Trump said to mull action on Moore as GOP turmoil escalates

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President Donald Trump will discuss with aides how the White House and Republicans should deal with embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, an administration official said Tuesday, as party leaders in Congress escalated their fight to force Moore out of the campaign and threatened to expel him if he wins.

The uproar within the GOP grew Monday when a fifth woman came forward to describe Moore’s pursuit of her four decades ago, when she was 16 years old and he was a county prosecutor. She said it eventually led to Moore sexually assaulting her in his car in a darkened restaurant parking lot.

The administration aide declined to discuss how Trump, who is returning to Washington from a 12-day Asia trip, will be advised to handle the matter. His options include taking no action; making a public statement or private telephone calls to people involved in the race and party officials; or weighing in on the recruitment of a write-in Republican candidate in the Dec. 12 Alabama election.

Democrats took pains to stay on the sidelines with the prospect that their candidate now has a shot to win a seat long considered out of reach in a state that Trump won by almost 30 points in last year’s presidential election. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report on Tuesday moved its rating of Moore’s contest with Democratic candidate Doug Jones to “toss up.”

The detailed account by Beverly Young Nelson at a news conference in New York City on Monday unleashed a new wave of condemnation of Moore, to which the embattled candidate responded with defiance.

“I can tell you without hesitation this is absolutely false,” Moore said of the latest allegations at an event in his hometown of Gallant that was broadcast by television station WBRC. “This is a political maneuver, and it has nothing to do with reality, it’s all about politics.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan joined the chorus of those urging Moore to leave the race, telling reporters Tuesday, “Number one, these allegations are credible. Number two, if he cares about the values and people he claims to care about, then he should step aside.”

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, head of the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee, issued a scathing statement Monday that if Moore refuses to withdraw from the race and wins, he should be expelled “because he does not meet the ethical and moral requirements of the United States Senate.” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking before Nelson’s news conference, said Moore should step aside, dropping his previous qualifier, “if these allegations are true.”

“I believe the women, yes,” McConnell said Monday in his home state of Kentucky.

Moore quickly fired back, writing on Twitter, “The person who should step aside is @SenateMajLdr Mitch McConnell. He has failed conservatives and must be replaced.”

Moore who won a Republican primary as an anti-establishment candidate to claim the seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Sessions, at a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing Tuesday, said, “I have no reason to doubt these young women” who are raising the claims. He also said he’s been told generally to stay out of the Alabama contest by Justice Department ethics officials because he’s from the state.

Other Republicans have lined up against Moore in Congress. Senator Todd Young of Indiana called the accusations against Moore “far more persuasive than the denials.” Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said that “with five women now coming forward, Moore should do the right thing and withdraw from the race.”

Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to the seat and then lost to Moore in the primary, said “it’s going to really be up to the people of my state to sort this out.”

Four Republican senators have withdrawn earlier endorsements of Moore — John Cornyn of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Steve Daines of Montana and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. Ted Cruz of Texas, who also endorsed Moore, conditionally backed away. Moore, he said should drop out “if these allegations are true,” or come forward “with strong, persuasive rebuttals demonstrating they are untrue.”

Aides to Sen. Rand Paul, another Moore backer, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

One poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the initial Washington Post report about Moore showed Jones with a slim lead over Moore and another found it tied.

But a poll released Monday by Emerson College had Moore supported by 55 percent of the state’s voters, a lead of 10 percentage points over Jones. The poll, conducted Nov. 9-11, also indicated that the anti-establishment fervor that helped elect Trump as president remains a strong force with Alabama Republicans.

Senate Republicans may have elected McConnell as their leader, but his standing is low with Alabama voters, only 20 percent of whom view him favorably.

“I think Mitch McConnell should go home,” said Dub Ezell, the chairman of the Choctaw County Republican Party in rural southwest Alabama. “I got no respect for him.”

While Republican leaders like McConnell and Gardner are interceding with Moore’s campaign, the Democrats are keeping the national party out of the race. While some Senate Democrats, including Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have sent fundraising letters on Jones’s behalf, party leaders and national organizations have held back.

“It’s an Alabama race and the Jones campaign is running it on its own,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Monday in Washington. “It’s being run out of Alabama, by Alabama.”

The challenge for Jones is capitalizing on the shift in the race, particularly among female voters, without alienating disaffected Republican voters.

“His focus ought to be, regardless of who’s in the race, I am the competent person to serve Alabama. Just stay focused on what he can do for Alabama,” said Tyna Davis, the chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Party.

In the days following the allegations against Moore, the Jones campaign has issued only brief statements on the charges. After Monday’s press conference by Nelson, the Jones campaign said they “applaud the courage of these women” and Moore “will be held accountable by the people of Alabama for his actions.”

Jones has been focused instead on “kitchen table issues” and “working across party lines,” campaign strategist Joe Trippi said.

A few Republicans have floated the idea of conducting a write-in campaign for another candidate if Moore won’t withdraw. One person mentioned as a possible candidate for that was Sessions. But a person close to Sessions said on condition of anonymity that the attorney general has been telling people at home in Alabama that he’s not interested in running as a write-in candidate for his old seat.

“Let’s let the facts unfold,” Strange said. “I think right now a write-in candidacy is highly unlikely.”