Selling Sessions: How the Trump team worked the press for its AG nominee

The selling of Jeff Sessions as attorney general began before his fellow senators began questioning him yesterday.

Through a series of calculated leaks, the Trump transition team tried to combat the lingering image problem from the Senate’s rejection of him for a judgeship—a story I covered decades ago.

The Trump strategists made sure that the Washington Post and New York Times had an advance copy of the Alabama senator’s opening statement.

That produced this headline, invaluable to the pro-confirmation forces: “Sessions to press image of tough lawman and independent voice at attorney general hearings.”

“As he seeks to convince his colleagues he is worthy of being the next U.S. attorney general,” the Post story began, “Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) will cast himself as an old-school law enforcer who will crack down on violent crime, work to improve morale at local police departments and remain fiercely independent of the president who appointed him, according to a copy of prepared remarks he will make at his confirmation hearing that begins Tuesday.”

The story also had Sessions asserting his independence by saying the AG “must be willing to tell the president ‘no’ if he overreaches” and “cannot be a mere rubber stamp.”

A separate leak to Politico
included the opening remarks of Susan Collins, who would introduce Sessions and is a key supporter as the Senate’s most moderate Republican:

“We have worked closely on some issues and on opposite sides on others. In fact, it would be fair to say that we have had our share of vigorous debates and policy disagreements. I can confidently vouch for the fact that Jeff Sessions is a person of integrity, a principled leader, and a dedicated public servant."

The Times had a somewhat sympathetic profile: “Jeff Sessions, a Lifelong Outsider, Finds the Inside Track”:

“Mr. Sessions is in many ways Mr. Trump’s antithesis: reedy-voiced, diminutive and mild-mannered, a devout Methodist and an Eagle Scout who will soon celebrate a golden wedding anniversary with his college sweetheart.”

Once the hearing was under way, Sessions provided the day's major headline by saying he would recuse himself from any investigation involving Hillary Clinton because he had criticized her and her private server as a Trump supporter during the campaign. That came in the opening sequence with GOP Chairman Chuck Grassley and was probably planned. Sessions also sought to disarm his liberal detractors by saying he regarded past court rulings on abortion and same-sex marriage as the law of the land.

When the Senate heard testimony in 1986 that Sessions, then a federal prosecutor, had said racially insensitive things and called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American,” it was hard to imagine that he would one day be the nominee for attorney general (or that Donald Trump, then a year away from publishing “The Art of the Deal,” would be president).

But the courtly Sessions got himself elected to the Senate, and as a well-liked member of the exclusive club, will have little trouble being confirmed.

Sessions is a staunchly conservative pick who will have a far different approach, especially on civil rights and immigration, than the Justice Department of Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. He has said the Voting Rights Act is intrusive but necessary.

But Sessions defenders are making sure the press knows that he once prosecuted two KKK members for murdering a black teenager, and that he co-sponsored legislation to award congressional gold medals to Rosa Parks and Alabama civil rights marchers.

None of this happens by accident. Sarah Flores, a strategist for Carly Fiorina’s campaign who is now working on the nomination, told USA Today that they had held several mock sessions to prepare for hostile questions by Democratic members.

Given that the hearing was televised, the process is as important as the outcome. The goal of the Trump team was not just for the nominee to avoid land mines but to burnish his image a bit after a barrage of negative publicity. By working the press, these strategists are trying to change the narrative that sunk Jeff Sessions 30 years ago.