MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — President Donald Trump lashed out Wednesday at his former attorney general Jeff Sessions as the Alabama Republican advanced to a primary runoff in his quest to win back his old Senate seat in Alabama.
Sessions securely held the Alabama Senate seat for two decades, but was forced into a runoff with a political newcomer after being wounded by Trump's prior criticisms of his recusal in the Russia investigation. The newest Twitter scolding by Trump, who previously been largely quiet on the race, could further damage Sessions' hopes of a political resurrection in the state where he had been a conservative icon.
Sessions fell short of winning the GOP nomination and will face former college football coach Tommy Tuberville in a Republican runoff. The winner of their March 31 runoff will face incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones as Republicans try to reclaim the Senate seat in the once reliably red state.
Sessions gave up the Senate seat when he was appointed Trump's attorney general, a position he was forced to resign after his recusal from the Russia inquiry sparked blistering criticism from the president.
Trump, who had been largely silent on the race weighed in Wednesday morning, just hours after the race had been called.
"This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn't have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt. Recuses himself on FIRST DAY in office, and the Mueller Scam begins!" Trump wrote in a tweet.
Sessions, 73, had maintained loyalty to Trump throughout the race and in his Tuesday night speech after making the runoff, noting that he was the first U.S senator to endorse Trump in 2016 and arguing he would be most effective in advancing Trump's agenda.
"Anyone can say they are for the Trump agenda, but talk is cheap, but I have fought on the great issues of our day and won," Sessions told a cheering crowd in his hometown in Mobile.
"We have this opportunity to turn the Trump agenda into reality, and I am the man for that job," Sessions said.
Tuberville, boosted by name recognition from years as a football coach at Auburn University, positioned himself as a political outsider and tried to capitalize on Trump's past criticisms of Sessions. Tuberville's campaign quickly began promoting Trump's latest comments on social media. "Mr. President, I could not agree more and in 27 days help will be on the way," Tuberville wrote in a tweeted response to Trump.
"Only one candidate in this race will support Donald Trump down the line. Doug won't. Jeff didn't. But Tommy will," Tuberville, 65, told a cheering crowd at his election night watch party.
Sessions has said since he was part of Trump's 2016 campaign that he was required by Department of Justice regulation to recuse from the investigation into if there was campaign collusion with Russia.
In Alabama, Sessions in many ways was Trump before Trump, embracing hard line stances on immigration and trade, years before the 2016 election. Sessions' 2016 endorsement of Trump gave him an infusion of Washington credibility, but in a political twist of irony his public falling out with Trump threatens his hope of recapturing his former seat.
Former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead, said Trump's newest comments only add to Sessions' troubles.
"The President is the most popular politician in Alabama so I think it has an impact," Armistead said. "I don't think that's a positive thing for Jeff Sessions."
The runoff winner will likely be a strong challenger to Jones, who defeated a scandal-plagued former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore in December 2017 to become Alabama's first Democratic senator in a quarter-century. Jones is the only Democrat in a statewide office in the GOP-controlled state.
Moore ran a subdued race in his latest Senate bid, coming in fourth.
The primary had been a slug fest and Sessions and Tuberville showed no signs of letting up as the race headed to political overtime.
Sessions referred to Tuberville, who until last year was registered to vote in Florida, as a "tourist from Florida." The former senator asked where Tuberville was when he was supporting and helping Trump get elected.
"Where was he when Donald Trump needed him?" Sessions said.
Tuberville said Tuesday night that he would finish the job that Trump began when he looked at Jeff Sessions across the table and said, "You're fired."
Associated Press writer Jay Reeves reported in Homewood, Alabama, contributed to this report.