How much better can it get than this?”
“So I don’t care what they say,” he went on. Then, with a faint laugh: “Sometimes I don’t.”