On Tuesday, the Washington Post published an article about the investigative journalist Bob Woodward‚Äôs new book, ‚ÄúFear,‚ÄĚ a long and deeply reported appraisal of the frayed and fraught relationships within the Trump White House. Among the book‚Äôs story lines is the increasingly adversarial dynamic between Donald Trump and his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, formerly the four-term junior senator from Alabama, where, in the 2016 election, Trump won roughly sixty-three per cent of the vote. Woodward writes in the book that, at one point, Trump said to a White House staff secretary, about the Attorney General, ‚ÄúThis guy is mentally retarded. He‚Äôs this dumb Southerner.¬†.‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ.¬†He couldn‚Äôt even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.‚ÄĚ Later, Trump tweeted a denial. ‚ÄúThe already discredited Woodward book, so many lies and phony sources, has me calling Jeff Sessions ‚Äėmentally retarded‚Äô and ‚Äėa dumb southerner,‚Äô¬†‚ÄĚ he wrote. ‚ÄúI said NEITHER, never used those terms on anyone, including Jeff, and being a southerner is a GREAT thing. He made this up to divide!‚ÄĚ In fact, Trump has called various people ‚Äúretarded,‚ÄĚ including on the radio. Woodward reports that Trump mocked Sessions‚Äôs accent as well.
Before Trump‚Äôs denial, I spoke with Cam Ward, a Republican state senator in Alabama. He was inclined to believe the reporting, he told me by phone, because Woodward‚Äôs ‚Äúnot the disgruntled ‚ÄėFire and Fury‚Äô guy.‚ÄĚ (Michael Wolff‚Äôs best-seller, published in January, has been described as ‚Äúa rehashing of gossip,‚ÄĚ as my colleague Masha Gessen put it, earlier this year.) ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a bad situation, this god-awful feud,‚ÄĚ Ward continued. ‚ÄúThe President is obviously wildly popular in Alabama. And Jeff Sessions is well thought of here, too.‚ÄĚ Ward offered a mild rebuke as well as a tepid defense of Trump. ‚ÄúI think he does the Presidency disservice when he says this stuff. But I don‚Äôt think it‚Äôs an ‚Äėall Southerners are stupid‚Äô or ‚Äėmentally retarded‚Äô¬†‚ÄĚ thing, he said. ‚ÄúI think the President is used to ‚Äėsmash-mouth‚Äô New York-style politics. He tends to punch down a lot. I don‚Äôt agree with it, how the first thing off the top of his head is the weapon he uses that day, or the tweet that day. But I don‚Äôt think he was attacking Southerners.‚ÄĚ
I mentioned the ‚Äúdumb Southerner‚ÄĚ line, from the Woodward book, to Ward. He sighed. ‚ÄúI think it‚Äôs this ‚ÄėThat‚Äôs-how-we-do-it-in-New-York, we‚Äôll-cut-you-off-at-the-knees‚Äô approach,‚ÄĚ he said.
Alabama‚Äôs Republican secretary of state, John Merrill, backed Trump‚Äôs Presidential run in 2016. ‚ÄúAs far as Southerners being identified as slow or not capable of processing things like individuals from other parts of the country, let me just say that we‚Äôve made a living for a long time on being underestimated,‚ÄĚ he told me. He added, of Sessions, ‚ÄúHe truly defines character and integrity in public service. He‚Äôs not mentally impaired.‚ÄĚ
Merrill hesitated to condemn Trump, however, saying that he needed ‚Äúmore evidence, more information‚ÄĚ about what the President said. ‚ÄúI think there are a number of people in our state who have been disappointed in the way that the President has chosen to express himself from time to time,‚ÄĚ he told me. ‚ÄúThat will probably continue. But the basic values which the President is promoting are Southern at heart‚ÄĒfinancial responsibility and moral leadership‚ÄĒand they are why our people voted for him. Not because of the way he chooses to express himself, which can be embarrassing.‚ÄĚ
Michael Bullington, a twenty-four-year-old financial analyst in Birmingham, co-hosts the ‚ÄúYoung Alabama‚ÄĚ podcast in his spare time. Bullington did not vote for Trump or support the right-wing Senate candidate Roy Moore, but he is ‚Äústrongly conservative and supportive of Jeff Sessions on most issues,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm pretty livid right now,‚ÄĚ he told me, citing not only the Woodward book but also Trump‚Äôs recent anti-Sessions tweets and a Politico story reporting that Trump told aides that Sessions talks like he has ‚Äúmarbles in his mouth.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI‚Äôm not very old, but I remember a time when a New Yorker making fun of Southern accents and calling Southerners mentally retarded would have been condemned by a lot of people here,‚ÄĚ Bullington said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve been very disappointed to not see the Party and other leaders in Alabama do the bare minimum to support Sessions.‚ÄĚ
If a tape emerged of Trump mocking Alabamians, how would people there likely respond? ‚ÄúI think there‚Äôd be some anger, but also questions about whether the tapes were actually legitimate, even if Trump said they were,‚ÄĚ Bullington said. ‚ÄúIf he were to disparage Nick Saban, then we‚Äôd have more of an issue,‚ÄĚ he added, referring to the coach of the University of Alabama‚Äôs football team. Bullington told me he plans to discuss the issue on the next episode of his podcast.
Elizabeth BeShears, a Republican political-communications consultant in Birmingham, also regards it as unfortunate ‚Äúthat more Alabamians aren‚Äôt up in arms‚ÄĚ about Trump‚Äôs comments. ‚ÄúI think there are many Alabamians, particularly politicians, who find what the President said to be distasteful, but are worried they will lose voter support if they stand against him,‚ÄĚ she explained.
Not surprisingly, Doug Jones, the Democratic junior senator from Alabama, who defeated Moore in an election upset, last fall, offered a more blunt appraisal than most of the Republicans I spoke to. ‚ÄúI haven‚Äôt read the Woodward book yet,‚ÄĚ he told me. ‚ÄúBut I read the alleged quotes in the news. If they are true, the President is not only mocking and insulting his own hand-picked Attorney General, he is mocking and insulting all of those millions of voters and people who continue to support him throughout the South. It‚Äôs √©litism, not recognizing the value of the hardworking people of the South.‚ÄĚ He went on, ‚ÄúI get tired of people like Donald Trump making fun of people in the South, perceiving us as second-class citizens.‚ÄĚ Did he think Alabamians would react? He wasn‚Äôt sure. ‚ÄúThere will be a segment who will respond,‚ÄĚ Jones said. ‚ÄúThere will be a segment who won‚Äôt believe it,‚ÄĚ he added.
‚ÄúEverybody sees why he wants Sessions gone. It came pretty clear yesterday in that remarkable tweet undermining the Justice Department‚Äôs indictments of two sitting congressmen,‚ÄĚ Jones continued. ‚ÄúHe should have the guts enough to go ahead and fire Sessions if he doesn‚Äôt want him rather than being a bully and just whining about him. Be the Commander-in-Chief. Just do it and let the consequences begin.‚ÄĚ
I asked Cam Ward, the state senator, if he thought firing Sessions would damage Trump‚Äôs support in Alabama. He thought not. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs pretty well accepted here that Trump, at some point, will get rid of Sessions,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúBut, through every controversy of the last two years, you never see the President‚Äôs numbers dip below the mid-sixties in Alabama. They haven‚Äôt moved the needle. If him going after Jeff Sessions the way he has already doesn‚Äôt move it, I don‚Äôt think firing him is gonna move the needle any further. The battle lines are pretty hardened. The middle ground is as small as it‚Äôs been in the modern Presidency.‚ÄĚ
Later, I spoke to a prominent attorney in Montgomery, who calls himself an Independent, and who asked to remain anonymous. He told me that, in his view, Trump was ‚Äúdestroying the position of the Presidency‚ÄĚ and that he was ‚Äúnot surprised by anything he says.‚ÄĚ He added, ‚ÄúBut the fact that he would demean an area of the country that one hundred per cent supports him¬†.‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ.¬†‚ÄĚ Then he trailed off. After a pause, he added, ‚ÄúMaybe everything Trump says about Alabama is true, because only a dumbass would vote for that idiot.‚ÄĚ