The appearance of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, among an increasing number of Donald Trump associates caught up in the web of ties with Russia raises immediate questions about how the justice department, currently headed by Sessions, will carry out an even-handed investigation of those links.
But Sessions’s sudden immersion in the affair poses much more problematic issues for the Trump administration – there are intricate bonds between one of the president’s earliest campaign supporters and numerous corners of the current presidency.
Sessions’ recusal Thursday from investigations pertaining to the 2016 presidential campaigns was a damaging blow for Trump, who said only an hour earlier that he saw no need for the attorney general to take the extraordinary step, just three weeks after his Senate confirmation.
Trump’s blind spot to Sessions’ potentially compromised status may point to a larger problem. Should Sessions come under increasing pressure to resign, the administration could be faced with the extraction of a central figure, from whom Trump has borrowed staff, policy positions, intellectual direction and popular support.
Unlike the former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the first White House official to be sidelined in the Russia scandal, Sessions is no isolated figure.
And if the Trump administration’s rightwing platform has an ideological foundation, Sessions is its hard core.
In February 2016, Sessions became the first sitting senator to support Trump, joining the candidate onstage at a raucous rally in Madison, Alabama.
The support that Sessions went on to provide behind the scenes became even more significant to Trump’s election, and his presidency.
Even before Trump launched his presidential bid, Sessions was working with Breitbart, the media outlet then headed by the current White House adviser Stephen Bannon, to build a case for opposing immigration reform in the Senate.
But if Sessions’s staff and Breitbart’s once mixed on Capitol Hill – every week for happy hour – they now do so inside the White House, and around conference tables where Trump presides.
Sessions’s longtime chief of staff, Rick Dearborn, became executive director of the presidential transition team and is now deputy chief of staff in the White House. Sessions’s communications director, Stephen Miller, became national policy director for the Trump campaign in January 2016 and is now senior adviser to the president for policy, and a hugely controversial figure for his part in framing the flawed travel ban policy.
Miller’s national renown grew last month when Trump congratulated him for going on national TV and describing an epidemic of voter fraud in New Hampshire that locals dismissed as an outrageous fiction.
“When it comes to issues and messaging and policy, there isn’t anybody else that I’ve known that would be as valuable to a presidential campaign as he,” Sessions said of Miller in an interview last year with Politico. “Maybe other than Karl Rove.”
Sessions has been connected with other Trump figures named in the Russia scandal. Both Paul Manafort, a former campaign chairman, and Carter Page, a New York-based businessman, have been named in leaked reports as targets of investigations of communications between Trump associates and Russian agents.
Sessions has said he has known Manafort for decades, though the nature of their association is unclear. Asked how Page had gotten to know Trump, an unnamed source pointed Politico toward Dearborn, Sessions’s former chief of staff.
Brent Buchanan, a Republican political consultant from Sessions’s home state of Alabama, said that the Trump-Sessions fit was natural.
“The reason that Sessions and Trump got along so well is that they’re both plainspoken figures, and you don’t really have to guess what they’re saying,” Buchanan said. “They just put it out there, and they back it up with the fact that they mean it. And so I think that’s what attracted Sessions to Trump initially, and vice versa.”
Sessions’s harmony with Trump goes beyond plainspokenness to shared views on issues. As a senator, Sessions racked up decades of votes establishing his bona fides as a proponent of tough justice, a supporter of law enforcement, an opponent of immigration, even legal immigration, a proponent of voter ID laws and an enemy of marijuana legalization.
It was that overlap that saw Trump win Alabama handily in the Republican primary contest, where fellow conservative senators and presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio publicly regretted their loss of the coveted Sessions endorsement.
“He’s revered here,” Buchanan said. “And I think that’s because Alabamians know that Jeff Sessions is a man of his word. They admire his outspokenness on conservative issues. He was a champion against immigration reform 10 years ago.
“He stands up for his values, as opposed to just being politically expedient.”