Republican lawmakers are split on whether Roy Moore, the embattled Alabama Republican, should continue his run for Senate given allegations against him. (Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

THE MORNING PLUM:

Top White House officials have now made President Trump’s position on Roy Moore absolutely clear: Trump does not believe that the allegations that Moore initiated sexual contact with a 14-year-old — and pursued three other teenagers — should disqualify him from becoming a U.S. senator.

This is not how they presented their position, of course. On the Sunday shows, legislative director Marc Short and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway both expressed great shock and horror over the charges. But then each of them carefully carved out a position that appears designed to allow Moore to continue with his run for Senate largely unobstructed and, ultimately, to accept Moore as a senator if he wins, while letting the allegations fade away in a fog of he-said-she-said uncertainty.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Short claimed “there’s a special place in hell” for such sexual predators and said that “no Senate seat” is “more important than the notion of child pedophilia.” But then Short said the White House would object to seating him as a senator only “if more evidence comes out that can prove that he did this,” while adding that this is “a huge if,” because “more facts” could still “come out.” Said Short: “We have to afford him the chance to defend himself.”

On ABC’s “This Week,” Conway similarly denounced the alleged conduct, in the abstract, as disqualifying. But she also adopted the “if true” formulation, saying: “If the allegations are true, he should step aside,” while adding that “he has denied the allegations” and that “both sides are alleging different things.” Many other Republicans, though not all, have adopted a similar rhetorical tack.

To understand the real game here, note two other key developments in this story. First, Mitch McConnell was asked directly by the New York Times whether he would refuse to seat Moore if he won, and refused to say:

In an interview, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, declined to say whether he would agree to seat Mr. Moore should he win.

Second, Axios reports that Breitbart, which is run by former Trump adviser and current Moore booster Stephen K. Bannon, has sent two reporters to Alabama to discredit The Post’s reporting on Moore. As Axios’s Jonathan Swan notes, the first big Breitbart story along these lines — which seizes on an inconsequential detail in accuser Leigh Corfman’s story — doesn’t discredit her claims in the least.

Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore threatened to sue The Washington Post over a report that Moore initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was 32. (Judge Roy Moore for U.S. Senate/Facebook)

The crucial point here is that the goal of establishing more facts to enable a more informed judgment in this dispute — whether voiced by White House advisers who say Moore deserves a chance to present evidence in his favor, or by Breitbart operatives who are doing their own “reporting” on the story — is the exact opposite of the real aim. Rather, the point is to confuse people about what happened and dissuade them from bringing their own judgment to bear on the known facts.

After all, is there any evidence, short of a Moore confession or video proof of Moore’s actions, that would be sufficient to persuade White House officials and Republicans to decide that Moore has been disqualified? The original Post story was based on interviews with more than 30 people who said they knew Moore over the decades, and The Post reported that none of the women knew each other or sought out the paper’s reporters. Corfman’s family stands by the story. If this isn’t enough, what would be?

Indeed, in light of these facts, a few Republicans (such as John McCain) have declared that the existence of the accusations is itself disqualifying, or (as Mitt Romney has explicitly put it) that they believe Moore’s accusers. This is an election, not a court of law, and they have concluded Moore should step aside — based on a judgment as to whose account is the more credible one. Making such a judgment is precisely the step that the White House and Republicans in the “if true” camp are trying to discourage.

To be sure, White House officials and “if true” Republicans are no doubt personally horrified by Moore’s alleged conduct, and if they could have their way, they surely would prefer another candidate. But Republicans may be stuck with Moore — he is not going to step aside, and there is no apparent legal way to dislodge him from the ballot. Faced with this problem, the current White House and GOP posture is designed to carve out a way to preserve this Senate seat for Republicans, in spite of their own personal abhorrence at Moore’s conduct and preference for an alternative.

Residents of Gadsden, Ala., Roy Moore's hometown, have mixed feelings about the sexual misconduct allegations against the Republican Senate nominee. (The Washington Post)

Losing a Senate seat would deal a severe blow to GOP hopes of passing any major agenda items, particularly huge tax cuts on the rich and corporations, which Republicans themselves say is key to holding their majorities. The failure to unambiguously condemn Moore means less elite signaling that could turn moderate GOP voters against him — and allows space for the Breitbart fog machine to dissuade voters from deciding they believe the charges — making a Moore victory more likely. It also preserves a rhetorical frame in which any failure of still more incriminating evidence to surface conveniently supports the notion that the charges, in and of themselves, are not disqualifying. Republicans will then be able to accept Moore as a senator — with professed deep reservations, of course, but also with a kind of “we can’t ever know the truth” shrug. And any such carefully cultivated uncertainty could also help minimize any taint that outcome might bring to the party heading into 2018.

The White House and Republicans can, of course, prove all of this wrong, by declaring Moore unfit for office, or by supporting procedural moves to keep him out of the Senate. (Let’s not forget that Moore was removed from the bench for placing God’s law above U.S. law, believes homosexuality should be illegal, and said Rep. Keith Ellison’s Muslim faith might disqualify him.) But the most likely outcome is that no matter what does surface, it will not be enough to puncture the “if true” rhetorical shield.

Update: McConnell has now called on Moore to step aside from the race, declaring: “I believe the women.” That is a good development, and a clear break with the previous strategy. The question now is what McConnell and other top Republicans are prepared to actually do about Moore’s candidacy — and what steps they’re ready to take to prevent Moore from serving in the Senate if he wins.

* ALABAMA REPUBLICANS STAND BY ROY MOORE: NBC News talked to more than 15 Republican voters in Alabama and found none are changing their vote:

Most said they didn’t believe the allegations and some said even if they are true, that wouldn’t sway their vote for him next month because they think Moore is a good man … a man who declined to give his name said, “This is Republican town, man. [Moore] could have killed Obama, and we wouldn’t care.”

* ROY MOORE ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE: There has been some talk about whether Trump and Republicans might push Roy Moore out of the race or whether the governor might reschedule this special election. ABC News reports that neither is likely:

When asked on Sunday night whether Moore would step aside if President Trump were to ask him to, Moore’s senior campaign adviser Brett Doster said: “No. Nothing is getting him out. He’s not going anywhere.” … Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said on Sunday that she “is not considering and has no plans to move the special election for U.S. Senate,” scheduled for Dec. 12.

Meanwhile, election law expert Rick Hasen explains why it would likely be unconstitutional to reschedule or cancel the election — and why it would set a terrible precedent.

* A TIMELINE OF TRUMP CAMPAIGN CONTACTS WITH RUSSIANS: Post fact checker Meg Kelly offers a comprehensive video rundown of all the times that Trump campaign officials met or corresponded with Russians during the campaign. Summary:

Despite denials from the campaign and the White House, it’s now clear that members of the Trump campaign corresponded or met with Russians at least 30 times throughout the campaign. Knowledge of these communications went to the highest levels of Donald Trump’s operation — both Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort, two of the campaign’s three managers, were aware of it.

It’s also worth remembering that this represents only what is known by the media — it is likely that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators know a lot more than we do.

* GERRYMANDERING REMAINS BIG OBSTACLE FOR DEMOCRATS: The New York Times points out how the big Democratic win in Virginia actually demonstrates the structural disadvantages they face going forward:

While Democrats won the governorship by nearly nine percentage points and won a similar margin in total votes in legislative races, it appears likely … that they will fall just short of taking control of the state’s heavily gerrymandered House of Delegates. … “If Democrats win 52, 53, 54 percent of the national House vote, we’re likely to see Republicans hold onto control,” Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a University of Chicago law professor and an expert on gerrymanders, said in an interview.

And so, to take back the House next year, Democrats will need a true wave to breach that fortress Republicans have created.

* REPUBLICANS GIRD FOR BRUTAL MIDTERM BATTLE: The Washington Examiner reports that Republicans believe last week’s losses signal a brutally tough fight in 2018:

Party leaders are imploring all members, regardless of how safely drawn their seat is, to gird for a tough re-election battle. Start running early, raise money, spend time cultivating and maintaining relationships in the district and make sure constituent services operations are top notch. Yet, the most important part of the Republicans’ survival strategy to overcome the Trump drag is to produce on Capitol Hill, a task that has proven difficult.

Naturally, they will all conclude their best hope for staving off big losses under the unpopular Trump is to pass big tax cuts for the rich and corporations.

* DEMOCRATS MUST HAMMER TRUMP OVER TAX PLAN: E.J. Dionne Jr. makes the case that after their big wins last week, Democrats must seize on the GOP tax plan to expose Trump as the fraud he is:

He needs to be exposed as a fraud whenever he says he has the backs of the “forgotten men and women” whose living standards have been shattered in the new economy. … [The GOP tax bills] advantage certain kinds of extremely rich people over Americans who work for salaries and wages … Republicans … won’t think of asking Trump to release his tax returns so we can know how many benefits he might sign into law for himself.

This last point has vanished from the discussion, but it remains important that Republicans are doing nothing to prod Trump to reveal how these tax cuts benefit him and his family.

* AND TRUMP HAS NOT MADE COAL GREAT AGAIN: Trump promised to bring those coal jobs roaring back, but Reuters surveys the industry and finds that it just isn’t happening:

A Reuters review of mining data shows an industry that has seen only modest gains in jobs and production this year — much of it from a temporary uptick in foreign demand for U.S. coal rather than presidential policy changes. U.S. utilities are shutting coal-fired power plants at a rapid pace and shifting to cheap natural gas, along with wind and solar power.

As one energy company official put it: “We’re not planning to build any additional coal facilities.” But those massive corporate tax cuts will shower coal country with prosperity, right?