The fall of Jeff Sessions demonstrates Trump’s outsized influence within the GOP

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Even after he was the object of the President’s anger time and time again, Jeff Sessions publicly remained steadfastly loyal to Donald Trump.

“I think it’s time for this Republican Party to listen to the Donald Trump agenda because he has talked about those things frankly and openly,” Sessions said in his concession speech after the Alabama GOP runoff election for Senate on July 14. Five years ago, Sessions had similarly praised Trump when he became the first U.S. senator to endorse the then-presidential candidate, but this time, the political circumstances were far different.

Sessions had just lost to former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, and the barrage of visceral tweets that the president directed at Sessions in the runup to the election was likely a major reason why.

“Do not trust Jeff Sessions,” Trump tweeted on May 23. In a follow-up tweet, Trump addressed Sessions directly, saying “you had your chance and you blew it.”

The tweets, although by no means a deviation from Trump’s sustained vitriol towards Sessions over the past three years, are striking when considering Trump’s once welcoming demeanor towards Sessions.

In late February of 2016, when Sessions arguably granted the Trump campaign major legitimacy with his endorsement as the first senator to openly support Trump, Trump labeled Sessions as “a man who is greatly respected,” and “the expert on so many things.” Later, when Trump nominated Sessions to be the United States attorney general, he declared him “a world-class legal mind” who is “greatly admired by the legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him.”

However, the relationship between the two men quickly soured in March 2017, as allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia surfaced. After reports that Sessions met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at least twice while working for the Trump campaign, he recused himself from the F.B.I’s investigation into claims of Russian collusion against the president’s wishes. Sessions’ decision was backed by a number of congressional Republicans and was in line with standing Department of Justice regulations that requires employees to recuse themselves in the event of a potential conflict of interest, but the president was nonetheless furious.

Following Sessions’ recusal, Trump was reportedly “ballistic” and left the White House in a fury. In the days and months afterward, the president didn’t let up, allegedly urging Sessions in private to reverse his recusal on numerous occasions. Meanwhile, the president publicly hurled insult after insult at Sessions, labeling him “beleaguered,” “blank,” and “confused,” among other adjectives, until Sessions was finally forced to resign on November 7, 2018.

A year later, once investigations into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia drew a close, Sessions announced that he would be running to reclaim his U.S. Senate in Alabama. A former senator of 20 years, Sessions had been reelected three times in landslides and maintained a net approval rating of nearly 30 points until he vacated his seat to serve as Attorney General. Nonetheless, his renewed Senate aspirations immediately appeared doubtful, ashis opponents eagerly latched onto Trump’s consistent rebukes of Sessions.

Tuberville, who had closely allied himself with Trump, attacked Sessions in a campaign ad, stating that “he wasn’t man enough to stand with President Trump when things got tough.” Similarly, at an Alabama Senate forum, all four candidates present — businessman Stanley Adair, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, Alabama state Rep. Arnold Mooney, and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore — agreed that Jeff Sessions should not have recused himself from the FBI investigation into Russian collusion. Bryne would later go further, dismissing Sessions in an attack ad as “someone who let the President down and got fired.”

As Sessions’ opponents played up their own loyalty to Trump while attacking his own, despite the president’s unceasing public criticisms, he chose to emphasize his own allegiance to Trump. In a race that every candidate seemed to realize hinged on their loyalty to the President, Sessions painted himself as “Trump before Trump,” highlighting the alignment in their values and his early support of the Trump campaign. Only in maintaining that recusing himself was the right decision did Sessions dissent against Trump. And for this, Sessions paid.

In spite of Sessions’ continued proclamations of loyalty on the campaign trail, the president only ramped up his attacks. Trump declared picking Sessions to be his “biggest mistake” and at one point, sent a letter to Sessions demanding that he stop using Trump’s name in campaign materials. Sessions did his best to defend himself even while maintaining his loyalty to Trump, but ultimately, the attacks resonated with voters.

On July 14, Tommy Tuberville, carrying an endorsement from the president, prevailed over the once-heralded Senator Sessions by more than 20 percentage points. Sessions had stood with Trump from the beginning, pushed hard-line conservative values even before the Trump campaign arguably brought them into the mainstream. But with the election, it became apparent what mattered more to voters than everything else in the Trump-era of the GOP: the whims and wishes of Trump himself.

What does the fact that Sessions lost in the Alabama Senate runoff largely due to the president’s criticisms say about the GOP under Trump?

“I think that it just shows that the Republican party has shifted away from being about Republican values to being about Trump. It’s something that I’ve seen a lot of people make commentary about, that the party has become a lot more fixated on Trump and what he does rather than the values of the party. Sessions was one of the most conservative Republicans you could get, but because Trump denounced him, it seems that the people who were once his biggest supporters also did.” Nathan Mo, Rising Junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Herndon, Virginia
“I think it shows that the GOP still has some loyalty to the President, at least in Alabama. The fact that Republicans would elect a Trump mouthpiece over someone very much disliked by Trump, especially with a 20% lead, pretty much demonstrates the wide support and sway Trump has in some regions. While the race was clearly not representative of the entire country, it is still a sign that Trump still has a staunch and united backing.” Ananda Kalukin, Rising Junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Arlington, Virginia 
“The Republican party has really embraced this president, and I think this rallying around this president has had some consequences that we may not have seen before. For example, people who have been members of the Republican party, who have held key positions throughout the years, we are seeing them discredited, cast aside because of the president’s remarks. The president having a negative opinion of you does shape your longevity in politics regardless of the party.” Sid Ram, Rising Freshman at American University, Washington, D.C.