WASHINGTON – Tommy Tuberville had a decision to make. So did the other Republican senators huddling with him in the storage closet.
It was Jan. 6, right-wing rioters were ransacking the U.S. Capitol, but these lawmakers were already in a secured part of the complex and had been milling about a hearing room with a larger group of senators. They weren’t hiding from the mob. They were hiding from their colleagues.
The group, led by Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., had planned to object to the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential campaign – a gesture of solidarity with President Donald Trump, who had spent months trying to overturn his loss. The siege of the Capitol by Trump’s supporters, however, had some lawmakers thinking that formally objecting to Biden’s victory might be a bad look.
So into the closet they went, for privacy’s sake – around a dozen Republicans, including the Alabama newbie known as “Coach.”
“You’ve got 25 seconds to call a play,” Tuberville said recently, thinking back on the scene. “You can’t call a bunch of timeouts.”
It was the former college football coach’s first full day in the Senate, and already he was being called off the sidelines. Earlier on Jan. 6, Trump had wanted to talk to Tuberville but called Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, by mistake; Lee had handed Tuberville a cellphone in the Senate chamber. Tuberville said he didn’t have time to find out exactly what Trump wanted. Vice President Mike Pence had been whisked to a secure location, and Tuberville and his colleagues had to get moving, too. “I know we’ve got problems,” Tuberville recalled the president saying before the call ended. “Protect yourself.”
Inside the storage closet, a bunker within a bunker, surrounded by stacked furniture, the senators weighed whether the mob’s demonstration of loyalty to Trump that day might affect their own.
“There were 12 of us gathered to talk about what happens now, where do things go from here,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
The mood was “very heavy,” remembered Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.
“I do remember saying we have to pull the country together,” said Lankford, “We are so exceptionally divided that it’s spilling into the building.”
“I didn’t really listen to them,” Tuberville said about the closet colloquy.
He does remember a few details. “One thing that was brought up was that people were hurt,” he recalled in one of several interviews with The Washington Post. Plus, Biden was going to end up president, whether they objected or not. “Do we want to continue this,” Tuberville remembered his colleagues mulling, “if there’s not going to be a result we are looking for anyway?”
Some Republican senators changed their minds after the closet huddle, but Tuberville’s vote was not in question. Coach stuck with the play and formally objected to certifying the electoral college votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Nevermind that neither election administrators nor the Justice Department had found evidence of voter fraud at a meaningful scale. Or the subsequent warnings from democracy experts such as Rick Hasen, co-director of the University of California at Irvine’s Fair Elections and Free Speech Center, who told The Post that Tuberville and his fellow defectors had ratified the violent actions of the insurrectionists, and Ian Bassin, executive director of the nonprofit Protect Democracy, who said that they had made it more likely that the next attempt to overthrow an election will succeed.
And nevermind any consideration Tuberville might have owed to his new colleagues. “I see those 13 enablers, along with the president, as trying to destroy this country,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told The Post in February, a few weeks after the attack.
“I wasn’t voting for me, I was voting for the people of Alabama,” Tuberville recently told The Post. “President Trump has an 80% approval there. I told them, ‘I’m going to vote how you want me to vote.'”
Tuberville owes his Senate seat to Trump’s endorsement. His primary opponent, Jeff Sessions, had angered the president when, as attorney general, he recused himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. “He immediately ran for the hills,” Trump said of Sessions at a campaign rally for Tuberville. And so Alabama voters sent Coach to Washington – a living, voting example of Trump’s vengeance against anyone more loyal to checks and balances than they are to him.
In the nine months since, however, Tuberville has surprised people by declining to play the role of MAGA firebrand. He’s been trying to position himself as a relationship builder and an aspiring insider. He’s hired staff from outside MAGA world. He’s done PSAs about getting vaccinated against the coronavirus. He called Trump’s rhetoric leading up to Jan. 6 a “mistake.” And while he believes there were “some problems” with the 2020 election, he is not yet convinced that voter fraud caused Trump’s loss.
That said, Tuberville is not sorry about voting against certifying the election.
“I have no regrets,” he said.
This is a story about Tommy Tuberville, but it’s also a story about Jan. 6, and what comes next for pro-Trump Republicans who want to forget what happened last winter while remaining loyal to a leader who won’t let it go.
Coach, like most members of his party, is not dwelling on what happened on Insurrection Day. But if a new senator casts a vote at odds with the very foundation of democracy, what makes him think he can just move on?
‘He’s a good guy’
On a recent day at work, Tuberville spotted Tester – the flat-topped Montana senator who’d called him and his cohort enablers in Trump’s bid to destroy the country – and asked for his autograph. “I’ve got to get you to sign our class picture,” Tuberville said. “I’m trying to get all the stars.”
“I feel honored,” Tester replied.
It was late September, and temperatures had cooled.
“The first six months here were totally miserable,” said Lummis, who had also doubled-down on objecting to certifying Biden’s victory. “It’s gotten so much better.”
“It still troubles me,” said Tester, thinking back on Tuberville’s Jan. 6 vote. “But you have to compartmentalize here.” Plus, the Montana Democrat added, “He’s a good guy.”
Score one for Coach, who seems well-suited for the country’s most-exclusive comity club. Tuberville is 67, with a helmet of salt-and-pepper hair. He led four NCAA Division I football programs over two decades, including a lengthy stint at Alabama’s Auburn University, and his celebrity has allowed him to arrive to Washington with the kind of social capital most freshman lawmakers could only dream about. Military generals turn into little kids asking him about his coaching days, according to someone who works in Tuberville’s office who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the environment there. And that’s to say nothing of his fellow lawmakers.
“Hey, Coach!” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., slapping Tuberville on the back as they passed each other in the hallway.
“Coach!” called out Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., his voice echoing through the rotunda. “Thanks for saying nice things about me in Florida the other day, that got back to me.”
Walking through the Capitol, Tuberville seemed at ease, trading banter in a deep drawl that makes him sound like the actor Sam Elliott.
“Them Bulldogs didn’t do it!” he hollered to Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., as they passed each other on an escalator, referring to a narrow loss by Mississippi State’s football team.
“Nice question in there,” he told Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as they left a weekly Republican policy lunch. “It’s good to flood the zone.”
“Flood the zone,” Collins repeated, laughing. “Even I know what that phrase means.”
Unlike certain other Trumpy newcomers like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., or Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., with their ostentatious contempt for the “Democrat Party,” Tuberville has approached his more liberal colleagues with a “the-dude-abides” geniality. He’s swapped stories with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., over glasses of wine and made plans to tour the NASA facilities in Alabama with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Tuberville said he chats with Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., at least once a week and has been a guest on the Democrat’s houseboat, where he recalled talking football with Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s transportation secretary.
When you’re trying to make friends and influence people who might be tempted to hate your guts, it helps to be a fun guy to be around. And Tuberville, a fan of bad jokes, good gossip and cringey sports metaphors, is easy to like. “I’ve been around coaches for 40 years,” said Paul Finebaum, a college football talk-radio host known as the Mouth of the South. “And he is the most easy-going guy to talk to – on the golf course, over dinner.”
It was a skill that served him well in his previous career. As a coach Tuberville earned a nickname of his own, the Riverboat Gambler, for his impetuous play-calling. But he also understood – as Trump seems to understand – that success is built in the offseason, when a coach stacks his roster with players who can be trusted to execute with the game on the line, no matter how questionable the play-calls.
“When you’re recruiting players, (coaches) have to say a lot of stuff. It may not necessarily be true,” Devin Aromashodu, who played wide receiver for Tuberville at Auburn, told The Post in 2020. “But I do know that he’s very, very persuasive.”
Tuberville was also legendary for his capacity to move on – sometimes abruptly. In 1998, when he was head coach at the University of Mississippi, he declared that the only way he’d leave Ole Miss was “in a pine box;” he took the Auburn job a few days later. In 2012, when he was head coach at Texas Tech, Tuberville was out to dinner with a group of potential recruits when he excused himself to take a phone call, which turned out to be the University of Cincinnati offering him a job; he never returned to the table.
Ambitious. Enthralled by the spotlight. Always in search of a better opportunity. It’s no wonder Tuberville got into politics.
“It didn’t surprise me that he threw his hat in the ring for a bigger seat,” Robert Khayat, who was chancellor at Mississippi while Tuberville coached there, said about his decision to run for office. “I thought that sometime during his tenure at Ole Miss, his ego became a little bit out of balance. Maybe a lot out of balance. “
The reasons Coach cites for getting into government are those of a pre-Trump, standard-issue Republican. He says he wants the government off the backs of job creators and out of schools. He’s a conservative Christian. As the son of a World War II officer, he speaks of a lifelong love of the American military.
Winning in this era, however, only required one play: Hand it to Trump.
“God sent us Donald Trump,” Tuberville said in a campaign ad, “because God knew we were in trouble.” He warned of foreigners changing the country from within. “Folks,” he told a gathering of Alabama Republicans last summer, “they’re taking over, and if we don’t open our eyes, it is going to be over with.”
He avoided interviews, ducked debates and offered little by way of policy proposals. It didn’t matter. He blew out Sessions in the primary, then coasted to victory over Democrat Doug Jones in November.
Afterward, Tuberville kept parroting the president. In December, at a rally in Georgia, he said that Democrats had been willing to “lie, cheat and steal” to take back the White House.
“It’s impossible, it is impossible what happened,” he told the crowd, referring to Trump’s defeat. “But, we’re going to get that all corrected.”
Soon, Trump was hyping the idea of Tuberville abetting a procedural revolt on Jan. 6, to the dismay of the GOP’s Senate leadership.
“It’s his training as a football coach,” said Khayat. “If you find a play that works, you keep calling it until it stops working.”
A student of the institution
Being a senator isn’t all shaking hands and making laws. It’s also about holding people accountable. So when the Pentagon brass visited the Capitol to answer questions about President Biden’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan in a closed hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee, Tuberville wanted to make sure he had a good question to ask the generals. But first …
“Coach, we have Miss Alabama waiting in the other room.”
“Oh! Miss Alabama,” Tuberville replied.
He turned to his national security adviser, Morgan Murphy, who had accompanied him into the waiting room of his office.
“Morgan, can you get me a question?” he said.
“I’ll have one for you,” Murphy assured him.
Delegating comes naturally to Tuberville. As a coach, he fashioned himself as more of a chief executive than an X’s-and-O’s guy, according to Tony Franklin, one of Tuberville’s former offensive coordinators.
“You can be a guru type, genius coach that understands every aspect of the game and is creative and innovative,” said Franklin. “Or you can be just a politician, manager, money-raiser. And that’s what Tommy was.”
When he became a senator, Tuberville expressed interest in trying to get a handle on the rules and strategy. “I want to learn the fundamentals, how it all works, to where every day when I’m there, I understand it,” he told the Alabama Daily News in November. (In the same interview he misidentified the three branches of government as “the House, the Senate and the executive.”) Sure enough, Coach has become a student of the institution whose norms he’d subverted on his first full day: an eager rookie who will dutifully sit through hearings, even as his colleagues duck out early.
“It’s a different playbook here,” Coach told The Post, “and it’s like it’s in a different language.”
He’s working his way through it, one metaphor at a time.
“You’ve got a lot of head coaches here,” he said. “Especially in the Senate, you have 100 head coaches here.”
“We’ve got an offense and a defense here, but ultimately we’re on the same team.”
For all his learnings, Tuberville has shown little curiosity about the X’s and O’s of what happened before and during Jan. 6 – even the plays that were drawn up to include him.
On the evening of Jan. 6, as law enforcement regained control of the Capitol, Rudy Giuliani left a voicemail for Tuberville on Sen. Lee’s phone. (He, like Trump, apparently had the wrong number.) In the message, which was posted online by The Dispatch, Giuliani asked Tuberville to object to 10 different states and give the president’s team “a fair opportunity to contest” the election.
In May, Tuberville helped the Republicans narrowly block an independent, 9/11-style commission to investigate the insurrection. Nevertheless, the contours of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election have come into sharper focus in recent months: In their book “Peril,” Robert Costa and Bob Woodward detailed a hail-mary scheme from a conservative lawyer to have congressional Republicans circumvent the certified state electors – and the voters – on Jan. 6 and declare Trump the winner of the election.
Tuberville told The Post he knew nothing about all that. He says he’s not sure he’s even listened to the voice message Giuliani tried to leave for him.
“I’m trying to keep up with things going forward,” he said. “If I look back, I get all confused.”
Still a Trump ally
‘I’ve never done cocaine,” Tuberville told Lauren Bradford, Miss Alabama, “but they say it’s really good.”
The were talking about the addictiveness and dangers of social media. Coach had digressed.
Bradford laughed, and then everyone posed for pictures.
A lot of outsiders come to Washington just so they can spend their time hating on it. But Coach loves this stuff – cracking up Miss America contestants, quizzing four-star generals. In September, he traveled to Europe with a handful of colleagues including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and met the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“He was the president on their version of ‘House of Cards,'” the senator noted with amusement.
Tuberville was back in his office. A painting of his undefeated 2004 Auburn team hung on the wall. A Coach Tuberville bobblehead, produced in 2002 for distribution by Arby’s restaurants, sat on the shelf behind his desk.
“I’ve got enough of this stuff to fill 10 offices,” he said of his football memorabilia.
Coach is a hoarder – at least that’s the word he says one of his two adult sons uses. There’s a barn on his property in Alabama where Tuberville keeps most of his mementos along with a seemingly endless inventory of furniture, paintings and home decor accumulated over years of moving on. His wife, Suzanne, has been trying to get him to throw some of it out, so far with little success. It’s not that Tuberville is all that sentimental about “all that crap” – he just can’t seem to get rid of it.
Some stuff just sticks.
Jan. 6 is something that has stuck, not just to Tuberville but the whole Republican party. Far from moving on, Trump’s obsession seems to have deepened: Last week, he referred to solving “the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020” as the “single most important thing for Republicans to do.” Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow, has been barnstorming the country holding rallies for “Stop the Steal” crowds. And after Republicans in Arizona spent months conducting a dubious “audit” of the last election in Maricopa County (which affirmed Biden’s win there, in spite of everything), similar efforts are taking shape in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas. More than 6 in 10 Republicans believe Biden’s win was fraudulent, according to multiple polls, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
“The fact that it’s being swept under the rug and treated as another political moment is incredibly dangerous,” Rick Hasen, the election law expert, said about the insurrection and its aftermath. “You could see this as a low point in American politics, or you could see it as a dress rehearsal for what’s to come.”
Or, to put it in more-familiar terms: Jan. 6 might have been practice. The play didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean Team Trump hasn’t been building on the schemes in the offseason.
Tuberville made it clear on his very first full day in office, huddling in the closet with his new teammates that he was no longer a head coach; he’s now a player. And when the next play call comes in, everyone knows which side he’ll be on.
In late August, Trump appeared at an Alabama rally where he would once again decry the “most corrupt election in American history” and assure his followers that “the evidence of the fraud is monumental, and more is coming out.”
But first, the crowd would hear from the former president’s supporting act.
“We got the best two things coming,” Tuberville told them. “We got football coming right around the corner, and we got Donald Trump right back here!”
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The Washington Post’s Kent Babb and Paul Kane contributed to this report.