Barely 12 hours after the smoke had cleared from the 2018 mid-term elections, another political bomb exploded Wednesday afternoon when news came that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had resigned at the request of President Donald Trump.
That Sessions was on his way out was not a shock. The former U.S. senator from Mobile had been one of the first well-known supporters of Trump in the presidential campaign. But shortly after he took the cabinet position, he became a thorn in Trump’s side by recusing himself from supervising the investigation into collusion by Russia during the 2016 election.
Trump chafed at the move by Sessions both publicly and privately, accusing Sessions of being disloyal and not acting in Trump’s defense. The rift grew during the two years Sessions served in the post.
Sessions’ departure had been expected for months, though political advisers told Trump to wait until after the mid-terms. He did so, barely — Sessions was told by Chief of Staff Mike Kelly to hand in his resignation on Wednesday afternoon, and he did.
Reaction to Sessions’ stepping down was quick, most of it praising Sessions or speculating on his next moves and what they could mean for politics in the state.
Shelby issued a written statement on his official website about 90 minutes after news of the firing hit news wires. “Thank you to my good friend, Jeff Sessions, for over 40 years of noble service to Alabama and our country,” Shelby said. “Jeff was a respected colleague of mine in the Senate for two decades and represented our nation with honor as the U.S. Attorney General. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”
Sen. Doug Jones, who in December won election to the seat vacated by Sessions and now is a possible political rival in two years, focused his ire at Trump, instead.
“For nearly two years, the President has done a disservice to the American people by leveling unfair attacks against our law enforcement agencies. He has also diminished the importance of the legitimate investigation of Russian election interference by labeling it a ‘witch hunt,’” Jones, a Democrat, said in a statement emailed to news media. “Now, with the firing of Attorney General Sessions today, I am concerned that he will use this opportunity to exert control over Special Counsel (Robert) Mueller’s investigation. It is even more vital now that Congress takes action to protect the investigation. I remain deeply concerned about the targeted and well-funded efforts by Russia to undermine our democracy and influence our elections, particularly those yet to come.”
Back home in Alabama, Republican Party Chair Terry Lathan lauded Sessions for his service.
“A man of integrity, Jeff Sessions has led the Department of Justice with dignity and a firm commitment to the rule of law,” Lathan said in a statement. “His reputation as a dedicated public servant precedes his many years of honorable service to our nation.
“A true Alabama statesman, Jeff Sessions has been a warrior for President Trump’s conservative agenda,” Lathan’s statement continued. “From enforcing our nation’s immigration laws, fighting opioid abuse to strongly supporting members of our law enforcement, Jeff Sessions has consistently made Alabama proud.
“His service can be most accurately summed up in our state’s motto: ‘We dare defend our rights.’ Unwavering and resolute, our country needs more public servants like Jeff Sessions. We are blessed and are stronger because of his humble sacrifices through his lifetime of service to Alabama and America.”
Sessions represented Alabama in the Senate for 20 years, preceded by two years as the state’s attorney general and two years before that as a federal prosecutor in Mobile, his hometown.
What’s Next for Sessions
Longtime friend and former Senate chief of staff Armand DeKeyser told WBHM in an interview Wednesday that Trump and Sessions’ relationship had been strained for many months. “I think it (Sessions’ leaving) will probably be a relief for everyone around him, the president as well as the attorney general,” he said.
DeKeyser said he thinks Sessions will weather the storm without significant damage. He said that when the controversy has blown over, he thinks people connected to the attorney general’s office and strong conservatives will look back and “see that Jeff Sessions served the president very well and served him in an appropriate and honorable manner.”
Sessions’ ouster presents an interesting situation in Alabama politics and for Sessions individually.
Trump enjoys strong support among state voters, some of whom criticized Sessions for his recusal. But Sessions also has been a favorite son of the state.
“In Alabama, there are some very strong Sessions loyalists who felt that the president was too harsh on the attorney general, and then those supporting Trump who felt Jeff Sessions didn’t serve the president strong enough,” DeKeyser said. “In my opinion, they both hurt each other.”
Sessions’ departure raises the question of what he’ll do next. DeKeyser said he hasn’t yet talked with Sessions. “He’s served a good life and been a great public servant, DeKeyser said. “Whatever he wants to do, he’ll do.”
Talk already has turned to the possibility he will run against Jones for his old Senate seat when the term expires in 2020.
Luther Strange, the man who was appointed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley to fill Sessions’ seat until the special election could be held, was succinct in his support for Sessions even before the resignation was announced.
“Jeff Sessions for Senate in 2020!” Strange tweeted at about noon Wednesday. Later in the day, after the announcement, Strange posted another tweet in response to Shelby’s statement: “Totally agree w/my friend and colleague @SenShelby. Jeff Sessions was the first politician I campaigned for in Alabama when we were building the Republican Party. He campaigned for me both times when I ran for Attorney General. Thank you for friendship & your service Jeff!”
Jones is likely to be an underdog if he chooses to run for re-election in two years, no matter who the Republican opponent is. State GOP officials have seen Jones’ victory as an aberration caused by scandals that enveloped Moore during the campaign, and they painted the proverbial bullseye on Jones’ back the day he was sworn in.
Sessions, 72, also could swear off elected office and enter the private sector, either returning to the practice of law — where his name as a “rainmaker” on the letterhead of any number of white-shoe law firms would be lucrative — or as a consultant in the political ranks in either Alabama or Washington, D.C.
So far, he isn’t saying anything more than what he wrote in his resignation letter, providing plenty of fodder for cable-news talking heads.