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In Sessions controversy, Trump’s ‘intellectual godfather’ is under fire

Jeff Sessions is sworn in during his confirmation hearing to be U.S. attorney-general on Jan. 10, 2017.

Molly Riley/AFP/Getty Images

At first glance, the brash mogul from New York and the courtly senator from Alabama appeared to have little in common. But Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions forged an unlikely partnership that led all the way to the White House.

Beneath their different backgrounds, the two men shared a devotion to a hard-edged nationalism that made them outliers within their own party. They bonded over their opposition to illegal immigration, their skepticism of trade pacts and their suspicion of Muslim immigrants and refugees. Mr. Sessions became more than a close ally and surrogate: He has been called the "intellectual godfather" of Mr. Trump's campaign and new administration.

Now that alliance is being tested. Mr. Sessions gave misleading answers about his contacts with Russian officials while testifying at his confirmation hearing to become attorney-general of the United States. Mr. Sessions said Thursday that he would recuse himself from any current and future investigations involving the presidential campaign, but that will not satisfy Democrats, who are calling for his resignation.

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Mr. Sessions has denied that he did anything improper when he failed to disclose under oath two in-person conversations with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, saying the discussions took place in his capacity as a senator and did not focus on the presidential election. Mr. Trump said Thursday he had total confidence in Mr. Sessions.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions first met in 2005 when the senator invited the real-estate tycoon to testify to Congress about the costs to renovate the headquarters of the United Nations – costs which Mr. Trump described, in memorable terms, as inflated.

A decade later, the two men reconnected as Mr. Trump launched his candidacy for president, with Mr. Trump's aides seeing in Mr. Sessions a natural ally. In August, 2015, back when Mr. Trump's bid was still derided as impossible, Mr. Sessions appeared at a Trump rally in his home state of Alabama wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat.

"I like him," Mr. Trump said of Mr. Sessions that month in a conversation with The Washington Post. "Tough guy. I like that. We have a similar thought process."

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In 1986, Mr. Sessions was rejected by the Senate when then-president Ronald Reagan sought to appoint him as a federal judge. Former colleagues testified that while serving as a federal prosecutor, Mr. Sessions had called a major black civil-rights group "un-American" and said it "hated white people," among other racially charged statements.

Much like Mr. Trump, Mr. Sessions was considered beyond the mainstream of the Republican Party, particularly his hard-line stance on immigration: He has called for a rapid increase in deportations of immigrants who entered the country illegally, even those brought as children, and has pushed for a reduction in legal immigration as well.

Mr. Sessions also played a pivotal role in torpedoing an effort by then-president Barack Obama to reform the country's immigration system and offer a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. His allies in that battle: his close aide Stephen Miller, who is now an adviser to Mr. Trump, and Stephen Bannon, then the head of Breitbart News and now the President's senior counsellor.

"Whether the issue was trade or immigration or radical Islam, for many years before Donald Trump came on the scene, Senator Sessions was the leader of the movement and Stephen [Miller] was his right-hand man," Mr. Bannon told Politico magazine last year.

Mr. Sessions became the first senator to endorse Mr. Trump in February, 2016, and the next month was named head of Mr. Trump's national security advisory committee. During the campaign, Mr. Sessions – who previously embraced hawkish views on Russia – changed his tone to be more in line with Mr. Trump.

"This whole problem with Russia is really disastrous for America," Mr. Sessions told CNN in July, 2016. "Donald Trump is right. We need to figure out a way to end this cycle of hostility."

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Mr. Sessions and former members of his staff have been crucial players in the early days of the new administration. Rick Dearborn, the long-time chief of staff to Mr. Sessions, was named deputy chief of staff at the White House. Mr. Miller, the former aide to Mr. Sessions, is widely seen as the architect of Mr. Trump's ill-fated and chaotic immigration ban.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump reportedly considered Mr. Sessions as a possible candidate for vice-president and later as a potential secretary of state, but Mr. Sessions preferred the post of attorney-general, the nation's top law-enforcement officer.

For those familiar with Mr. Sessions's career, his ascent from an isolated member of his own party to a close ally of the President is worthy of a biblical comparison: Some former staff members have taken to calling Mr. Sessions "Joseph," The Washington Post reported, likening him to the Old Testament protagonist who was banished by his family but eventually helped a pharaoh rule Egypt.

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About the Author
U.S. Correspondent

Joanna Slater is an award-winning foreign correspondent for The Globe based in the United States, where her focus is business and economic news and New York City.Her career includes reporting assignments in the U.S., Europe and Asia. In 2015, she was posted in Berlin, Germany, where she covered Europe’s refugee crisis. More

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