In 1986, Coretta Scott King wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee urging its members not to confirm a federal judge nominee from Alabama named Jeff Sessions. Thirty-four years later, her words echo as a dire warning against the reactionary program that Sessions would pursue not only as a judge, but with any increase in power. She was right. Now, with four Senate terms, a stint as U.S. attorney general, and an ignominious fall from President Trump’s good graces under this belt, Sessions is trying to claw his way back into relevance while telegraphing a level of personal depravity that matches — if not exceeds — that of his political agenda.
That’s the takeaway from a new profile of Sessions’s post-White House life written by Elaina Plott for the New York Times magazine. Its retrospective assessment of his role ushering in the Trump era more than vindicates King, who, back when Sessions was a U.S. attorney, highlighted his penchant for prosecuting Black voting rights organizers as a harbinger of the broader enmity toward minority civil rights that would become his hallmark. “Mr. Sessions’ conduct as U.S. attorney, from his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicates that he lacks the temperament, fairness, and judgment to be a federal judge,” wrote King, the late widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Her letter helped make Sessions the first nominee for a federal judgeship in over 30 years not to get confirmed. But the triumph wouldn’t last. A decade later, Sessions was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he pushed a hawkish immigration agenda so draconian that even fellow Republicans regarded it as fringe; he loudly and repeatedly fought reform efforts proposed under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, deriding any measure that might improve the lot of undocumented immigrants as dangerous amnesty.
Despite his marginal influence, Sessions bided his time and was rewarded several years later with his best opportunity yet to exert authority. In 2015, he became the first Republican senator to endorse Donald Trump, then a real-estate mogul and reality-television performer who was seen as intolerably crude and intemperate by much of the GOP Establishment. When Trump made quick work of the Republican primary field, then improbably won the national election, Sessions — by then one of Trump’s most valued surrogates and the architect of his immigration agenda — had his pick of cabinet positions. He chose attorney general. With little hesitation, Sessions got to work implementing a vicious crackdown on undocumented immigrants; rolling back Obama-era protections for transgender workers; backing legal efforts from states opposing challenges to their voter-disenfranchiment laws; and decimating the Department of Justice’s capacity to enter into consent decrees with local police departments to curb their racist and violent behavior. “[During] the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Sessions was arguably more successful than anyone else in Trump’s cabinet in advancing the president’s professed goals,” Plott writes.
To thank Sessions, Trump bullied him mercilessly. The president mocked his southern drawl and tendency to raise up onto his toes when he spoke at length; the AG absorbed the insults affably, which only made Trump respect him less and antagonize him more. The dynamic was far from unfamiliar; it calls to mind Ted Cruz, famously seen during the 2016 election cycle glumly phone-banking for Trump after the then-candidate spent weeks accusing Cruz’s father of being a murderer and indicating that Cruz’s wife was ugly. The fall for Sessions was more precipitous, though, as he provoked Trump’s ire for recusing himself from overseeing the Russiagate investigation rather than holding fast and protecting the president’s interests. By November 2018, the AG’s resignation letter was on the president’s desk, preempting his looming redundancy. Sessions has spent much of the time since plotting to retake his old U.S. senate seat in November, for which former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville is his main Republican challenger. In advance of their upcoming runoff election, Tuberville is beating Sessions handily in the polls. His bid is fueled by enthusiastic support from President Trump, who continues to publicly deride Sessions as a spineless coward and enemy of the MAGA agenda.
It’s unclear if getting spurned by Trump, despite regarding him as a gift from God, warped Sessions’s sense of humanity or simply occasioned a chance for him to articulate his depravity in print. But several remarks he made to Plott at the Times magazine suggest a striking glibness toward human suffering and appetite for racist authoritarianism that puts an unsettling human face on his repugnant politics. Here he is, mocking people who object to the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families and imprisoning them:
[Sessions] recounted the outrage over his use of Scripture to defend border agents separating migrant children from their families, calling it “totally ridiculous.” “I was right about that,” he said. “I wish I’d fought it.” Then, in a disturbing, guttural voice, he mocked much of the nation’s reaction: “Nooooo, this is a poor child! They just want a job!”
Here he is considering whether today’s protests, which began when George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May, merit reforming America’s police, of whom Sessions is a staunch defender; he concludes instead that, no, they should actually be trained to crack down on rioters more successfully:
Sessions seemed annoyed when I asked if he would support measures to reform law enforcement if he were re-elected. “I suppose we could do a survey about police —” he began. He paused for nine seconds and sighed, slumping slightly against the booth. “And see how they — whether their training is at the highest level or not.” A few minutes later he returned to the subject: “I think you should probably have some money for actually training for riots,” he said. “That’s what really needs to be done. Not tell the police, ‘If you were just more sensitive, riots wouldn’t occur.’”
And here he is seeming to reference President Obama’s 2009 “beer summit” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cambridge, Massachusetts, police Sergeant James Crowley. Crowley had arrested Gates — a well-regarded Black history professor — at his own front door after mistaking him for a burglar, prompting Obama to describe the officer’s behavior as “stupid.” The right-wing outcry that followed led the president to call both men to the White House to break bread. Gates was instructed to dress casually, rather than in a bespoke suit, so as not to appear as though he was putting on airs and tacitly belittling the police officer who’d profiled him. Sessions seems to describe Gates as “some criminal” accuses Obama of not having a beer with police officers:
The mantra was: “Back to the men and women in blue,” Sessions told me. “The police had been demoralized. There was all the Obama — there’s a riot, and he has a beer at the White House with some criminal, to listen to him. Wasn’t having a beer with the police officers. So we said, ‘We’re on your side. We’ve got your back, you got our thanks.’” (Asked whether this was a confused reference to the meeting Obama had with the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who had been wrongfully arrested entering his own home, and the police officer involved in the arrest, a Sessions spokesman declined to elaborate.)
It’s hard to fully communicate the breadth of cruelty that defines Trumpism, but insights into the personal thoughts of its architects is edifying. While Sessions seems doomed to a post-White House life of ignominy at the hands of a former-reality TV actor and former-ESPN color analyst, his mark on modernity — to the tune of countless families ripped apart, children dead, civil-rights duties abdicated, and reforms left on the table — stains recent politics all the more for Coretta Scott King having warned about him decades ago. As it turns out, Sessions’s ideological project was what a decisive share of Americans wanted in 2016. Revelations about the personal views underlying and informing them suggest a depraved mind, indifferent to the suffering of those it deems unworthy of basic rights. It’s an approach that’s earned Sessions personal humiliation and a brutal legacy in equal measure. Undocumented immigrants, the over-policed and over-incarcerated — all are casualties of Jeff Sessions’s America. It’s a place all too familiar for many, and predictable in its ravages. To the nation’s continued detriment, it’s also a lesson that rarely gets learned.