Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

President Trump, back in Washington today after a dozen days abroad, will soon have to make a very tough decision: What is he going to say about Roy Moore?

With Republicans searching for a solution to having an Alabama Senate nominee who is accused of molesting a teenager, Roll Call’s David Hawkings reports that how Trump will address the situation has emerged as a “pivotal question” for the party. Trump has three options. He can side with the GOP establishment and call on Moore to step aside. He can stick to the White House’s previous middle-ground response, by saying Moore should abandon his candidacy only if it’s true that he did what his accusers claim. Or he can side with Moore, though this appears a remote possibility.

The problem is that, because of the peculiarities of this situation, it’s plausible that none of these options will prove a good one.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s latest comments on the mess illustrate the problem. McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “It appears that the only option would be a write-in, and that’s very seldom successful.” McConnell added that the only write-in candidate who might have a chance is former Alabama senator and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions. McConnell also said that if Moore wins, he’ll face an ethics probe, suggesting GOP senators would try to expel him. Bottom line: McConnell, for now, is proceeding on the assumption that Republicans are stuck with Moore and that it’s highly doubtful the write-in option would work.

Enter Trump. Even Sean Hannity said Tuesday night that Moore must “remove any doubt” about the allegations in the next 24 hours or drop out, which suggests Trump may also demand that Moore quit. But this carries risks. The problem is this: Trump and Republicans can’t lose a GOP senator, because it would seriously imperil their agenda — yet the most likely way for Republicans to keep the seat is for Moore to win and subsequently be expelled and replaced on an interim basis by the Alabama governor, who would then set another special election. It remains quite plausible that Moore could win, and McConnell is floating expulsion because he knows this would keep the seat in GOP hands. Some West Wing aides have also floated such an outcome.

But if Trump calls on Moore to step aside, that could make it less likely that Moore wins. It’s one thing for Republicans like McConnell to demand that he quit; Moore can dismiss that as the GOP establishment trying to override the will of Alabama voters, which will only rally his supporters. But if Trump — a fellow ethno-nationalist and warrior against the establishment — calls for him to quit, that could conceivably sap his support or at least dampen turnout, making a loss to Democrat Doug Jones marginally more likely.

What’s more, it’s unclear if Trump could even succeed in pushing Moore out. Trump sided with Moore’s opponent in the primary, and Alabama Republicans appear to be sticking with Moore. Even if Moore did exit, he’d remain on the ballot, and a write-in candidacy would still be tough on Republicans, because some Moore supporters might vote for him anyway or stay home, splitting the GOP vote. It’s possible that if Moore exited, Republicans could try to pull a legal rabbit out of their hat and get him removed from the ballot and the election delayed. But the governor has said she won’t move the election, and this is anything but assured. Amid all this uncertainty, with Moore likely on the ballot no matter what, Trump cannot call on him to exit the race without heightening the risk that he’ll lose — and that Republicans will lose the seat.

Alternatively, Trump can stick to the “if true” middle ground. But that will put the president in the position of refusing to forcefully condemn someone accused of initiating sexual contact with a teenager, and coming on to multiple other teens, which will weaken him further and remind everyone of the allegations that Trump himself engaged in sexual assault, something he boasted of on tape. Indeed, Trump cannot call on Moore to exit without raising questions as to why the charges against Moore are disqualifying while similar ones against him are nothing more than a fabrication created by a conspiracy between liberal elites and the “fake news” media.

In the end, there is a fair bit of poetic justice in Trump being stuck with this particular dilemma. Moore is feeding his voters a similar set of narratives about allegations against him that Trump has fed to his own voters for well over a year now. But Trump cannot call on Moore to step aside without undermining Moore’s efforts to pull the same scam — and putting his own agenda in serious peril.

* GOP FACES NEW PROBLEMS WITH TAX PLAN: The Senate version repeals the individual mandate, which will means millions uninsured, and sunsets the individual tax cuts after 10 years to stay within the deficit window. The Post notes:

Senators concerned about restraining national debt — long one of the top goals for the GOP — may also raise howls about the plan to sunset the individual income tax cuts in 2025. Congress is unlikely to allow a large tax increase on taxpayers at that point, which could mean a big hit to the deficit over the long run.

Either the deficit balloons after 10 years (which could alienate a few GOP deficit hawks) or middle-class taxes go up. This choice is the product of the undying GOP drive to cut corporate taxes.

* MORE DOUBTS RAISED ABOUT MOORE: The New York Times finds that people in Moore’s hometown of Gadsden, Ala., are divided about the charges against him. But there’s also this, from retired domestic violence counselor Delores Abney:

Ms. Abney said she recalled Mr. Moore, the embattled Republican Senate candidate, being a regular presence in the mid-1980s at the Y.M.C.A. There, she said, he was often talking to much younger women — women that “appeared to be high school on up,” she said — in an exercise class she was enrolled in. “I’m not saying he was trying to pick them up. It just did not look appropriate.”

Of course, Abney is a Democrat being quoted by the liberal media, so this will only harden the belief among Moore supporters that he’s being persecuted.

* MOORE COUNTS ON EVANGELICALS TO STICK WITH HIM: With national Republicans trying to force Roy Moore to step aside, Bloomberg Politics watches him campaign at a church:

[Moore] deflected the allegations and tied them to a string of battles he’s fought, including defying federal court rulings that resulted in him being twice removed as chief justice of the Supreme Court. “Obviously I’ve made a few people mad,’’ Moore told the friendly crowd. … Moore is counting on his core message — that the nation needs to “go back to the recognition of God” — to hold his base among evangelical Christians.

Evangelicals stuck with Trump in overwhelming numbers, despite the “Access Hollywood” tape, and the same will probably happen again.

* WHY MOORE COULD STILL WIN: Nate Cohn explains just how conservative a state Alabama remains:

Alabama voted for Mr. Trump by 28 percentage points … The state is deeply polarized by race. Hillary Clinton probably didn’t win even 15 percent of white Alabama voters last year. … its staunchly conservative white voters are particularly tough to persuade. White evangelical Christians represent about half of Alabama’s electorate, according to exit polls, and more than 90 percent of them probably supported Mr. Trump.

On the flip side, Moore won his 2012 statewide campaign for Alabama chief justice by only four points, and he’s now presumably weaker than he was then.

* JONES IS STAYING IN HIS ‘LANE’: The Associated Press reports that Doug Jones isn’t taking the bait on the latest allegations against Moore:

“We’re going to stay in our lane,” Jones told reporters … “There’s still a lot of uncertainty with what’s going on right now,” Jones said Tuesday after a fourth consecutive question about Moore’s struggle. “We’re going to let that play out over there.”

To win, Jones needs Democrats to be unusually energized and Republicans to be substantially less energized, and some moderate Republicans to vote for a Democrat. Hence the careful response.

* AND TRUMP PROMOTES ‘FOX & FRIENDS’ WHILE BASHING CNN: These two Trump tweets, out this morning, are worth viewing side by side:

If things get worse for Trump, his active promotion of news outlets that propagandize on his behalf, combined with the denigration of outlets that practice real journalism, will only escalate.