WASHINGTON — The year was 2005, and Senator Jeff Sessions was astonished by a sensational news report: A project to overhaul the United Nations headquarters in New York would cost more than $1 billion.
He was just as stunned that a celebrity New York developer quoted in the article claimed it could be done for about half the cost. Suddenly the junior senator from Alabama took an interest in New York billionaire Donald Trump.
“Mr. Trump is very outraged!” Sessions informed his colleagues in an April floor speech that year. He described Trump as the “premier real estate developer in New York.” He served up Trump’s theory that the reason for the high price was “incompetence or fraud.”
This would lead to a high-profile Senate hearing that, at Sessions’s request, featured Trump as the star witness. It was the start of an incongruous relationship between the brash New Yorker and a soft-spoken Southerner that could profoundly alter America’s legal landscape.
In Sessions, Trump had found a lawmaker willing to take seriously his claims, and provide legitimacy in the halls of the Capitol. In Trump, Sessions found a spokesman for his abhorrence for government waste who could attract far more attention than he as a junior senator who never quite fit in with the Beltway crowd.
A decade later, Sessions became the first member of the Senate to back Trump’s longshot bid for the presidency. Soon after the election, Trump offered Sessions a shot at his dream job of becoming the country’s attorney general.
If Sessions is confirmed, he will be in charge of defending Trump’s domestic agenda — a set of policies that could include mass deportations for undocumented immigrants; a return to practices such as stop and frisk, and profiling; new limits at the ballot box; enforcing federal laws for states that allow marijuana sales; and more permissive policies on torture, to name a few.
Democrats and liberal groups are girding for an epic confirmation battle. They’ve requested a full four days for the hearings. Already 145 civil rights and human rights groups have signed on to a letter opposing Sessions’s confirmation.
“It will be exacting and progressive in both tone and substance. So it could be contentious,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee. “I have a number of concerns about his very vehement positions on immigration, on voting rights, and other areas that I think are important.”
Scott Simpson, a spokesman for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was more blunt. “If the Senate doesn’t want to be President Trump’s doormat for the next four years, they’ll stand up and fight this,” he said.
But those opponents of the nomination will face gale-force headwinds from the incoming Trump administration.
The announcement that Sessions, one of Trump’s closest advisers over the course of the campaign, would be attorney general was one of the few top Cabinet positions that didn’t involve public dithering and discord from Trump’s team.
“Senator Sessions stuck with him for the rough and tumble of the campaign,” said a Trump transition staffer, who was not authorized to speak publicly about Sessions. “When it came time to figure out who is going to serve where, I’m not saying Jeff Sessions could walk in and he could have had anything he wanted — but I do think that Mr. Trump feels a great deal of loyalty back to him.”
The transition staffer added: “When the time came, I think everyone in Trump World knew that if Sessions did want that job, it would be his. I think that is why there was a little less infighting.”
Sessions knows how tough the Senate process can be. He was rejected by the Senate judiciary panel in 1986 for a federal judgeship at the behest of opponents including Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy, who were both members of the panel.
Kennedy, the Massachusetts senator, pilloried Sessions for indicting three well-known black civil rights leaders on counts of voter fraud. They were later cleared of the charges.
“Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past,” Kennedy said in the March 1986 hearing. “He is, I believe, a disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination.”
Sessions denied that he harbored prejudices, but the nomination was derailed.
Fast forward a decade to 1996 and Sessions was elected to the very institution that rejected him. Even with a membership to the clubby Senate, he cut an ideological path as an outsider — running against Washington.
So when the United Nations came under fire in 2005 for proposing an expensive rehab, it presented the perfect target for a conservative populist deeply skeptical of global elites.
“There were a lot of reports that it was costing an arm and a leg, way over budget,” recalled a former Sessions staffer who worked in the office at the time. Sessions pressed for a hearing.
“It was sort of a show,” the staffer recalled. “It got a lot of attention because Trump was there.”
Indeed, the July 2005 hearing was classic Trump: Some straight talk laced with braggadocio.
The developer boasted about his nearby property, he bragged about his smarts negotiating with New York contractors (whom he called “major slime”), and railed against a decision by the UN to hire an Italian design firm to do the work.
“I love Italy. I love the Italians. How do you hire an Italian architect?” Trump said. “What happens? Every time he wants to check the building, he gets on a plane and flies for 8½ hours, and he goes to the New York City Building Department and he does not even speak English? I mean it is ridiculous.”
Sessions loved it, and so did the press.
“Mr. Trump is a breath of fresh air for this Senate,” Sessions said at the time.
After the hearing, Trump stopped by Sessions’s Senate office, bringing his wife, Melania, and security detail. He posed for photographs.
The UN ended up completing the project, about three years late and costing nearly $400 million more than its budget, even though the scope of the project was reduced vastly, according to a federal government report.
Trump and Sessions didn’t stay in touch, according to former Sessions staffers. But when the real estate executive began eyeing a presidential bid, he targeted Sessions as a possible supporter down the line and cut him a $2,000 check in 2014. The two had a brief phone call after the donation, according to a former Trump staffer.
Others were also courting Sessions. Brian Baker, a Republican strategist, recalled trying to persuade the Alabama senator to support Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin during the early phases of the GOP primary. Sessions talked with Walker — but the two didn’t hit it off.
Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, also aggressively sought Sessions’s nod because they had worked together in opposing the 2013 immigration reform bill in the Senate.
But Sessions was liking what he was hearing on the campaign trail from Trump.
“One of the first things out of the gate was his position on immigration,” said a person close to Trump’s transition team. “Sessions’s ears perked back up. He was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been saying these things on the Senate floor for years now.’ ”
Then, in August 2015, Trump touched down in Mobile, Ala., for one of his earliest rallies. “Sweet Home Alabama” blared over a speaker system as Trump emerged to thunderous support.
About seven minutes into the speech, Trump sought to flatter Sessions.
“We have a great politician here. We have a man here who really helped me,” Trump told a screaming crowd of thousands of supporters, as he urged Sessions to come up to the stage. “And he is the one person, I sought his counsel.”
For a moment, Sessions put on a white “Make America Great Again” hat.
But the two didn’t really connect until an early September rally in Washington against the Iran nuclear deal. Cruz, who at the time had a cozy rapport with Trump, invited the billionaire to join him along with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin at the US Capitol to protest the deal.
When the crowds left, Trump and Sessions, along with some of their top staff, met in Sessions’s private office in the Capitol building. The two men talked for an hour. “For Mr. Trump to sit through an hourlong meeting, at the time, it was an anomaly,” said a person familiar with the meeting.
Roger Stone, a Trump confidant, said that despite the fact that the two men have different personalities, they share a trait: “He’s a straight talker,” Stone said of Sessions. “Trump has what would be called a New York style. Sessions is a bit more genteel. He’s courtly, but he’s also direct.”
Over the next few months, Sessions’s top staff began migrating to Trump’s orbit. Stephen Miller, the senator’s communications director, took a position on the campaign in January. Now he’s the national policy adviser for Trump’s transition.
In March, Sessions’s chief of staff, Rick Dearborn, started working on Trump’s team. His is now executive director of the transition.
Once Sessions endorsed Trump — two days before seven mostly Southern states voted in the March 1 primaries — he plunged into the campaign, traveling across the country with the candidate.
“On the plane, Sessions, Miller, and [Trump adviser Steve] Bannon would be sitting together and really talking in depth on any number of issues,” recalled a transition staff member. “They kind of created a kind of group of folks who have a similar world view that gelled together.”
Sessions flew to Mexico with Trump for his meeting with President Peña Nieto, one of several key meetings Sessions attended, according to a transition staffer.
He’d also hang around after the presidential debates, late into the night, offering support for Trump during interviews with reporters from all over the world in the so-called spin room.
That included the second presidential debate in October, which came as Trump was under intense pressure to drop out of the race because of a video of his lewd remarks about women.
But Sessions offered Trump praise.
“He just did so marvelously well. I was so impressed with his discipline, his frankness, his leadership style,” Sessions said shortly after the debate. “He just did a heroic job tonight.”
He was asked about the Republicans who had abandoned Trump over his sexist remarks.
Said Sessions: “I think they made a mistake.”