Shortly after Jeff Sessions swore his oath as attorney general, former staffers gathered in the Oval Office alongside him and President Trump for a photo. Missing, one noticed, was Stephen Miller, who’d left Sessions’ Senate office to join Trump’s campaign and is now the president’s chief policy advisor.
Trump enthusiastically summoned Miller to join them, saying that without this aide who’d worked at Sessions’ side for years, he wouldn’t have been elected president.
That a former aide is now in a powerful West Wing position demonstrates how Sessions has so stocked Trump’s administration with allies and loyalists that his influence is unlikely to be diminished, even as he finds himself under fire for failing to disclose meetings last year with a Russian official. Sessions said Thursday that he would recuse himself from the investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election.
Sessions’ swearing-in marked the culmination of an unlikely partnership between Trump, the brash and burly New York businessman, and Sessions, an elfin Southerner, that brought each from the fringes of the Republican Party to the center of national power.
And though Sessions “doesn’t approach you as someone who’s going to deliver a knockout punch,” he and Trump share a commitment to advancing their agenda of economic populism and tough immigration enforcement, said David Horowitz, a conservative author and head of the Los Angeles-based Freedom Center, who has grown close to Miller and Sessions.
“The Republican modus operandi was to get out of the way when you were attacked,” he said. “We’ve reached a turning point in which people are fed up with it and are tired of it.”
Early in the campaign, Sessions saw in Trump a willingness to unapologetically express hard-line views on immigration, as Sessions himself had for years, and the potential for Trump’s charisma and message to win him the presidency. He endorsed Trump before anyone else in the Senate, amid the heat of the primary season in early 2016, giving Trump the credibility that came from a senator’s backing. It came just before the so-called “SEC Primary” of mostly Southern states in which Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was thought to have the edge among Republicans.
Sessions also brought to the relationship deep knowledge of the inner workings of Washington and Congress, as well as a roster of staff who understood the machinery of the Justice Department and immigration agencies well enough to bend the bureaucracy to their will.
Though the two men joined forces only a year ago, Sessions and Trump first met more than a decade earlier, in 2005. Then, it was the Alabama senator who needed Trump’s expertise.
The price tag for a planned renovation of the United Nations headquarters, estimated at $1.2 billion, seemed well beyond what U.S. taxpayers should be asked to guarantee, in Sessions’ view. And in researching the issue, he discovered that the city’s most prominent real estate developer had himself cast doubt on the sky-high figure. Sessions invited Trump to join him in testifying before a Senate subcommittee investigating the issue.
“Mr. Trump built the brand-new, top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art, 90-story Trump World Tower almost across the street for $350 million,” Sessions said, injecting a bit of Trump-esque hyperbole into the proceeding. “… How could this renovation cost $1.2 billion?”
Trump followed soon after and delivered what Sessions later called a “tutorial” over the nuts and bolts of New York real estate and construction, a perspective that led him to conclude the project could be done for just over half the price.
“I felt like a head of state,” Trump said.
But Trump said he recognized he had been invited by Annan mainly for a photo op, and his offers for experienced counsel went unheeded.
It would be 2013 that marked a turning point for Trump and Sessions. After President Obama’s reelection, the Republican National Committee commissioned a review of the campaign that recommended, among other things, that the party’s path back to the White House depended on more moderate approaches to policy — first and foremost, immigration.
By year’s end, no other lawmaker would log as much time speaking on the Senate floor as Sessions. At the same time, Trump, discreetly testing a presidential run, was seizing on the issue in new forums of his own. In one interview that summer with Breitbart News — an emerging force for opponents to the bill and the website whose executive chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, would become chief White House strategist — Trump said that supporting the proposal was a “death wish” for Republicans.
“A country that does not control or respect its own borders is a country destined for failure,” he tweeted as the legislation was nearing the finish line. “Secure our borders!”
But politics still wasn’t his primary focus. The next night Trump posted this: “The Miss Universe Pageant will be broadcast live from MOSCOW, RUSSIA on November 9th. A big deal that will bring our countries together!”
Times staff writers Del Quentin Wilber and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.