In normal times, Adam Bourne would be ecstatic at the news that President Trump is planning to hold a rally in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama.
For Bourne, who’s the chair of the Mobile County GOP, there’s nothing better than having the president come to town—you get the pomp, the national attention, and perhaps a photo op with the commander-in-chief.
But the circumstances of Trump’s upcoming visit to the city are casting an awkward cloud over what would otherwise be a joyous occasion because President Trump is heading to Mobile not to boost his own re-election, or to rally the troops against a Democrat, but with the mission of destroying whatever is left of the political career of former attorney general Jeff Sessions—an ally-turned-nemesis who happens to be the region’s favorite son.
Sessions is locked in a runoff election with former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville in hopes of reclaiming the U.S. Senate seat he held for 20 years. Trump, who endorsed Tuberville in March, has never forgiven Sessions for recusing himself from the Trump-Russia investigation while attorney general, and his scheduled Mobile rally is explicitly meant to boost Tuberville’s campaign days before voting begins on July 14.
As a GOP official who by party bylaws must remain neutral in a primary, Bourne would have to figure out a creative justification to even go to the rally—an event that he’d otherwise be first in line to attend.
“It’s fair to say it’s slightly awkward,” Bourne told The Daily Beast. “It’s a tough situation for a lot of Republicans, who are having to choose between two good people and are having to push through this primary process to get to November..”
Bourne’s dilemma is shared by like-minded Republicans statewide who have grown up with political fealty to Sessions and hate how he’s been treated but love Trump. While the president has publicly berated Sessions for years, he’s stepped up his attacks since Sessions kicked off his comeback, fuming that he “had no courage,” accused him of “ruining many lives,” and called him a “slime.”
The president’s high-profile involvement in this bitter primary—in a state he won in 2016 by nearly 30 points—was already making it difficult for Alabama Republicans to thread the needle of maintaining their enthusiastic support for Trump while still appreciating their former longtime senator. Now, they are being forced to choose.
“You have an opportunity to see the president here… Anytime you can have him down here, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the state of Alabama,” said Matt Simpson, a Mobile-area state lawmaker who has endorsed Sessions. But he acknowledged that it was undoubtedly deliberate that Trump was planning to rally for Tuberville in Mobile—likely at the very stadium where Sessions famously became the first sitting senator to endorse his campaign in 2015.
“As far as whether or not I’ll attend,” said Simpson, “I don’t know if I’ll attend that rally.”
Like he’s done for months, Sessions responded to Trump’s latest slight with a smile and a seemingly endless patience for being humiliated by his old ally. After the news broke Monday, Sessions tweeted that “the people of Alabama will not be told who to vote for by anyone in Washington,” before adding that “it’s always a good day,” when the president makes his way to the state.
“That said, Alabama will vote solidly for @realDonaldTrump this fall, so his time would be far better spent in swing states he must win to be reelected,” Sessions gently advised.
Trump’s interference in a heated GOP primary isn’t abnormal for a president who’s been keen to portray himself as a powerful kingmaker who can make or break political careers. Like Sessions, local Republicans largely avoided direct criticism of the president, but some, like Riley Seibenhener made it clear they weren’t happy about Trump's compulsive badmouthing of the longtime senator.
“I'm pissed off about it,” Seibenhener, the chairman of the Geneva County GOP, told The Daily Beast.
Seibenhener remains troubled that the president has taken a personal issue with the former attorney general doing what he considered "ethical and correct thing to do," on his recusal from the Russia investigation, a point that was echoed by a number of local Republican officials.
“It bothers me that so many people are voting for Tommy Tuberville because Trump doesn't like Sessions,” Seibenhener said.
By taking such an uncompromising stance, the president has put the state’s Republicans in the tense position of either turning on a fixture in the state’s GOP political scene in Sessions, or bucking a president who won the state by 30 points in 2016 and is poised to win big here again in November.
“I support President Trump, but just like any other president, I haven't agreed with everything he’s done,” said Daniel Stover, chairman of the Lawrence County GOP. “I think it’s become a personal issue more than anything,” he added, saying that the endorsement should be about “what Alabama needs, not what Donald Trump’s feelings are.”
The only alternative, some local Republicans indicated, is publicly avoiding wading into the party infighting and hoping for the best.
“President Trump's his own man, who am I to say what he does? He is what he is. So I'm not getting in the middle of that,” said Chris Capps, chairman of the Henry County GOP.
It was Sessions’ appointment as attorney general in 2017 that paved the way for the incumbent, Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, to prevail over archconservative GOP nominee Roy Moore, whose campaign collapsed amid allegations he preyed on underage girls in the 1970s and 1980s. Sessions resigned as attorney general in November 2018 and announced his bid to reclaim his old seat a year later. In the March primary, Sessions claimed 31.6 percent of the vote, putting him less than two points behind Tuberville.
While Tuberville has the mystique of being the former Auburn University football coach and is undoubtedly powered by a section of the Trump base that has also soured on Sessions, he lacks the longtime connections that Sessions has built among the stalwarts within the state GOP. And some, like Pike County GOP leader Donna Horn, are making it clear that they support Sessions.
“I've been a longtime friend and supporter of Sen. Sessions and I'll continue to do so as long as he runs for anything,” she said.
Those who support Sessions—or are at least sad to watch him be an object of constant scorn from the most powerful person in the world—predicted that Trump’s visit will likely have its intended effect.
“Is this what drags [Tuberville] across the finish line?” asked Simpson, the state lawmaker. “That may be—I don’t know.”
The presidential fly-in certainly won’t help Sessions, said Cleve Poole, chairman of the Butler County GOP, but he said it might not hurt him all that much, either.
“A Trump rally where he’s supporting a candidate is a Trump rally—and oh, by the way, this guy’s here and you should vote for him.”