President Donald Trump was infuriated in early March when Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigations related to the 2016 presidential campaign. And yet, despite being legally sidelined from the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, the attorney general – the ultimate Trump loyalist — has now played an indispensable political role by helping slow it down.
The White House said that Sessions and his deputy Rod Rosenstein urged the president in a closed-door meeting Monday to fire FBI director James Comey, who had overseen the probe since its inception. At Trump’s request, Sessions and set forth their rationale in twin memos the following day. News of his meeting with the president – as well his memo, which advised Trump that “a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI” – served as Trump’s first line of defense against accusations he had acted impetuously when he fired Comey without warning on Tuesday evening.
The drama was fresh evidence of Sessions’ role as a critical political player in the Trump cabinet. He has exhibited all the qualities of loyalty Trump most prizes: He was the first senator to endorse him, one of the only members of the upper chamber to embrace him enthusiastically during the presidential campaign, and, as his involvement in the Comey controversy demonstrates, has proved that he is willing to thrust himself into the breach and take political hits to advance the president’s interests.
The president has rewarded that loyalty with trust. At the Department of Justice, he now enjoys full authority over the federal law enforcement apparatus.
“Jeff Sessions is truly the star of this show,” said Chuck Cooper, a Supreme Court litigator and longtime friend. “In all of the areas within the Justice Department’s jurisdiction, Jeff is moving in precisely the way that Trump had essentially promised his supporters that his administration would move — whether you’re talking about law and order, immigration, judicial selection, or any of the other big ticket items that come under the attorney general’s realm.”
When Trump temporarily soured on his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and it looked like ideological moderates were on the ascent in the West Wing, National Review’s Rich Lowry referred to Sessions – the ideological patron of immigration hawks and trade skeptics – as Trump’s “indispensable man.”
His involvement in the Comey controversy is emblematic of his role in the administration, where he and the network of aides he mentored over two decades on Capitol Hill – several of whom are now serving in posts throughout the administration — have prompted the president to bold action that has infuriated Republicans and Democrats alike. That network includes his longtime communications director, Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to the president, and his former chief of staff Rick Dearborn, the White House’s deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs. Cliff Sims, a longtime friend and adviser, is a strategic communications aide to the president.
Outside the White House, Gene Hamilton, who served as Sessions’ general counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now a senior adviser at the Department of Health and Human services. From that perch, he was one of just a handful of federal employees who – along with Miller and Bannon – helped to push through the president’s initial travel ban, which was struck down in federal court.
Sessions’ tenure has not been marred by the sort of infighting over personnel that has stymied other presidential advisers. In fact, senior Justice Department officials describe a relatively seamless relationship with the White House counsel’s office – and with the president himself. While other cabinet secretaries, most notably Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have struggled to staff their departments due to disagreements with senior White House aides and the Office of Presidential Personnel, a senior Justice Department official said Sessions has essentially had free reign when it comes to hiring.
“I didn’t have to interview with anybody,” said a senior DOJ official. White House aides, he said, “were all sort of on board with Sessions folks…From that perspective, I feel like he’s first among equals.”
That said, there are limits to his influence. The administration has taken no action, for example, on one of the president’s major campaign promises, the repeal of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era provision that allows those brought into the country illegally as children to remain here. “It’s true that Trump hasn’t gone the full Jeb on immigration, but it’s also true that the Bannon faction has lost some battles,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, referring to former Florida governor Jeb Bush, one of the leading champions of comprehensive immigration reform in the Republican Party.
In mid-February, the White House circulated a draft executive order that would have stopped the renewal of work permits under the provision – which allow those eligible to stay in the country for two years – but the president, on the advice of his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner advice, decided against signing it. “What it suggests to me is that they have no idea what to do about DACA and that they are just kicking the can down the road,” Krikorian said.
Elected to the Senate in 1996, Sessions was the most vocal immigration hawk in Congress, sounding the alarm about the threat posed by rising immigration levels long before Breitbart – which would eventually become the leading right-wing news outlet for his views – was founded in 2007; he worked to scuttle George W. Bush’s 2007 immigration reform bill before Bannon arrived in Washington.
During the Republican primary, Sessions consulted with several candidates about immigration. He was in essence searching for a reliable candidate to carry his message into the presidential debates, something that Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, and Trump himself did with varying degrees of success. From the outset of Trump’s campaign, however, Sessions and his team in the Senate, led by Miller, played a hidden role in Trump’s campaign. It was Miller who wrote the immigration plan posted to his campaign website, which became evident when Trump deviated from it – endorsing an increase in the number of H-1B visas – during one of the Republican debates.
Sessions had never endorsed a candidate in a Republican presidential primary when he announced his support for Trump in February of 2016 – and he became the first senator to back him in a contest that at the time still included two of his Senate colleagues, Cruz and Florida senator Marco Rubio. Since then, he has been one of the president’s most loyal aides, which helps in part to explain his centrality in Trump world.
Sessions is prevailing over Kushner, with whom he has clashed on criminal justice reform, when it comes to making law enforcement a priority for the administration. Among those who have joined his inner circle at the Justice Department is Steven Cook, who, as a federal prosecutor and president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys was a leading opponent of the Obama administration’s efforts to do away with mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug crimes and to reduce the prison population. He told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly last year that there is “no such thing as a non-violent drug crime.”
It’s a dramatic turnaround for someone who defied a political near-death experience just weeks into his tenure. The president reacted with anger after Sessions decided to recuse himself from the investigations surrounding the 2016 election, which Trump worried would weaken his attorney general.
Sessions had pushed the idea of firing FBI director James Comey at the outset of the administration, according to several people familiar with his thinking.
What exactly prompted Sessions to make his recommendation on Comey this week remains unclear.
Though most Republicans favored his dismissal, many questioned the timing of his firing and the haphazard manner in which it was carried out. “My view is that this should have probably been done on day one, and so the timing is just kind of weird, but absent of the timing, it is defensible. I wish they would’ve done it day one,” said a senior Justice Department official.