If anything has been predictable in the chaos of the early Trump presidency, it’s the unstinting support he has received from Breitbart News.
In recent days, Trump has attacked the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, on Twitterand in an interview with the New York Times over his recusal from oversight of the investigation into Trump’s possible Russian connections. As a result, there has been widespread speculation that Trump might fire his attorney general, or that, faced with an untenable position, Sessions might resign.
Trump’s public attacks on Sessions seem to be alienating the website that gave him his chief strategist Steve Bannon, and helped him into the White House.
And on Tuesday, Breitbart bit back.
Adam Shaw skewered Trump’s “hypocrisy” in calling Sessions “weak” on legal moves against Hillary Clinton, reminding readers that Sessions was “one of the vital pillars of Trump’s immigration agenda”. He argued that Sessions has been responsible for “some of the most significant achievements of Trump’s young administration”, such as pushing the “Muslim travel ban” forward, and coming down hard on sanctuary cities.
Another article went into more detail about Sessions’ alleged achievements in office, promoting his prosecutorial crackdown on illegal immigration as well as his winding back of Obama-era restraints on local law enforcement.
So why is Sessions such an untouchable figure in the eyes of Breitbart?
Dan Cassino, a political scientist and expert on conservative media, says Breitbart is protecting Sessions because “he is a trusted broker for people on the far right on immigration”. On top of Trump’s failure to address totemic election promises, such as a border wall, Trump’s shots across Sessions’ bow are seen as “an indication that the nationalist wing – including Bannon – is losing influence in the White House to new players like [White House communications director] Anthony Scaramucci”.
Joseph Lowndes, a political scientist at the University of Oregon and the author of a book about modern conservatism, says Breitbart’s latest take reflects the fact that while Trump’s early presidency has been hemmed in by Congress, the courts, federal agencies and its own incompetence, the attorney general’s office is one of the few areas where the administration has been able to “step on the gas” and deliver “the red meat of Trumpism”.
But he notes that Breitbart’s affection for Sessions goes deeper, and speaks to shared values.
In the half-decade following founder Andrew Breitbart’s death – mostly under Steve Bannon’s tutelage – the website has adopted a harder line on immigration. Lowndes says they “saw [Sessions] very early on as their kind of politician”, an unbending Washington outsider with a “distinct whiff of white nationalism”.
Sessions first came to national prominence when his prospective appointment as a federal judge was blocked after former colleagues said he had made racially charged remarks while working as a prosecutor. He arrived in Washington in 1997 as only the second Republican Alabama senator since Reconstruction.
Politically active from the late 1960s, Sessions was, according to Lowndes, a member of the “first generation of southerners who moved into the GOP instead of the Democrats”, and is representative of the moment the modern right took “a sharp racial turn”.
Since the election of George W Bush, however – when the GOP sought to soften its image as the party of white America – Sessions’ politics saw him relegated to the margins of Senate politics.
“There’s a certain rectitude in his commitments – from racially inflected law-and-order policies, to harsh restrictionism on immigration,” Lowndes said.
This inflexibility made him a minor player until the rise of Trump, who he supported early and to whom he gifted a staffer, Stephen Miller, who helped hone Trump’s project and message. Now, Lowndes says, “alt-right people embrace him. They see him as a principled nativist.”
Both Lowndes and Cassino agree there isn’t much Breitbart can do if Trump decides to fire their man. Cassino says “if – or when – Trump fires Sessions, there will be some hand-wringing, but when push comes to shove I can’t imagine them abandoning Trump”.
Lowndes compares their position to the evangelical right during the Reagan years, who complained constantly about the raw deal they were getting but who really had nowhere else to go. He says that if Sessions is sacked, “Breitbart will hammer away at him for it, but while he’s in office, their power to discredit Trump is diminished”.
Beyond Breitbart, other erstwhile loyalists are seriously questioning Trump – some for the first time.
Primetime Fox News host Tucker Carlson blasted Trump on Tuesday night, saying the attorney general had been “humiliated” by his boss. He argued that Trump dumping Sessions would only please the left.
Influential talkshow host Mark Levin, formerly a Ted Cruz guy who has warmed to the president, also called on Trump to back off. On Facebook, he praisedSessions effusively: “He was the first senator to endorse you. He campaigned for you. He left the Senate to serve you.”
Whether or not Trump fires Sessions, at least a few of his media supporters haven’t strayed. Alex Jones remains loyal as a puppy, and his Infowars outlet is preparing the ground for Sessions to go by calling him “ineffective”.
How long can he keep dividing his most ardent supporters and failing to address their concerns? We may find out sooner than we expected.