WASHINGTON ― At 70 years of age, an Eagle Scout and Sunday school teacher, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III can seem mild-mannered and even a bit forlorn.
“I kind of go my own way in the Senate,” he told me last year as we stood waiting for our bags at a Reagan Airport carousel after returning home from a Donald Trump campaign event. “I don’t think there are many senators who want to associate with me.”
Sessions was lonely for a reason. Beneath the timid surface is a streak of impatience, resentment and anger. Old-school Alabama, he is a descendant of secessionists and segregationists and was known during his 20 years in the U.S. Senate as a skeptic of civil rights enforcement and a foe of immigration of most any kind.
Even in the modern Republican Party, Sessions often was too much, a cranky uncle in the Deep South basement of race-based politics.
Not surprisingly, he was, for a long time, the first and only U.S. senator to back Trump.
Sessions, who was rewarded with the job of attorney general for his early support, was the logical person to launch Team Trump’s new hard-line strategy of trying to discredit Russia investigations on Capitol Hill and at the Department of Justice.
To do so, the first order of business was to re-baptize Sessions as a member of Team Trump, and to restore some measure of credibility.
The president has privately derided Sessions as weak for recusing himself from overseeing the Russia probe; he had left himself open to accusations of perjury with his incomplete ― to say the least ― confirmation hearing testimony about his Russian contacts.
So this would be Sessions’ chance to publicly pledge allegiance, to “correct the record” and to show foes that he was in for the long haul.
In an afternoon of combative testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions ducked, dodged, stonewalled and gave innocent explanations for his own Russia contacts and actions as AG in overseeing the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Along the way, he questioned Comey’s judgment, defended his own and, while acknowledging that the Russians had interfered in the election, denied any knowledge of collusion with Trump.
More important than any single response was Sessions’ overall message: I may be recused on the Russia investigation per se, but I am loyal to the president and will do what I can to protect him.
While Sessions was doing his best to counterattack, Trump allies, from talk radio to Donald Trump Jr., were joining in, praising the AG, questioning Comey’s bona fides, and even suggesting that the president was considering firing the special counsel hired by the Justice Department to lead the investigation, lawyer and former FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Democrats waved off the firing threat, but the truth is that if Trump was brazen enough to fire Comey in the first place, he could look for someone at the Justice Department to do the same thing to Mueller.
It has even been suggested that Trump could issue pardons to some of those under investigation, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Sessions refused to answer whether he and the president had discussed the Comey firing, or pardons.
Inside and outside the White House, word was that the hard-liners ― the “two Steves,” Bannon and Miller, and Kellyanne Conway among them ― had seized the initiative after Comey testified aggressively and Mueller began enlisting top-line experts in criminal law, forensic audits and other deep-dive specialties.
The Bannonites have argued to a receptive president that he is losing in two ways: He is getting hammered day after day on the Russia issue, and he has been unable to change the subject to his more upbeat messages on the economy, infrastructure and jobs.
The latest polls show the president near his all-time low in job approval ― the lowest of any modern new president. While he is holding onto most Republicans, he has cratered among the independents who gave him enough votes to win in 2016. (Few, if any, Democrats will admit to supporting him.)
To talk about what Trump wants to talk about, the Bannonites are saying, the White House has to scorch the earth of the Russia investigations
“The White House and its allies have concluded that they will NEVER get a break from the media and the rest of Washington on this,” said Diana Bannister, a well-connected conservative consultant. “Well, I could have told them that. But now they are saying, ‘why shouldn’t we fight back with everything we’ve got?’
“They are and they will.”