President Donald Trump has endorsed the rival of his former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a runoff race for the Republican Alabama Senate nomination.
The president’s endorsement of Tommy Tuberville, a former football coach, is an embarrassing blow for Mr Sessions.
Mr Sessions, who previously held the senate seat, was forced to leave the attorney general post in 2018 when his relationship with Mr Trump soured.
The winner will face the incumbent Democrat Doug Jones in November.
Mr Trump described Mr Tuberville as a “terrific” head coach and “a REAL LEADER”.
The former coach thanked the president for his endorsement, saying he looked forward to draining the swamp.
Mr Sessions responded by saying Mr Trump is free to “endorse anyone he chooses” but that “even before he declared for the presidency, I fought for the principles that Donald Trump so effectively advocated in the campaign and has advanced as President”.
Mr Sessions, 72, had held the Alabama senate seat for 20 years. He has been a controversial figure, coming under fire from Democrats over his hard-line stance on immigration and allegations of racist remarks.
The president’s endorsement comes after no Republican hopeful could win more than 50% of the vote in the party’s primary race last week.
Mr Tuberville had a slight edge, however, winning the biggest share of the votes – 32% – leaving Mr Sessions in second with 31%.
Voters will decide on 31 March which Republican will battle the current senator, Democrat Doug Jones, during the November election.
Mr Jones, who won the seat in a 2017 special election, is seen as a vulnerable Democrat as Alabama has long been a conservative stronghold.
Some analysts say Mr Trump’s endorsement and latest Twitter critiques could be a fatal blow to Mr Sessions’ campaign.
What’s the Trump-Sessions row about?
In 2016, Mr Sessions was the first US senator to endorse Mr Trump.
A staunch loyalist, he was the vice-chairman of the White House transition team and eventually gave up his longtime Senate seat to become Mr Trump’s first attorney general in 2017.
But he fell out of Mr Trump’s good graces a year later when he refused to oversee the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election. That inquiry, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, has been a sore spot for Mr Trump, who has repeatedly deemed it a “witch hunt”.
Mr Sessions recused himself after Democrats accused him of failing to disclose contacts with the Russian ambassador during his attorney general confirmation hearing (which he later claimed he had forgotten about).
Since then, Mr Trump has not held back in his criticisms of his former ally, saying choosing Mr Sessions was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency.
After Mr Sessions failed to win a majority vote in last week’s primary, Mr Trump tweeted: “This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn’t have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt.”
Who is Tommy Tuberville?
Following decades as an American football coach at multiple US colleges, Mr Tuberville, 65, retired in 2016 as one of the top 50 most-winning coaches of all time.
An outspoken conservative and Trump supporter, he has made appearances on Fox News and was among those calling for former President Barack Obama to release his birth certificate.
At a campaign event in August, he said though he was a “Donald Trump guy”, he was “pissed off” at the president for not fixing issues with veteran’s access to healthcare – something his Republican rivals’ used in ads against him.
Mr Tuberville later told local news site AL.com veterans are his first priority and that he meant Mr Trump just did not know all the details of the situation.
In the months since, he has emphasised his loyalty to Mr Trump, saying: “God sent us Donald Trump.”