Jeff Sessions’ first ad as a candidate for US Senate in Alabama does not mention that he is running to return to a seat he won in 1996 and filled until 2016. Instead, the 30-second clip focuses on praising Donald Trump – the president who fired Sessions as attorney general in November 2018 after ritually humiliating him on the national stage.
“Jeff Sessions here and I approved this ad,” begins the sprightly 72-year-old Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III in his inimitable Alabama lilt, against a plain background in the 30-second spot, entitled “Good Job”.
“When I left President Trump’s cabinet, did I write a tell-all book? No. Did I go on CNN and attack the president? Nope. Have I said a cross word about that president? Not one time. And I’ll tell you why.
“First, that would be dishonourable. I was there to serve his agenda, not mine.
“Second, the president’s doing a great job for America and Alabama, and he has my strong support.”
And that’s it – no mention of the Senate campaign, other than a logo at the top left of the screen at the start and end of the tape.
The ad can be explained by the strong support Trump retains in the Republican party, even under the cloud of an impeachment inquiry, low national approval ratings and electoral reverses at state level this week. At least in party primaries, to depart from the Donald is still to sign one’s own death warrant.
Trump also had Sessions’ strong support in February 2016, when the rightwing senator and immigration hawk was the first member of that august body to endorse the billionaire’s run for the Republican nomination, a scorched-earth campaign which left the Bush dynasty in ruins and only the widely disliked Texas senator Ted Cruz providing a meaningful fight at the polls.
Sessions became attorney general and his aide Stephen Miller became a key hard-right adviser to the president. But Trump did not have Sessions’ strong support when in March 2017 the Alabaman recused himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation into Russian election interference and links between Trump and Moscow.
Sessions took that momentous step after failing to inform Congress of meetings with the Russian ambassador during the election campaign. It left Trump fuming, convinced he deserved an attorney general who would protect him.
“I don’t have a lawyer,” the president told Steve Bannon, then a senior adviser, in the Oval Office, according to numerous reporters including James B Stewart of the New York Times, author of Deep State: Trump, the FBI and the Rule of Law.
Trump added: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
Cohn, a lawyer with mob ties who was once an aide to the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy, worked for Trump in the cut-throat world of New York real estate.
Trump is also reported to have repeatedly bemoaned his lack of a Bobby Kennedy or an Eric Holder, attorneys general he is convinced protected presidents John F Kennedy and Barack Obama.
Many observers suggest Sessions’ successor in office, William Barr, is much more the kind of attorney general-cum-consigliere Trump has had in mind.
Advised by friends including the No2 Senate Republican John Cornyn to make it right with Trump, Sessions declared his run for his old Senate seat this week. It was lost to the Democrats in December 2017 when the Republican candidate, Judge Roy Moore, was accused of sexual misconduct involving underage girls.
Moore, who denied the claims, is also running for the nomination to face Democratic incumbent Doug Jones at the polls next year.
Early reviews of Sessions’ ad tended, in mainstream media at least, to emphasise that it was meant for “an audience of one”, a familiar phrase in a world where White House aides’ performances on news shows seem calibrated solely to please a president addicted to TiVo and with a worldview shaped by the ratings.
Others were gleefully satiric. On MSNBC, the ad was likened to “a hostage tape”. The Washington Post said the former attorney general spoke “with the strained cheerfulness of a convict addressing a parole board”.
Well he might. Though Sessions has indeed refrained from publishing a tell-all book or appearing on CNN to slam the president – former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci would seem his most likely target – he would have had plenty of reason to do so.
Before Trump fired him, the president reportedly referred to his first attorney general as “weak” and a “dumb southerner” and nicknamed him “Mr Magoo”.