Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have had to recuse himself from investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and remains under a cloud of suspicion for misleading testimony under oath, but he has a champion in the White House nearly as important as Donald Trump: chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump, has indeed earned the president’s deep admiration, but his bond with Bannon, forged in a shared ideology, pre-dates the campaign. They connected years ago, when Bannon ran Breitbart News and Sessions was a U.S. senator, as immigration hardliners working outside the GOP establishment to shape a new nationalist conservatism. And today, with his former aides working in the White House and a closeness between Trump and Bannon, Sessions is arguably the most influential insider outside the West Wing.
An article in this week’s New York Times’ magazine details how the outsiders worked together, along with now Trump aide and former Sessions staffer Stephen Miller, to torpedo the Gang of Eight immigration bill in 2013. That legislation was an effort born from an autopsy of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, written by then chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus, who is now Trump’s chief of staff and someone who works alongside Bannon every day. Priebus’ postmortem stated, “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” Sean Spicer, now serving as White House press secretary, was Priebus’ communications director at the RNC and the man who marketed the manifesto. What was welcomed by the congressional leadership then was apostasy to their three future co-workers.
The first, most consequential act of Trump’s presidency brought Bannon and Sessions and Miller — now a Bannon righthand man who plays an integral role in writing and implementing Trump’s agenda — together again in crafting the initial immigration ban currently under court review as well as a redrafting by the White House. It was an insular effort, criticized for leaving lawmakers, experts and implementers in the dark, that said everything about who is in charge in the Trump administration.
Bannon, who is known as well-read, well-versed in policy and respected by Trump as a success story and an equal, has led the development of Trump’s anti-globalist “America First” agenda. And to date, he remains the only person beyond Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, who has yet to suffer some form of overt or subtle rebuke. While everyone else, including his daughter, pushes Trump to restrain his Twitter impulse, humor Republican leaders in Congress, rein in his attacks or reach beyond his base, Bannon is the Trump-whisperer who calls for simply burning it all down. As he openly advocates disruption and even destruction, Bannon has convinced an unedited Trump that he is leading a historic movement that has forever changed the country, and perhaps the world. There is no better benefactor for Sessions in Trump World than Bannon.
Strangely, seven present and former Trump associates have been revealed to have had undisclosed connections or meetings with Russians — including Sessions and Kushner — but not Bannon. The investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s campaign, and whether Trump associates were in any way aware or complicit in the effort, could continue to grow, and will likely take months or even years to resolve. In the face of Democratic calls for his resignation, and some criticism from Republicans as well, Sessions likely helped quell the controversy with his recusal. But Trump never asked him for it. In the no-rules unpredictability of this administration, anything is possible, but for now Sessions is as close as it gets to being a made man.