Fmr. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Expected To Announce Run For Senate Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to announce his bid for a Senate seat in Alabama despite no backing from the Republican establishment. This episode: political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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Fmr. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Expected To Announce Run For Senate

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Fmr. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Expected To Announce Run For Senate

Fmr. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Expected To Announce Run For Senate

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/777349182/777356246" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Really quick before we start the show, we want to let you know that we have a live show tomorrow at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C. We'll be taping our weekly roundup live on stage, and you could be there with us. Just head over to nprpresents.org to grab a ticket. Otherwise, check your podcast feeds on Saturday. All right. Here's the show.

ROB: Hi. This is Rob (ph) from Melbourne, Australia. I've just finished doing some nuclear brain scans and some tests on Egyptian mummies.

KEITH: Whoa, awesome.

ROB: This podcast was recorded at...

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

3:06 p.m. on Thursday, November 7.

ROB: Things may have changed by the time you hear this podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KEITH: But probably not those mummy brains.

KURTZLEBEN: So cool.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: It's such a coincidence. That's what we had been doing at the office just before we started.

KURTZLEBEN: Everybody wants to copy us. All right.

Hello. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I am Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.

KURTZLEBEN: And we are coming to you today. We're going to start out by talking about a blast from the past, a blast from the past in the form of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who a year ago on this day was fired from his role as President Trump's attorney general.

ELVING: It can't be an entirely accidental bit of timing.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

ELVING: Plus, tomorrow is the deadline for filing if you want to be part of the primary in March and the runoff in April.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And what we're talking about here, by the way, in terms of filing is that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions - we know him as Jeff Sessions - Jeff Sessions, he's set to announce that he's running to once again serve as the senator from Alabama in a seat that he himself vacated to become Donald Trump's attorney general. So let's start with a refresher, you guys. Who is Jeff Sessions? And let's talk about his relationship to President Trump.

ELVING: Well, Jeff Sessions was President Trump's first attorney general. But before that, he was a senator for 20 years from Alabama, initially being elected back in 1997, being reelected several times. And he was cruising along as a successful member of the Senate and establishing, if you will, a kind of anchor on one end of the Senate, a very conservative Southern senator. And he was the very first senator to endorse Donald Trump for president.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

ELVING: So when Trump became president, he turned to Jeff Sessions and said you would be a good pick for attorney general.

KEITH: Yeah. His loyalty - and early loyalty - was rewarded by becoming attorney general of the United States, which is something that Jeff Sessions wanted very badly. But it went south fast.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So what happened?

KEITH: Yeah. So what happened is Jeff Sessions had been working with the campaign, and as a result was required by Justice Department rules and ethics guidelines to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. President Trump saw this as an act of disloyalty, as a betrayal, and for months berated Jeff Sessions publicly on Twitter, in interviews, everywhere. If I had known, President Trump said, if I had known that he was going to recuse himself, I would not have made him attorney general. And Sessions continued to do his job while twisting in the wind, not knowing when his day would come to be fired for basically two years.

ELVING: He must have wanted it pretty bad. And let's say, in fairness to Sessions, that the rules are not ambiguous here. Sessions had not only been working for the Trump campaign, he had been working foreign policy for it. He had had a kind of prominent role on foreign policy, met with the Russian ambassador at one point, which, of course, looked a little suspect after the Russians became suspect. And he had been asked about it a lot in the confirmation hearings. And it really almost derailed his nomination being confirmed by the Senate. So it was not a close call.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So before we get to the Senate seat, I mean, I want to talk a little bit more about him as AG because leaving aside the Russia stuff, leaving aside him twisting in the wind, was he an effective attorney general? Was he good at this?

KEITH: Attorney General Jeff Sessions got a lot of what he wanted - immigration policy, which was something that he cared about. Trump's immigration policy was very much reflective of Jeff Sessions' views on those things. Sessions is the one who announced that President Trump was terminating DACA, the program for young people brought to the country as children who became undocumented immigrants or were undocumented.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. So I have a big question here. This is one Senate seat. Why do we care so much about this?

ELVING: Well, there's only a three-seat margin in the Senate.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

ELVING: And that's a big thing. And Doug Jones is somebody that the Republicans expect to knock off. And they would like to stay in an orderly fashion towards their own strategy to doing that, and this is an interruption in that. There's that. It's also a compelling human story about Jeff Sessions and his attempted self-redemption and how he is trying to reclaim what he sees as his. And there is also just a certain amount of fascination with the blood sport, if you will, the way these people go after each other in some states and within the same party. And I think all of that added up makes it kind of a different narrative to introduce in the midst of all these other things we're obsessed with like which Democrat is up and down in Iowa and the impeachment of the president.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. Right. Well, and you bring up Doug Jones. Doug Jones, of course, is the Democrat who won that seat over Roy Moore back in December of 2017. And now Doug Jones is a Democrat holding a Senate seat in a deeply, deeply red state. So, right, like you're implying there, there is a good shot for a Republican to win this. Now, the question is, what Republican gets this nomination? So, guys, tell me more. Who else is going to be in this race besides Sessions?

ELVING: Well, you have Roy Moore.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

ELVING: We have Congressman Bradley Byrne, who is a very well-established conservative and somebody who is willing to back Donald Trump, come what may, and has said so and has really tortured Jeff Sessions over Jeff Sessions' recusal back in that case - and says he wouldn't run away from a fight. You also have Auburn University's former football coach. And this is Alabama. And Auburn is part of the Alabama system.

KURTZLEBEN: As I understand it, yeah.

ELVING: Tommy Tuberville is a big deal in Alabama. So he is a legitimate contender. And then you also have the Alabama secretary of state, John Merrill, and State Representative Arnold Mooney and who else? Maybe others.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

KEITH: Can I just add, Ron, a quote from Bradley Byrne? He is the congressman who is running. He was asked by Seung Min Kim of The Washington Post about what he thought of the possibility that Jeff Sessions would run. And he says, quote, "the president is very angry with Jeff. I think the president will be very vocal against him. For Jeff's sake, I don't want that."

KURTZLEBEN: How magnanimous, I'm sure, is what Jeff Sessions thinks right now.

ELVING: He's sparing his former colleague.

KEITH: He didn't add bless your heart, but he might as well have.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. Wait. Wait. Wait. OK. But Jeff Sessions, we've established, you know, left the White House maybe not as Trump's best friend in the world. Very quickly here, do we have any sense of how Trump is going to react to this, and also, just how the Republican establishment is going to?

KEITH: So a couple of Trump administration officials were asked about this today. Vice President Mike Pence was asked, and Pence answered in a very Pence way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, let me say we will let the people of Alabama make that decision.

KEITH: And then he just went on about the great stock market...

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

KEITH: ...And the president's accomplishments and never turned back to Jeff Sessions.

KURTZLEBEN: I can almost see - picture him holding his hands up and backing quietly away as he says - as he said that.

KEITH: Yeah, and Kellyanne Conway, the adviser to the president, was also asked about Sessions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLYANNE CONWAY: The Republican voters can decide who their nominee is, and then the voters of Alabama can decide who their senator will be.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And what about the president's thoughts on it?

CONWAY: The president hasn't said anything about it. I think the president does not want to deny or deprive the people of Alabama their rightful choices, and it's a free country. People can file.

KEITH: It is worth noting that President Trump did weigh in pretty heavily in the last Alabama Senate race.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Yes.

ELVING: And will again when the moment is right, but this isn't the right moment. At this point, they want to see if he really does it, see how he plays, see how the race seems to take shape between now and March. And if at some point or another, President Trump could weigh in on behalf of one of the rival candidates, one would expect he would take that opportunity.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

KEITH: We should just add in terms of establishment Republicans that our own Susan Davis is reporting that Sessions is embarking on this campaign without any support or backing from the NRSC. That's the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the committee that is out there to get Republicans elected to the Senate.

KURTZLEBEN: A well-established Republican without establishment backing...

KEITH: At the moment.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. OK. We're going to leave it there, but when we get back, Republican senators celebrate judicial confirmations at the White House with President Trump.

And we're back, and we're going to talk about something we've talked about quite a bit on this podcast - Republican lawmakers' relationships with the president. Yesterday at the White House, there was an event where, really, those relationships looked pretty rosy and everybody seemed pretty happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think there's nobody that's done a better job ever than Senator Mitch McConnell.

MITCH MCCONNELL: You had been helped enormously by a decision that I made - and these guys backed me up - not to let President Obama fill that Scalia vacancy on the way out the door.

TRUMP: And I say thank you, President Obama, very much, but it was 142 empty slots, and nobody can believe that. And I couldn't believe it and didn't believe it, but now I believe it because now we've got so many approved. And we're going to hit that magic number, and then it's going to be a lot more from there.

MCCONNELL: The people of this country ought to be complimented that we have a president that said he was going to run on a platform and he stands on that platform, and we're protecting Donald from judgment.

KURTZLEBEN: Friendship and hugs and champagne and "Kumbaya" all around - everybody's happy. So guys, tell me. What were they celebrating?

KEITH: They were having a party because they have a lot of judgeships to celebrate. This was a milestone that they reached. President Trump and his Senate allies have been able to confirm enough judges that now Trump judges are in a quarter of the appellate and Supreme Court seats - two Supreme Court justices, 45 appeals court judges and 112 district court judges. And what you heard in that tape is President Trump sort of saying, I can't believe how lucky I was that President Obama left this for me, and Mitch McConnell suddenly making it clear that, in fact, it was Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate who helped make sure that Trump had all those vacancies to fill.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. It wasn't Obama shirking his duty. Like...

KEITH: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So let's get back to what we were talking about here with everybody being one big, happy family at the White House. I mean, talk to me about this. I mean, these are Republicans, several of whom we have seen occasionally criticize the president over the years. Is this what holds them together - is this hope for more judicial appointments?

KEITH: Well, certainly, this is what keeps them happy...

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

KEITH: ...Is these sorts of victories that they can talk about with their constituents, who this really matters to. And the subtext of all this is that President Trump had all of these senators over to the White House for a celebration where they - he praised them at a time when he is also facing impeachment. And it is quite likely that these very senators will be jurors in his impeachment trial.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. Yeah.

ELVING: So it's not entirely coincidental in this particular week because you hear people constantly speculating about whether or not some of these senators might be splitting off. And some of the people that were there - say, Ted Cruz, for example - have had some pretty harsh things to say about the president in the past when they were rivals for the nomination and even after Trump had won the nomination. So this would be a signal to all those who think that maybe there is some chance that the Senate's getting a little squishy on removing the president after the House, one assumes, goes forward with impeaching him. They may not, but if they do - so that signal was well-received.

KEITH: Yeah, and there had been a time when President Trump was publicly berating some members of the Senate.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

KEITH: And he sort of cut back on that recently.

ELVING: There has been reporting that Mitch McConnell asked him to, that Mitch McConnell said, Mr. President, these guys might be asked to make kind of a tough call a little bit later on in your behalf. And we'll be with you, Mr. President, but, you know, it would be just as well if you stop trashing them.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, and - check it out. These guys are on my side. They're at my house. We're having a lovely time together.

KEITH: The people's house.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. All right, well, we are going to leave it there, but we will be back tomorrow. Until then, keep up with all of the latest updates by heading to npr.org, listening to your local public radio station or on the NPR One app.

I am Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor-correspondent.

KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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