Trump’s veep list got shorter this week.
That’s because the Alabama senator is one of just a few on Trump’s rumored VP short-list to not have shivved him over racist comments about an Indiana judge. Among the hailstorm of Republican criticism, Sessions backed Trump Tuesday by refusing to say anything at all.
Sen. Bob Corker, who stirred up VP speculation by meeting with Trump in New York City, said Tuesday that “the last five or six days have been very negative,” urging his party’s presidential nominee to “move into a very different place.”
Even former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had been an early Trump backer and potential VP pick, called the statement “inexcusable.” “It was inappropriate” for Gingrich to weigh in, Trump shot back. “I was surprised at Newt”—an episode which may wipe Gingrich off the veep list.
But from Sessions, who himself was accused of racism 30 years ago when nominated to the federal bench, there was no protest, no condemnation—just silence.
“I don’t have any statement on it,” Sessions said, as he swiftly walked past a Daily Beast reporter. He didn’t answer a follow-up on whether he thought the criticism was racist.
Among the slings and arrows sent Trump’s way by members of his own party, Sessions’s silence was practically a slap on the back.
But Sessions, who serves Trump as a national security adviser, has previously been dogged by accusations of racism himself. As the U.S. attorney for the southern District of Alabama, he was nominated for a U.S. District Court seat in that state in 1985. His nomination was voted down in the Senate.
In a case that led to charges of racism, he had prosecuted three civil rights workers of voter fraud who had been working to encourage African Americans to register to vote. Sessions’s focus on so-called Black Belt counties in Alabama “to the exclusion of others caused an uproar among civil rights leaders, especially after hours of interrogating black absentee voters produced only 14 allegedly tampered ballots out of more than 1.7 million cast in the state in the 1984 election,” The New Republic reported.
Even more scandalous allegations were levelled at Sessions during his nomination process. An assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Figures, who is black, said that Sessions had called him “boy,” and had once lectured him to “be careful what you say to white folks.”
As Sessions continued to stand by his man, Republican lawmakers of all stripes were forced to wade through a gauntlet of reporters Tuesday afternoon—all of whom were asking about Donald Trump’s criticism of Judge Gonzalo Curiel.
During an interview at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared “It’s time for him to get serious.”
McConnell continued, “think before you speak, apologize when you make a mistake—and get a script.
“This could be a winnable race. It’s time for him to start acting like a serious presidential candidate,” he added.
On cable news and in the halls of Congress the criticism was no less withering. Republican politicians of all stripes were virtually unanimous: they either referred to previous criticism of Trump’s comment or criticized the businessman anew. It was, for almost all of them, utterly unacceptable.
Trump had spent days doubling-down on his belief that the American-born Curiel could not be fair to him because of the judge’s ethnic heritage, combined with the fact that the businessman was planning to build a wall with Mexico.
After days of defending these comments, he said Tuesday that the public had misinterpreted him.
Sen. Jim Inhofe condemned the “terrible remarks,” while Sen. Richard Shelby said he didn’t “think comments like that help anything.”
President pro tempore of the Senate Orrin Hatch called the statements “very inappropriate”; Sen. Roger Wicker called them “ill-considered.”
Sessions’s silence on a matter of national importance comes as Trump consigliere Roger Stone appeared on the conspiracy-driven Alex Jones show this week, boosting Sessions as a possible veep choice.
“It’s essential that [Trump] choose someone who tracks his views... who is a nationalist, who agrees with him particularly on the issue of immigration. Therefore I think, by the process of elimination, one of the strongest contenders... would be Sen. Jeff Sessions,” Stone said.
Trump’s relationship with Sessions has been strong—and strange—from the beginning. He asked Sessions to chair his national security committee—while Sessions has served on the Senate Armed Services Committee, he was not a particularly compelling force there, and has developed far more of a reputation on immigration and budget issues.
Sessions has especially been known for his hardline positions on immigration—as the Senate considered and passed the 2013 “Gang of Eight” immigration reform package, Sessions stood as a primary antagonist to the effort.
“He’d make an excellent VP,” Shelby, his fellow Alabama senator, told The Daily Beast. “He'd bring a lot of knowledge of the issues, on the Judiciary Committee, on the Budget Committee… where he’s developed a lot of expertise.”
So if Trump puts stock in fealty, the senator’s early endorsement, and alignment on immigration views Sessions stands a strong chance at the vice presidential nod.
But of course, almost everyone else has crossed themselves off the list.
—with additional reporting by Andrew Desiderio and Eleanor Clift.