President Donald Trump’s near-endorsement of Alabama Republican Roy Moore followed days of behind-the-scenes talks in which he vented about Moore’s accusers and expressed skepticism about their accounts.
During animated conversations with senior Republicans and White House aides, the president said he doubted the stories presented by Moore’s accusers and questioned why they were emerging now, just weeks before the election, according to two White House advisers and two other people familiar with the talks.
The White House advisers said the president drew parallels between Moore’s predicament and the one he faced just over a year ago when, during the final weeks of the 2016 campaign, Trump confronted a long line of women who accused him of harassment. He adamantly denied the claims.
The president’s private sentiments broke into the open Tuesday when Trump all but declared he believed Moore’s denials.
“Let me just tell you, Roy Moore denies it. That’s all I can say. He denies it. And, by the way, he totally denies it,” Trump told reporters. Moore, 70, who has been accused of sexually pursuing — and in some cases assaulting — teenagers or young women when he was in his 30s.
Trump’s remarks, made as he was departing Washington for his Mar-a-Lago resort, represented an extraordinary embrace of a scandal-tarred candidate and a sharp break from top Senate Republicans who’ve threatened to expel Moore from the chamber if he wins. At a time when tales of sexual harassment in media, politics and entertainment are dominating national headlines, and members of both parties have said Moore’s accusers are credible, the president took the opposite stance.
“I mean, if you look at what is really going on, and you look at all the things that have happened over the last 48 hours, he totally denies it,” Trump said. “He says it didn’t happen. And, you know, you have to listen to him also. You’re talking about, he said 40 years ago this did not happen.”
When asked earlier on Tuesday whether the president had privately expressed skepticism toward Moore’s accusers, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to comment.
After the allegations against Moore first emerged while the president was on a 12-day Asia trip, the White House initially said that the candidate should withdraw from the race if they were true. But in the days that followed, the administration’s line softened. It was up to Alabama voters, the White House later said.
Then, a turning point came.
Trump gave personal approval for White House counselor Kellyanne Conway to go after Moore’s Democratic opponent, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, during a Monday interview on “Fox & Friends,” which the president regularly watches, said one person with direct knowledge of the decision. Conway laced into Jones, saying that Alabama voters shouldn’t be “fooled” by him, and hinted that the White House wanted Moore’s vote on tax reform.
It was an extraordinary shift and suggested the White House was seriously warming toward Moore. On Tuesday, a day after Conway went after Jones, Trump took his turn.
“I can tell you one thing for sure: 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,” he said.
Until Tuesday, the president had refused to tip his hand about how he felt about Moore. His silence was surprising considering how often Trump weighs in on controversies.
There were some signs the administration was distancing itself from the Alabama hopeful. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence’s political action committee announced it was dishing out contributions to three dozen Republicans — a list Moore was conspicuously left off of. The president also had a hand in the Republican National Committee’s decision to withdraw support for Moore. Prior to the announcement, RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel spoke by phone separately with Trump and White House political director Bill Stepien, according to two senior Republicans briefed on the discussions.
Yet the president refused to publicly castigate Moore, eschewing repeated requests from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to intervene. Behind the scenes, the president asked his advisers for updates on the Alabama race, requesting fresh polling and prodding them for information on how people in the state are digesting the revelations. Among the questions he asked: Whether locals believed the accusations Moore was facing.
All the while, Moore’s team was thrilled that the president — who remains widely popular in Alabama — has refused to stay out of the race. The campaign, one Moore adviser said, had been in touch with the White House in recent weeks.
Trump’s embrace of Moore is shaped by a variety of factors, advisers say, including his long-running reluctance to antagonize his conservative base, much of which is sticking with Moore. And, with Moore refusing to exit the race, advisers say the president saw little upside to aligning himself against him.
He has also come to identify with the candidate. Trump has long viewed the tumultuous final month of the 2016 campaign as a critical moment in his political rise, when it became apparent who in the Republican Party was with him and who wasn’t. As establishment Republicans withdrew their support for Moore in recent days, one senior White House official said, the president remembered that many of those same figures abandoned him, too.
As he departed Washington on Tuesday, Trump hinted that he was preparing to go all-in for the candidate.
Asked whether he would campaign for the Alabama Republican, Trump responded: “I’ll be letting you know next week.”
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