Who’ll Be First in Congress to Endorse Trump?
Of all Donald Trump’s curious unblemished records, this one will almost surely end pretty soon: At last one member of Congress will endorse him for president.
As good a bet as any is that this signal move will come from Jeff Sessions, the junior Republican senator from Alabama.
The body of circumstantial evidence pointing his way has been growing steadily. In August, Sessions was the first lawmaker to appear with the billionaire businessman at a campaign rally, where he was photographed sporting a “Make America Great Again” ball cap. Soon afterward the senator, who’s chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, acted as ghostwriter for Trump’s hard-line immigration platform. Then the pair adopted almost identical language for castigating the Iran nuclear deal. Sessions got the only one-on-one meeting when Trump came to Capitol Hill in the fall. This month, Sessions approached conservative opinion leaders to volunteer effusive praise for Trump’s protectionist trade agenda.
Capping it all off, this week the senator gave one of his top aides for the past seven years, Stephen Miller, an indefinite leave of absence to join the Trump campaign as a senior policy and communications adviser.
(Miller was behind a memo Sessions sent to other GOP senators in 2013, which foreshadowed the genesis of Trump’s candidacy by urging the party to embrace an “honest populism” designed “to speak directly to the real and legitimate concerns of millions of hurting Americans whose wages have declined and whose job prospects have grown only bleaker.”)
Sessions’ office won’t say when, or even if, he will formalize his support, but his enthusiasm clearly stands out as far more overt than any other lawmaker’s.
If things break Trump’s way in the very close Iowa caucuses, and then he secures his poll-predicted win in the New Hampshire primary, his standing as the leader for the Republican nomination will no longer be questioned. By that point, lawmakers more covert or ambiguous in their support than Sessions will come under additional pressure to climb aboard the Trump bandwagon publicly.
“All of these Republican senators, he doesn’t have the support of one of them,” Trump said Tuesday on MSNBC about his principal Iowa rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “I don’t find anybody that likes him. I talk to senators that frankly want to come out and endorse me. It’s amazing what’s happened over the last two weeks. Over the last two weeks, so many people are calling and saying, ‘We want to get involved with you, we want to endorse you.’”
While it’s true that Cruz has no Senate colleagues in his corner, he has secured declarations of support from 17 of the most conservative House members. Only the two Floridians, Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, have more backing than Cruz from incumbent lawmakers, and each of their lists includes a handful of senators. By contrast, the only presidential candidates in either party without endorsement from Capitol Hill are Trump and two others at the back of the GOP pack, pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia.
When he was campaigning as the avatar of the outsider insurgents, there was no point in Trump spending time wooing people whose very job titles put them in the establishment. But if the evolved rationale for his candidacy holds, and he continues selling himself as the sort of get-it-done dealmaker who’s just right for fixing a broken capital, then it makes sense for him to lock down support from his would-be future helpmates on the Hill.
The roster of opportunities is remarkably large for this stage in the campaign — 38 GOP senators (70 percent of them) and 151 House Republicans (61 percent) remain officially uncommitted. That may reflect the unusually unsettled rhythm of the race.
It also may underscore this conventional political wisdom: The potential reward from backing the victor is outweighed by the genuine risk of aligning with a loser, which means getting off on the wrong foot with the next leader of your party. Members facing competitive races of their own are especially wary of endorsements, for fear of getting tied either to nonentities or to nominees who become a drag on down-ballot campaigns.
Sessions is as far as possible from all that. When he secured his fourth term in 2014, he was the only senator from either party re-elected without any opponent in the primary or general election.
Trim, courtly and unpretentious, he has nonetheless become one of the tea party’s favorites because of his steadfast and quietly dogged focus on advancing small-government conservatism with a militarily hawkish edge. (He voted the way President Barack Obama wanted just 37 percent of the time last year, the second-lowest support score in the Senate.)
Hitching himself to an eventually victorious Trump could also provide an opportunity for late-career professional advancement next year, when Sessions will be 71.
Though he’s about to finish his second decade in the Senate, the vagaries of the seniority system mean he’s several years away from claiming the chairmanship of any committee, and that’s assuming the GOP controls the Senate when the time comes. So he’d have reason to be open to a top administration position.
Attorney general is the most obvious fit, given Sessions’ authorship of Trump’s immigration policies, his broad range of legislative interests on Judiciary and his career before Congress as Alabama’s attorney general and the U.S. attorney in Birmingham.
Securing confirmation to run the Justice Department would offer a uniquely satisfying bookend for his relationship with the Senate, which actually began a decade before his first election. As a federal prosecutor in 1986, his nomination to a U.S. District Court seat was rejected because of several statements suggesting insensitivity on race. It was only the second time in half a century the Judiciary Committee had voted down a judicial nominee.
Sessions has always maintained his comments were misrepresented or taken out of context. Siding with Trump would give him a solid shot at claiming the last word.
Contact Hawkings at DavidHawkings@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @davidhawkings.
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