Jeff Sessions snaps back after Trump tells Alabama not to trust him

Martin Pengelly in New York
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

After Donald Trump told supporters in Alabama “do not trust” Jeff Sessions and backed his opponent for the Republican Senate nomination, the man Trump trusted to be his first attorney general did something rare: he snapped back.

Related: Barack Obama poised to add his star appeal to Joe Biden's campaign

The president was “damned fortunate”, Sessions said on Friday night, that he recused himself from the Russia investigation.

Sessions, 73, said his March 2017 decision, forced because he did not disclose to Congress contacts with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 election, “protected the rule of law and resulted in your exoneration”.

In fact special counsel Robert Mueller, appointed by then deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein on 17 May 2017, said in his report that though he had not found evidence of criminal conspiracy between Moscow and the president, he was not exonerating Trump.

Sessions’ claim otherwise was consistent with that of Trump and his supporters.

Your personal feelings don’t dictate who Alabama picks as their senator, the people of Alabama do

Jeff Sessions

Sessions was fired after the midterm elections in 2018 and replaced by William Barr, an attorney general who has proved much more to Trump’s liking, working to protect the president and to reject the findings and premise of the justice department investigation into Russian election interference.

Sessions is an immigration hardliner and mentor to the hard-right Trump adviser Stephen Miller. He was the first senator to endorse Trump in 2016.

He is now running in the Republican primary to contest his old seat, which the Republicans lost to the Democrat Doug Jones in December 2017 after nominating Roy Moore, a hardline judge who spoke favourably of Vladimir Putin but was accused of, and denied, sexual misconduct involving women as young as 14.

On Twitter on Friday night, Trump endorsed a string of congressional candidates, among them Ronny Jackson, a doctor who left the White House engulfed in scandal and is now running for the House in Texas.

Turning to Alabama, Trump wrote: “Three years ago, after Jeff Sessions recused himself, the Fraudulent Mueller Scam began. Alabama, do not trust Jeff Sessions. He let our Country down. That’s why I endorsed Coach Tommy Tuberville, the true supporter of our #MAGA agenda!”

Tuberville is a revered former coach of the Auburn Tigers, a leading name in college football, a near-holy institution in the deep-red state.

Tuberville won the first round of the primary, which Moore also entered. He and Sessions will contest a runoff in July, the winner facing Jones in November. In polling, Tuberville maintains a healthy lead.

Sessions has been so determined in his support of the president who humiliated him and fired him that many critics likened one early campaign ad to a hostage video.

On Friday, he wrote: “Look, I know your anger, but recusal was required by law. I did my duty and you’re damn fortunate I did. It protected the rule of law and resulted in your exoneration.

“Your personal feelings don’t dictate who Alabama picks as their senator, the people of Alabama do.”

If Sessions’ response to Trump seemed made more in sorrow than anger, he was more aggressive towards his opponent.

Related: Biden apologizes for saying voters who back Trump 'ain't black'

Still addressing his former master, Sessions said Tuberville was “a coward who is rightly too afraid to debate me. He says you’re wrong on China and trade. He wants to bring in even more foreign workers to take American jobs. That’s not your agenda and it’s not mine or Alabama’s. I know Alabama. Tuberville doesn’t.”

Tuberville retweeted and echoed Trump, and turned Sessions’ accusation of cowardice back the other way.

“Jeff Sessions threw Donald Trump to the wolves with the Mueller appointment,” he said, in a tweet first sent on 17 May, the anniversary of the naming of the special counsel.

“When faced with supporting [Trump] or running scared, Jeff Sessions chose the easy way out and recused himself. I won’t ever run from a fight in the US Senate.”