The once-powerful Republican congressman is trying to claw his way back to Washington at a time when his allies in Trumpworld are under fire.
Former Congressman Pete Sessions stood behind a lectern at the McLennan County Republican Party headquarters in Waco, flanked by a man holding a campaign sign and a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump, and made it official: He was re-running for Congress, this time in Texas’ 17th Congressional District, some 80 miles south of his old seat in Dallas.
“I believe that we are at a time when if you’re going to come and be on the ballot, you need to do so with vigor and responsibility and stand up for the things that continue to make America great again,” Sessions told a small crowd of local Republicans on Thursday as they snacked on cookies and soda.
The veteran Republican politician may have lost his seat in the 32nd Congressional District and his influential position as chair of the House rules committee (and the perks that come with it) when he was wiped out of office in 2018, but he never lost his taste for power.
Several of Sessions’ former Republican colleagues are scrambling for the exits as they face the prospect of losing their seats in 2020, tire of serving in the minority, or are perhaps finally fed up with Trump’s incessant scandals.
Meanwhile, Sessions is trying to run back into the burning building, pledging to be an unwavering supporter of an embattled president. He said he understood why so many Republicans were calling it quits, but insisted that he was not ready to do so himself. “The intensity it’s going to take to win and represent our ideas and party … if you don’t have that spirit and fight, it’s probably best you do retire,” he told reporters after the Waco event. “I’m not one of those. I’m prepared to go sell the fight again.”
“I think that he has been emboldened and motivated by the Democrats and their desire to take this president down at any cost,” Roy Bailey, Sessions’ former campaign chair and a top Trump donor, told the Austin American-Statesman on Wednesday. “Pete’s a fighter, and I think it got his juices going and he said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’”
House Democrats recently launched an impeachment inquiry into President Trump after a whistleblower complaint brought to light details about a phone conversation he had with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump had directed his staff to withhold foreign aid money before the phone call, during which he asked Zelensky for “a favor”: to look into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. In 2015, Biden withheld foreign aid from Ukraine until it fired the country’s prosecutor general, who was criticized for obstructing corruption investigations, including an inquiry into the owner of a natural gas company whose board Hunter Biden was serving on. Trump has since spun the events as proof of Biden using his power to protect his son from a corruption investigation.
Oddly enough, Sessions looks to be on the periphery of the investigation. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has spent recent months in Ukraine, trying to dig up dirt on Democratic opponents, namely Biden. He’s worked closely with two Soviet-born men named Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who have Ukrainian connections, on this effort.
As it turns out, Sessions met with the two men back in May of 2018. In the meeting, Parnas and Fruman pressed the case that the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, should be dismissed because she was disloyal to Trump, according to a July 2019 report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
On May 9, Parnas posted a photo with Sessions on Facebook (it has since been deleted). That same day, Sessions sent a private letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the Ukrainian ambassador’s firing because he had received “notice of concrete evidence from close companions that Ambassador Yovanovitch has spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current Administration.”
Parnas and Fruman had close relationships with top Ukranian officials and had business interests in the country, but did not register as lobbyists under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Parnas told OCCRP that they were acting on their own accord. But their meeting with Sessions raises “the thorniest red flag,” Washington lawyer and FARA expert Ron Oleynik told OCCRP. “That, to me, is clearly trying to influence an office of the United States toward Ukraine.”
“I do know both these gentlemen,” Sessions told OCCRP. “They are Republicans. They are people who have an interest in foreign affairs. They have a strong interest in America not backing away from Ukraine.”
The letter didn’t do much good, until it started making the rounds on Fox News in March as conservatives began targeting Yovanovitch. On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had personally ordered Yovanovitch to be fired in late May because close allies like Giuliani said she was impeding Ukraine’s efforts to investigate the Bidens.
Sessions told the Journal that he never followed up on his letter and didn’t know about Trump’s interest in getting rid of Yovanovich until months later. Sessions’ campaign did not respond to requests for comment about how he came to know Parnas or Fruman or why he decided to personally take the meeting.
But Sessions is well-connected in Trumpworld. Vice President Mike Pence stumped for him on the campaign trail. Donald Trump Jr. came to the Dallas suburbs to host a fundraiser with tickets as high as $10,000. Sessions’ longtime political ally Rudy Giuliani held a fundraiser in Dallas to raise money for the congressman and also honor Roy Bailey, a GOP megadonor and Giuliani business associate. Bailey is a close friend of Sessions who has served as his campaign chair. He was also the finance chair for the Trump-allied super PAC America First Action in 2018 and is now the finance co-chair of Trump’s presidential campaign.
When asked at his campaign launch event about Trump’s conversation with the Ukraine president, Sessions gave a long and winding answer. He said, “I think what the president was doing was asking for clarification” and that the Ukraine president “said that he was not intimidated.” He commended Trump for being “active and involved” on foreign policy matters and said that his aggressive approach is “how we’ve made progress in South America, stopping the flow of 60 and 70,000 people in the caravans.” (Most migrants have come from Central America.) In closing, Sessions said that he didn’t think there was a “big difference between what Joe Biden did and what the president did: put in a demand and say they expect somebody to do something.”
It’s still unclear exactly how Sessions fits into the broader Ukraine investigation, but we may soon find out more. Parnas has been subpoenaed by House committees conducting the impeachment investigation into the president; committee members have requested documents related to his meeting with Sessions.
Parnas and Fruman both wrote checks for $2,700 to Sessions’ unsuccessful 2018 congressional campaign the month after their meeting. Parnas and Fruman’s company, Global Energy Producers LLC, also gave $325,000 to a Trump-allied super PAC, America First Action, for which Sessions ally Roy Bailey was finance chair.
The super PAC spent more than $3 million on independent expenditures attacking Sessions’ Democratic opponent, Colin Allred, the second-most spent on an individual race by the PAC. Sessions ultimately lost to Allred by a substantial margin in 2018, but was quietly plotting his return to office. Just last week, after Allred came out in favor of the impeachment inquiry, Sessions hinted that he might jump back in and challenge the new congressman.
But Sessions ultimately opted for a different political parcel more than 80 miles south of his old domain. The 17th Congressional District is much safer terrain for Republicans, stretching from Waco, where Sessions grew up, to College Station.
The seat opened up last month after GOP incumbent Bill Flores announced that he was retiring. But Sessions apparently didn’t consult many people in the district about the decision. Flores was not happy, telling the press that there is plenty of local talent in the district and that “it’s insulting to them that someone from outside the district would come in and tell them to stand aside while he attempts to jump to the front of the line,” Flores told the Austin American-Statesman. Per Flores, one local business leader had this to say: “Terrible idea. Period.”
Sessions has brushed off the criticism. He said that local Republican activists are “delighted to have me here.”
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