WASHINGTON — President Trump put his political agenda ahead of the sordid allegations in the Alabama Senate race and offered measured support Tuesday afternoon for Roy Moore, the embattled Republican candidate who has been accused of pursuing sexual relations with girls as young as 14.
Trump, when asked about the surprisingly close Senate race, urged voters to reject Doug Jones, Moore’s Democratic opponent. “I can tell you one thing for sure. We don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat,” Trump told reporters.
“Look, he denies it,” said Trump, indicating that Moore deserves the benefit of the doubt despite the consistency of stories told by nine women who say Moore pursued them. “He totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen. And, you know, you have to listen to him also.”
The special Senate race has emerged as an unlikely referendum on sexual harassment of women, a topic that’s already ended the careers of leading players in Hollywood and the media — but has so far resulted in few consequences in the political sphere. The election, an off-year race to replace Jeff Sessions, will be decided Dec. 12.
The notion that Trump, who himself has been accused by more than a dozen women of inappropriate sexual behavior, could offer what amounted to a tacit endorsement of Moore would have seemed unthinkable in a more conventional political time. But Trump has blazed a trail of embracing controversy and downplaying his own lewd behavior and so far has come out a winner.
In this case Trump is at odds with his own party, members of his own Cabinet, and even his own daughter Ivanka Trump. Addressing the Alabama Senate race, Ivanka Trump said last week, “There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children.”
Jones began airing ads Tuesday featuring Ivanka Trump’s comments. The Jones ad, which is airing frequently on Alabama TV stations, also features comments from Sessions, who is now Trump’s attorney general, saying that he believes the women.
The allegations are that Moore, when he was in his 30s in the late 1970s, sought sexual relations with teens and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old. Moore, an Alabama district attorney at the time, allegedly sought out the girls at a shopping mall and a restaurant.
Last week Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, said, “I believe the women,” when asked about the Senate race. Referring to Moore, he added, “I think he should step aside.”
Other Republican senators have also disavowed Moore, who was also reportedly banned from his local mall because of the behavior. “I’ve got a general rule, if you can’t be in a mall, you shouldn’t be in the Senate,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, to reporters.
And Senator Jeff Flake, the Republican of Arizona who is not seeking reelection, was caught on a live microphone expressing deep concern about where people like Moore and Trump are taking the party.
“If we become the party of Roy Moore and Donald Trump, we are toast,” Flake said.
The supportive remarks from Trump are likely to buoy Moore’s chances in Alabama, where Jones must get Republican voters to cross over and vote Democratic if he has a chance of winning. Recent polls show that support for Moore in Alabama is plummeting.
Trump’s support underscores the urgency he is facing as his legislative agenda has stalled. The party is desperately trying to pass a massive tax cut, which is unlikely to be settled until after the Alabama special election.
Right now, Trump can afford to lose only two Republican votes in the Senate. Should a Democrat be elected to fill out the remaining three years of Sessions’ term, Trump’s margin would narrow to a single vote.
So far, Trump has been unable to score any major victories in Congress, despite Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate.
The White House has been sending mixed messages about Moore since Nov. 9, when The Washington Post first reported on Moore’s alleged misconduct. Initially, the White House issued a statement that Moore should step aside if the allegations proved to be true.
Over the weekend on the Sunday news shows, White House surrogates said that Trump believes that Alabama voters should make the decision without outsider interference, and stressed that the president has stayed away from the race on purpose.
“If he did not believe that the women’s accusations were credible, he would be down campaigning for Roy Moore,” said White House legislative affairs director Marc Short on ABC’s “This Week.” “He has not done that.”
On Tuesday, in another shift, Trump left the door open for a campaign appearance.
“I’ll be letting you know next week,” the president said when asked if he’ll stump for Moore, as he initially promised before the allegations surfaced.
Trump’s rationale for supporting Moore is overtly rooted in politics. He said Tuesday that he arrived at his conclusion after considering the issues and finding the Jones, the Democrat, would not support the president’s agenda in key areas.
“I’ve looked at his record. It’s terrible on crime. It’s terrible on the border. It’s terrible on the military,” said Trump. “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.”
Jones, a former US attorney known for prosecuting a cold case that put two members of the Ku Klux Klan in prison for the 1963 bombing of a black church, has support from law enforcement in the state.
And he’s supportive of gun rights, putting him at odds with many Democrats.
But, he also supports transgender and abortion rights, which puts him out of sync with many Republicans in the state.
Trump also weighed in on the current cultural reckoning about how women are treated in the workplace, particularly by powerful men.
“I think it’s a very special time, 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 and I’m very happy,” Trump said.
During his campaign, Trump was accused by 16 women of aggressive and unwelcome sexual conduct over a period of many years, including groping and kissing.
A 2005 tape of an “Access Hollywood” show emerged that caught Trump on a microphone boasting about using the power of his notoriety to aggressively pursue women.Annie Linskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.