Ed touched on this in his post earlier but I wanted to give it more play since it’s so surprising. “Trump has repeatedly denigrated Sessions to allies and White House aides in recent days,” said WaPo on Wednesday night when news of Sessions’s new campaign first broke. “He has even joked to senators and White House aides that he would move to Alabama and compete against Sessions himself in the primary, two people familiar with his comments said.” The Times’s sources report that Trump was heard describing Sessions as a “jerk” as recently as last weekend and supposedly “sent word to Mr. Sessions through allies that he would publicly attack him if he ran.”
Naturally reporters asked him about Sessions during a gaggle on the White House lawn today, teeing him up to go bananas on his former AG for the thousandth time in his presidency. Instead, as you’re about to see, they got Trump on his best behavior. Wha’ happened?
Mitch McConnell happened, I’m guessing.
Question: "Will you campaign against Jeff Sessions?"
— The Hill (@thehill) November 8, 2019
Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted after that, “Re Sessions, multiple people close to the White House say an order has gone out internally to avoid commenting on the former AG’s race for the senate in Alabama.” Uh, did Trump give that order or did he receive it?
I think he’s biting his lip — for now — because McConnell probably convinced him that it’s in his own interest to do so. As much as he’d viscerally enjoy flaying Sessions and watching him implode in the Senate primary, a supreme act of Trumpian revenge, wading into that race carries a high risk of chaos that could backfire on the GOP. McConnell has “concerns” about Sessions’s candidacy because he knows how polarizing it could be within the Alabama GOP, with some voters remaining loyal to Jeff after his years of service to the state and others staying loyal to Trump. The more Trump attacks Sessions, the more those loyalties will be inflamed. And the more inflamed those loyalties get, the greater the risk that one group or the other will stay home in the general election. Nominate Sessions and Trumpers could withhold their Senate votes next November. Nominate someone else and Sessions fans might withhold their votes — not just for the GOP’s Senate nominee but for Trump too, whom they’ll blame for Sessions’s primary defeat.
The smart play for Trump is to stay out. Let Sessions take his chances. If he wins with no comment from the president, Trump fans in Alabama might grudgingly decide that, fine, they’ll put aside their differences with him and vote for him in the general election in the name of turning the seat red. If Sessions loses with no comment from the president, Sessions’s fans can grudgingly say that at least Trump didn’t try to beat him, in which case, fine, they’ll support the nominee. It’s not just Alabama voters who might find themselves at odds either. Sessions has already drawn endorsements in the Senate from Richard Shelby, John Barrasso, and Roy Blunt. If Trump goes all-in on beating Sessions, he’s putting them in an uncomfortable spot with their own Trump-supporting constituents back home.
Plus, by not weighing in on the race, Trump eliminates the risk that he’ll be embarrassed in Alabama by endorsing “anyone but Sessions” and having Sessions win the primary anyway. Whereas if Trump keeps quiet and Sessions goes on to win, Trump can just shrug and say, “I could have stopped him if I’d wanted to. Now he owes me.”
Trump doesn’t need to involve himself in the race to make his feelings about Sessions known in any event. He’s done that on Twitter many, many times. The tweets are still up. The soundbites are still out there on YouTube. Sessions’s opponents will mention them frequently. It’ll be like having Trump campaign against him even if the president doesn’t lift a finger. That’s why, I assume, Sessions felt obliged to cut that deeply humiliating ad featured in Ed’s post in which he essentially professed his undying loyalty to the president despite Trump’s sadistic habit of denigrating the guy at every turn. He’s doing his best to neutralize what’ll be the chief line of attack on him in the primary. And he’s willing to sacrifice whatever’s left of his dignity to do it.
But really, I think it was unnecessary bordering on stupid. Sessions is enough of a political pro to have anticipated why Trump might ultimately decide not to attack him. He could have treated it as a nonaggression pact: Trump won’t say anything about Sessions and Sessions won’t say anything about Trump until he’s asked, at which point he’ll be respectful of the president’s accomplishments but not obsequious. He could have jumped out of the gate here by ignoring the Trump issue altogether and reminding Alabamians of his previous service to them in the Senate: “I was there for you before, I’ll be there for you again.” Subtext: I serve you, not the president. Instead he went into full ass-kisser mode immediately, which is destined to please no one. Trumpers will scoff, wondering where Sessions was when Trump needed him to smother the Russiagate probe. Non-Trumpers will barf at Sessions’s show of servility.
Here’s a new ad from former Auburn coach and current Senate primary candidate Tommy Tuberville. Lots more of this in the pipeline, needless to say. One bright spot for Sessions, though: It was nice of Tucker Carlson to have him on last night and give him a Fox News forum to announce his candidacy. Sessions was the most prominent right-wing nationalist in government until Trump came along and Carlson evidently hasn’t forgotten. If Fox remains friendly, Sessions might be able to rebuild some goodwill among Republican voters even without Trump’s benediction.