Trump's sole Senate backer serves as Washington gatekeeper

AP News
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Posted: Apr 25, 2016 1:08 PM
Trump's sole Senate backer serves as Washington gatekeeper

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions would seem to have little in common.

Sessions is a polite Southerner from small-town Alabama, while Trump is a brash New Yorker and creature of the big-city spotlight. Sessions likes to spend weekends out of cellphone range in a rural corner of his home state. Trump retreats to his lavish Mar-a-Lago compound where he's easily accessible on social media or for a television appearance.

Yet the two have become kindred political spirits in the 2016 election, drawn together by a shared belief that some of their Republican Party leaders are selling out their own voters on immigration, as well as on trade. It's an argument Sessions has made for years in relative obscurity and one Trump has ridden to the top of the Republican presidential primary field.

"I do think the Republican Party needs to recognize that it is in danger of promoting an agenda that's contrary to the wishes of its own voters," Sessions said. "This can be a death blow."

As the first — and to this point, only — senator to endorse Trump, Sessions has taken on the role as Washington gatekeeper for the GOP front-runner. He's assembled the candidate's foreign policy leadership team and sends other experts Trump's way. When Trump name-drops Sessions on the campaign trail, it elicits cheers from crowds who have come to see his endorsement as affirmation of their candidate's hard line on immigration.

"When it came to immigration, which is a very big issue for me, and trade, which is an enormous issue for me, I felt he's the most respected person in Washington," Trump said of Sessions during an interview with The Associated Press.

It's an unlikely turn in the political spotlight for the 69-year-old Sessions, who has hardly been viewed as a man of significant political influence during his nearly 20 years representing Alabama in the Senate. He's the longest-serving Republican in the Senate without a committee chairmanship or leadership post. And he's increasingly been out of step with his party's leaders on major issues, including his staunch opposition to the sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

If Sessions has been known for anything outside of his home state in recent years, it's been as the target of immigration advocates, who have branded him a nativist for his support of tough enforcement policies and limiting legal immigration. He was instrumental in derailing President George W. Bush's attempts at immigration overhauls and was a leading opponent of the 2013 "Gang of Eight" bill that passed in the Senate but was blocked in the House.

"He's the most ardent, anti-immigrant restrictionist that you can find," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America's Voice. "He comes from the kick-them-out-and-keep-them-out camp."

Sessions sees Trump's rise as validation of his belief that Republicans' political success depends not on expanding its appeal with the fast-growing Hispanic voting bloc, but on siding with working-class voters who view job competition from immigrants and trade agreements as a threat to their own economic security.

The senator dismisses the notion that he and Trump's views are geared only toward white voters, saying he's "morally" confident that he's aligned with Hispanics and African-Americans as much as anyone else.

"You bring in more labor, you're competing directly with them," Sessions said of minorities.

Despite their shared political philosophy, the senator's endorsement didn't come easy for Trump.

Sessions had met the billionaire only once, when the real estate mogul testified at a 2005 Senate hearing on funding for a United Nations renovation project. But shortly after announcing his candidacy, Trump began courting Sessions' support and seeking policy guidance from the senator's staff.

The two men also began speaking by phone. In September, they held a 90-minute meeting at Session's hideaway office on Capitol Hill, where Trump told the senator flatly that he was in the race to win it. In January, trusted Sessions' aide Stephen Miller left Capitol Hill to serve as a senior policy adviser to Trump.

Sessions grew fond of Trump but resisted endorsing him. Sessions had never publicly backed a candidate in a GOP primary before and preferred to make the case for his views through data-driven policy papers. It's not unusual for his aides to distribute lengthy documents to Senate offices, or for Sessions' himself to push materials into a colleague's hand.

A turning point came in January, when the senator joined other lawmakers and prominent conservatives at a private retreat in Sea Island, Georgia. The exclusive gathering was held just a few weeks before primary voting began, as the reality that Trump's candidacy wasn't fading began to set in with many Republicans.

Sessions became incensed as one high-profile speaker in particular railed against Trump, warning that he would be destructive for the party. Though Sessions wasn't scheduled to speak, he stood up unexpectedly and berated his colleagues for being the ones putting the party's future at risk by failing to fully understand their voters' economic concerns.

"I just felt like, we've got to battle for the heart and soul for the Republican Party," Sessions said. "Are we going to reattach with the middle class, working Americans or are we going to continue to kowtow to the donor class?"

About a month later, Sessions joined Trump on stage at a rally in Madison, Alabama, and announced his endorsement. Two days later, Trump won Sessions' home state by more than 20 points.

Sessions' endorsement stunned some conservatives, who assumed that if he did back a candidate, it would be Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But Sessions suggested he didn't see his Senate colleague as a viable nominee, noting that his endorsement came after Trump defeated Cruz in the South Carolina primary.

Trump often brags that legions of lawmakers and Washington powerbrokers are constantly reaching out to him. But he conceded that Sessions made him work for his support and needed to be sure the first-time politician was a true-believer on immigration and trade.

"It wasn't easy," Trump said. "I put in a lot of work. Not so much for the endorsement — I put in a lot of work on the subjects. And then the endorsement came much more naturally. I put in a lot of work on the subject matter."

If Trump does become the Republican nominee — he's on a narrow path to getting the delegates he needs, but could still face the unpredictability of a contested convention — some see Sessions has a natural fit in the administration if the businessman goes on to be president.

"This certainly raises his stature," said Alabama Democrat Roger Bedford, who lost narrowly to Sessions in a 1996 Senate race. "If he wants to be anything more than a U.S. senator, if that is indeed his motive, he made the right move by endorsing early and enthusiastically."

Sessions has publicly played down the notion that he's angling for a high-ranking post in a potential Trump administration. And those close to him — including Trump — say he seems to harbor little ambition beyond representing the people of Alabama.

"I hope they understand how committed he is to them," Trump said.

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Associated Press writers Bill Barrow and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC