Jeff Sessions, the former U.S. senator from Alabama who served as President Donald Trump’s first attorney general and punching bag, lost the Republican runoff primary for his old Senate seat this week.
It would be comforting to think that voters rejected him because of his reactionary views on crime and immigration, but it’s far likelier that he was denied a comeback because he decided to recuse himself from supervising the investigation into possible ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.
For Trump, Sessions’ recusal was the original sin of the Russia “hoax” because it eventually led to a decision by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Robert S. Mueller III to conduct the inquiry. (The FBI’s investigation, which was code-named Crossfire Hurricane, began in 2016.)
Trump supported Sessions’ victorious opponent, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, in the runoff.
“I made a mistake when I put him in as the attorney general,” Trump told Tuberville supporters in a conference call on Monday. “He had his chance and he blew it. He recused himself right at the beginning, just about on Day One on a ridiculous scam, the Mueller scam, the Russia, Russia, Russia scam.”
I’m not suggesting that Sessions qualifies for inclusion in a new edition of “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy’s book about senators who put principle above politics. Sessions had no choice but to recuse himself because he’d been active in Trump’s campaign.
That would have been true even if Sessions hadn’t given what Democrats said was false testimony about whether he had contacts with Russia during the campaign. (It turned out that Sessions spoke twice with the Russian ambassador to the United States during that period.)
But in an administration of the ethically blind, a Cabinet official with one eye on norms of behavior stood out. The recusal cost Sessions Trump’s support, both during his tenure at Justice and in this campaign. Whatever you think of Sessions’ politics, he deserves credit for doing the right thing.
Tuberville will face incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in the general election, and the Republican candidate is considered the favorite. There has been speculation that if Jones loses and former Vice President Joe Biden is elected, Biden might tap Jones as his attorney general.
Jones and Sessions are very different people, but they both were former U.S. attorneys who got into elective politics. Jones endorsed Biden for the Democratic nomination early — in April 2019.
Without impugning Jones’ integrity, you can argue (as I did here) that Biden should choose an apolitical attorney general, as President Gerald R. Ford did in the aftermath of Watergate. If Jones fails to win reelection, there will be other Cabinet positions in which a former senator could honorably serve.
Michael McGough is the Times’ senior editorial writer.