President Donald Trump finds some of his strongest support in Alabama, but his public flogging of Attorney General Jeff Sessions is dismaying Republicans who consider the conservative stalwart a home state hero.
Trump's near-daily Twitter humiliation of Sessions, an apparent effort to force him to quit, is putting party members in awkward positions. Only weeks remain before a special primary election for the U.S. Senate seat Sessions vacated to become the nation's top law enforcer. Suddenly, it doesn't seem so harmonious to simultaneously cheer for the president and Alabama's native son.
"You just don't treat people like this," Joe Akin, a 79-year-old engineer and Trump voter in Birmingham, said after turning off his TV in frustration.
"If you want to have a discussion with someone, you do it across the conference table, you don't get on Facebook or whatever," Akin said. "There's an awful lot of things I like about Trump, but he's got to learn he's not running his own business."
Sessions was the first leading elected Republican to endorse Trump's candidacy and became one of his most loyal supporters. But Trump's view of him changed after Sessions belatedly admitted to meeting with Russia's ambassador during the campaign and recused himself from the intensifying federal investigation into election meddling.
On Twitter, Trump called Sessions "beleaguered," accused him of having a "VERY WEAK position on Hillary Clinton crimes," and alleged that he's ignoring conflicts of interest in the Justice Department. Asked whether he intends to fire Sessions or push him to resign, the president told a reporter that "time will tell."
Sessions was at the White House on Wednesday as Trump sent one of those tweets, but didn't meet with the president. Trump is "obviously disappointed" with his attorney general, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, waving away other questions.
All three GOP candidates in the Aug. 15 Senate primary have competed to show voters just how much like Trump they can be. But U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks on Wednesday said supporting Sessions now "is the right thing for Alabama and America."
"I support President Trump's policies, but this public waterboarding of one of the greatest people Alabama has ever produced is inappropriate and insulting to the people of Alabama who know Jeff Sessions so well and elected him so often by overwhelming margins," Brooks said.
Brooks even offered to step aside and encouraged his rivals — Sen. Luther Strange, who now holds the seat by appointment, and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore — to step aside as well to enable Sessions to return to the Senate.
Others were more cautious, praising Sessions but saying little about Trump in a state where his presidency has been highly popular.
Strange blamed the media.
"Jeff and President Trump are trying to make America great again, and it's a privilege to work alongside both to accomplish the Trump agenda for the American people, and we need to stop letting the media distract us from that agenda," he said.
Mitch Dozier, a 38-year-old from Montgomery who manages commercial property and describes himself as a staunch Republican, said he hasn't seen a "smoking gun," but the Russia investigation merits deeper scrutiny. And while he said the president has the right to lash out, he thinks Trump is clearly harnessing social media against Sessions, whose recusal prevents him from shutting down the probe.
"I think everybody is a little fed up with the president's antics on Twitter," Dozier said.
Sessions, a former state attorney general, built a reputation during 20 years in the Senate as a hardliner on immigration who often butted heads with GOP leaders. He got behind Trump's 2016 campaign when other politicians, even in Alabama, were staying away. Sessions joined Trump on stage in a rally that filled a football stadium in Mobile before Trump won the state's GOP primary by 20 points, one of his largest victory margins.
Trump has now denigrated that moment, too, suggesting Sessions only endorsed him when he saw so many Trump voters in the audience.
Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, who attended high school with Sessions, said "those two gentlemen will work it out in some fashion."
Alabama's senior Republican Sen. Richard Shelby said he called Sessions and spoke with him for several minutes. He didn't say if Sessions telegraphed any intentions. But Shelby said "I think loyalty ought to be a two-way street."