President Donald Trump talks with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, gestures before speaking at the 36th Annual National Peace Officers’ memorial service, Monday, May 15. 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Alabama conservatives love former Senator and now U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and they backed President Donald Trump with historic support last November.
But if recent national news accounts about a growing rift between the two continues to fester, sides could be taken. And for the GOP candidates seeking Sessions’ former Senate seat, it could be a tricky issue to address this summer, political observers note.
“If there is a Trump-Sessions fallout, it puts those desiring to be his Senate successor in a difficult situation,” said William Stewart, professor emeritus of political sciences at the University of Alabama and a longtime observer of the state’s political scene. “A lot would depend on what the fallout is about.”
Reports that Trump has grown sour on Sessions is merely anonymous speculation reported by the national media, according to most of the GOP field who responded to requests for comments on Wednesday.
A good number of them are likely to tout allegiances to both Trump and Sessions, if nothing changes in the relationship between the president and the attorney general between now and the Aug. 15 primary.
“In politics, there is always the rest of the story and I would be hesitant in getting ahead of ourselves,” said Trip Pittman, an Alabama state senator from Baldwin County. “Both are doing their jobs and my belief is that they are close and are still working together and that is where I am at (in my beliefs) at this point.”
Others are equally skeptical of the news reports, which indicate that Sessions recently suggested to the president that he resign following Trump’s displeasure with the attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from any Justice Department probes related to the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia.
“The speculation by the mainstream media regarding the relationship between President Trump and Attorney General Sessions is purely innuendo and speculative at best,” said Randy Brinson, a Montgomery gastroenterologist and the president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama.
Said Dom Gentile, a Birmingham businessman: “I’m not exactly sure what to believe. We don’t know the conversations that have taken place between these two heavyweights.”
Added Bryan Peeples, a restaurant consultant from Birmingham: “As with all the reports coming out of the media, I prefer to take a step back and let the hysteria die down before I make any judgements.”
At least two Republican candidates are not sure if Sessions’ recusal was a good idea.
Mary Maxwell, who moved from Australia to run for the Senate seat as a Republican, said that the recusal perhaps “was not a good idea.” She said she hopes Sessions doesn’t resign, and that it would “be a catastrophe for justice.”
James Beretta, a physician who practices in Pelham, said that if Trump doesn’t answer media inquiries about the president’s confidence in his attorney general, he believes Sessions’ tenure “as AG may be shortened.”
“The statement to the president asking if he has confidence in him to continue as AG can go both ways by either asking to be dismissed to avoid a more detail investigation or looking for a verbal unifying comment,” said Beretta. “There is no doubt that standing aside and not performing your sworn duty for the official position you hold can haunt you.”
The campaigns for the three leading candidates for the Senate seat – current officeholder Luther Strange, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore – did not respond to a request for comment.
But all three candidates have embraced Trump’s policies, and have praised Sessions as well.
Strange, on his campaign website, said he stands with Trump in ensuring the administration achieves “landmark conservative success.” Meanwhile, he also indicates support for Sessions.
Brooks, in an interview with AL.com, said that Alabama “needs another Jeff Sessions” to serve in the Senate.
Political commentator and historian Steve Flowers said he doesn’t foresee the GOP Senate candidates discussing the rift while campaigning. But, he said if the issue surfaces – and if Sessions ultimately resigns as attorney general – the candidates would be best served by backing Sessions.
“Sessions, whatever you may want to say about him, is a person of extreme high integrity and will do the right thing,” said Flowers, a former conservative member of the Alabama House. “What Trump lacks in integrity, Sessions makes up for it. Jeff Sessions is an Eagle Scout. He’s a straight-arrow.”
Jonathan Gray, a political strategist based out of Mobile, also doesn’t believe the rift will matter much in the Senate campaign. He said the Trump/Sessions dispute might be “news today” but concerns an event that occurred weeks ago.
But if boiled down to taking sides, Gray said that candidates will likely line up behind Trump.
He said that Trump won Alabama’s GOP primary and the subsequent general election last year long before Sessions was tapped as the next attorney general.
Despite a difficult week in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump remains popular in states like Alabama where U.S. Senate hopefuls are expected embrace his name and policies during the campaign. Democrats, meanwhile, see opportunity.
“The folks of Alabama voted overwhelmingly to elect Donald Trump not only in the general election, but in the primary,” said Gray. “If it came down to choosing sides … Donald Trump has a much deeper bench. Jeff Sessions would be seen as an honorable man who took a fall for the president.”
Alabama Republican officials are also not too caught up in the rift that involves arguably the state’s most popular politician against a president who was embraced by more than 62 percent of the state’s voters last year.
Perry Hooper, who helped run Trump’s Alabama campaign and who has publicly endorsed Strange’s candidacy, dismissed the reported tensions as “a media thing.”
“We are in the world of politics right now, the left and the Democrats hate Donald Trump and will do everything to create controversy,” said Hooper. “I hope the candidates running for United States Senate don’t buy into that. It’s not an issue that Republicans should be involved with.”
Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama GOP, also blames the National media for continuing “on this path with rumors and no facts. The stories are now about if’s and maybe’s. It’s getting old.”
She added in an email statement, “The Republican senatorial candidates are on a tight time line to make their case to the GOP voters. They are sharing issues that will matter to our citizens – health care, tax reform and national security among other subjects.
Nowhere in our summer is there time for anonymous source stories that ends in a waste of ink and airtime.”
The 2017 NASA Astronaut Class: (from left) Zena Cardman, Jasmin Moghbeli, Jonny Kim, Frank Rubio, Matthew Dominick, Warren Hoburg, Robb Kulin, Kayla Barron, Bob Hines, Raji Chari, Loral O’ Hara and Jessica Watkins. (Contributed photo/ NASA/Robert Markowitz)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on the fiscal year 2018 budget. (AP)