President Trump broke his long silence on the allegations against Roy Moore Tuesday, casting doubt on the various claims against the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama and saying that despite Moore’s past, including allegations of assault and generally creepy behavior around teenage girls, he prefers to see Moore elected to the seat than to lose it to a Democrat.
“I can tell you this one thing for sure,” Trump said as he prepared to leave the White House for Florida for the Thanksgiving holiday. “We don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat. Jones, I’ve looked at his record. It’s terrible on crime. It’s terrible on the border. It’s terrible on the military. I can tell you for a fact we do not need somebody that’s going to be bad on crime, bad on borders, bad with the military, bad for the Second Amendment.”
Asked whether an accused child molester was preferable to a Democrat, the president replied, “Well, he denies it.”
Trump’s stance is remarkable on several levels. First, it contradicts the position the White House has espoused since the first allegations emerged two weeks ago. The administration has avoided assessing the claims, saying instead that if they are true, Moore should step aside. But in his remarks on Tuesday, Trump both seemed to accept Moore’s denials as fact—he also noted that the claims were about events that were many years old—and took the view that even if true, the weight of a Republican vote in the Senate overcame the import of the allegations. While this crass political calculation is not unique, and some Alabama backers of Moore have voiced it in recent days, it’s different to hear the president of the United States say so.
This is the latest case of Trump contradicting earlier statements by his staff, including spokespeople, Cabinet members, and his vice president. Just last week, for example, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that the president found the allegations “extremely troubling” and said, “The president said in his statement earlier this week that, if the allegations are true, then that Roy Moore should step aside. He still firmly believes that.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose elevation created the current special election, has also said, “I have no reason to doubt these young women.”
The president’s comments Tuesday also put him at odds with his daughter, Ivanka Trump, who said recently, “There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children,” adding, “I’ve yet to see a valid explanation and I have no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts.” (Jones included that remark in a new ad released Tuesday.) Ivanka Trump has repeatedly seen her own views bulldozed by the president.
The comments also put Trump at odds, not for the first time, with the Republican establishment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blasted Moore and said he should step down, as have the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee. Several Republican senators have called for expelling Moore, should he be elected. One of the few people who has staunchly backed Moore—after briefly wavering—is Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and a reflexive opponent of the party mandarins.
Trump’s charge that Jones is weak on crime is doubly ironic. Jones is a former prosecutor who put Klansmen behind bars; his opponent not only was twice removed from the state bench for violating the U.S. Constitution, but in the matter stands accused of committing a crime himself. Additionally, Moore’s judicial record shows that he often dissented from his colleagues in the cases of those accused of sex crimes.
Moore, who has fallen behind Jones in polls since the allegation first began, has flatly denied the accusations against him but has refused to offer specific refutations of any of the women’s accounts, with his campaign instead raging about persecution by the liberal media and Republican establishment. He has said that he did not “generally” date teenage girls, but has not specifically denied having done so, either. One Alabama pastor even praised Moore’s past dating habits, saying, “He did that because there is something about a purity of a young woman, there is something that is good, that’s true, that’s straight and he looked for that.”
On Tuesday, a reporter asked Trump what his message was to women. “Women are very special,” he said. “I think it's a very special time because a lot of things are coming out. And I think that’s good for our society. And I think it’s very, very good for women.”
Yet the subtext of this remark is that he only thinks the revelations are good, and credible, when they target liberals and Democrats. Trump was quick to say that allegations against Harvey Weinstein did not surprise him, and to tweet about claims against Senator Al Franken. Yet in the case of Moore, who faces a range of credible accusers with consistent stories, Trump sees no reason to trust the women, and instead extends the benefit of the doubt to Moore. (Moore is already touting Trump’s words.)
This is in part surprising, because Trump was not a Moore supporter during the primary; he backed Senator Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill Sessions’s seat on a temporary basis but lost the nomination to run for the rest of the term to Moore. Yet as I have written previously, the Moore case presents a difficult political dilemma for Trump, who himself has been accused of sexual harassment by at least 16 women—and who, moreover, was caught on tape boasting about sexually assaulting women. Trump doesn’t just have a vested interest in Moore’s victory, or in being able to dismiss credible accusations; the idea that Republican voters should hold their nose and vote for a candidate despite his past sexual misbehavior was in fact central to his campaign in 2016.
Trump’s equivocal response to the Moore allegations is reminiscent of his equivocal response the violence that followed a neo-Nazi and white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this August. The president first condemned violence “on many sides,” then a few days later said that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
It’s hard to think of two easier stands to take in American politics than condemning Nazis and denouncing child sex-abuse, and yet Trump has flinched twice. While it takes a distinct lack of moral courage for Trump to say he prefers a candidate for partisan reasons, no matter his past sins, it’s certainly not a timid or typical position.