On Feb. 28, 2016, Jeff Sessions put on a red “Make America Great Hat” and, appearing at a rally in his home state of Alabama with Donald Trump, became the first U.S. senator to endorse him in the Republican presidential primary.
Sessions then called Steve Bannon.
“At some point in history, the people need to have their voice heard,” he said on the Sirius radio show for Breitbart News, the “populist, nationalist site” Bannon was running at the time. “And it just might be heard this year.”
Bannon thanked Sessions, calling him the “leader of this populist revolt against the political elite.” That same day, Breitbart Washington editor Matthew Boyle described Sessions in his dispatch from the Trump rally as “the intellectual leader of the future of the conservative movement.” And a Breitbart headline framed the “stunning” Trump-Sessions event as uniting the “populist, nationalist movement.”
For several years, Sessions and Breitbart have been ideologically in sync, each taking similarly hardline stances on issues like immigration and advancing a worldview that would later be championed by Trump.
“Sessions kind of represents the heart and soul of the Breitbart ethos,” Joshua Green, author of Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, told HuffPost.
So Breitbart, usually quick to amplify Trump’s views and battle his enemies, has been thrust into a difficult position as the president continues to turn his fire on an ideologically aligned politician the site has long supported and vigorously defended ― as well as the man Trump himself picked to be the nation’s chief law enforcement official.
Trump told the New York Times last week he wouldn’t have selected Sessions for attorney general if he knew he’d recuse himself from overseeing the Justice Department’s investigation into possible collusion between the president’s campaign and Russian officials. He dismissed Sessions’ early presidential endorsement Tuesday in comments to the Wall Street Journal as “not like a great loyal thing.” Trump later reiterated his disappointment with Sessions during a Rose Garden news conference.
And after tweeting Monday about his “beleaguered” attorney general, Trump followed up Tuesday by tweeting that Sessions was taking a “VERY weak position” by not seeking to prosecute Hillary Clinton, the president’s 2016 Democratic rival, over her use of a private email server when she served as secretary of state.
That most recent Twitter tirade prompted a critical response on Breitbart.
Reporter Adam Shaw wrote Tuesday that Trump’s swipe highlighted the president’s “own hypocrisy.” Although Trump reveled in “Lock Her Up!” chants on the campaign trail last year, he indicated after the election that he no longer wanted to target Clinton. And so Trump’s criticism of Sessions’ decision, which appears to echo his own, seems odd.
Despite the public swipes, Trump is apparently concerned that firing Sessions could alienate some of his grassroots support. He has privately asked how such a move “would play in the conservative media,” according to The Washington Post.
“I think that for supporters of Trump and Sessions, it puts them in a bit of a tough spot,” Green said. “It’s like seeing your parents fighting.”
Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman who’s now a political analyst and consultant, told HuffPost that alienating early backers, like Sessions, could hurt Trump’s standing with conservative media.
“This is as much of an ally as Trump has ever had,” Bardella said. “The fact he’d be so willing to turn his back on him and publicly embarrass him ― if you’re willing to do that to your friends, where does anyone else stand at the end of the day?”
Some signs of fraying have surfaced within conservative media over Trump’s treatment of Sessions, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote Tuesday.
“It’s starting to feel like Capt. Queeg,” radio host and Trump-backer Ann Coulter told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, referring to the paranoid ship commander in “The Caine Mutiny.” “He’s screwing with Sessions? Wow, is that treacherous!”
Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow did not respond to a request for comment on the site’s coverage.
Despite its critical Tuesday story, Breitbart overall has taken a more restrained approach to Trump’s attacks on Sessions.
“In any other scenario, if any other politician wrote and attacked Sessions the way the president has, Breitbart would’ve declared war on them,” Bardella said. “If this was Speaker [Paul] Ryan, Hillary Clinton, [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz, there’d be 20 stories on the homepage very vocally and visibly defending Jeff Sessions.”
Breitbart rallied behind Sessions in response to criticism of him when he was up for Senate confirmation as attorney general.
“The populist senator’s partisan opponents and their allies in corporate media have done everything in their power to smear Sessions’ good name,” Julia Hahn wrote in January. Later that day, Hahn wrote another piece on Cruz’s support for Sessions in response to the “false smears peddled by the populist Alabamians’ partisan opponents.”
Hahn has since joined the Trump White House, which features several prominent players hailing from the Sessions-Breitbart orbit.
Bannon, who left Breitbart in August to help lead the Trump campaign, now serves as the president’s chief strategist. While still running Breitbart, Bannon helped convince the Trump campaign to hire top Sessions aide Stephen Miller in January 2016, according to Green’s book. Miller is now a senior adviser and Trump speechwriter.
A June 2016 Politico profile of Miller ― headlined “The Believer” ― explored how the former Senate aide engaged with Breitbart, a site described in the article as “Sessions country long before it was Trump country.” One former Breitbart reporter, who wasn’t named, told Politico that “anything that Sessions sends out, [the site] writes up immediately.”
“They’re all in the same boat together, Sessions, Trump and Breitbart,” the reporter said. “There’s no other politician that Breitbart does that for. They go above and beyond.”
Michelle Fields, a former reporter for Breitbart and HuffPost, tweeted Tuesday that the site “will defend almost anything Trump does, except going after Sessions (who has always been close w/ everyone at Breitbart).”
Sessions had been praising Breitbart before Trump got in the political arena, telling Green a few years back that the site has “an incredible eye for an important story, particular ones that are important to conservatives and Republicans.”
Not only has Sessions received glowing coverage on Breitbart, but Bannon even encouraged the former senator in 2013 to run for the president. He was also instrumental in urging Sessions to back Trump in 2016, according to Green’s book.
On the night before Sessions endorsed Trump, he was concerned about being the first senator to take the plunge. Sessions asked Bannon if he believed the New York businessman could win. “One hundred percent,” Bannon said.
“It’s do or die,” Bannon added. “This is it. This is the moment.”
“Okay, I’m all-in,” Sessions said. “But if he doesn’t win, it’s over for me.”