A day after Senate Republicans tried to buy some time amid the allegation that Alabama's GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore had initiated sexual contact with a 14-year-old when he was 32, the last two GOP presidential nominees pulled them in opposite directions.
While President Trump cast increasing doubt on the accusations, Mitt Romney issued a strong statement that puts pressure on other Republicans to denounce Moore.
In a written statement delivered by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump joined in the Senate GOP's he-should-drop-out-if-it's-true chorus, but also noticeably upped the doubt factor as to whether the accusations are true.
“Like most Americans, the president believes that we cannot allow a mere allegation — in this case, one from many years ago — to destroy a person's life,” Sanders said. “However, the president also believes that if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside.”
Two parts of that stand out: The words “mere allegation” and “one from many years ago.” Up front — and unlike the reactions from Senate Republicans — Trump decided he would like to stress that these accusations might not be true. This is perhaps understandable and to be expected from another politician who has been accused of sexual misconduct and strenuously denied it.
Given that Trump called his own accusers liars during the 2016 campaign, it stands to reason that he might think that Moore's accusers are also liars. Indeed, it would be somewhat odd if Trump took these accusations to be true and called on Moore to drop out, given his own responses to allegations against him and his own decision to avoid calls to drop out. Trump also defended Bill O'Reilly against sexual harassment claims, saying he didn't think the former Fox News host “did anything wrong.” O'Reilly settled one of those claims for $32 million.
But Trump's comments also are in stark contrast to the previous Republican presidential nominee, Romney, who tweeted Friday morning that the GOP shouldn't bother with reasonable doubt and said Moore should drop out now.
Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections. I believe Leigh Corfman. Her account is too serious to ignore. Moore is unfit for office and should step aside.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) November 10, 2017
It's not clear that Romney's tweet is a direct response to the president or even just to the Senate Republicans who have decided to withhold final judgment on all of this. While those Republicans have said Moore should drop out if the allegations are true, Moore seems bent on denying them to the end, and it's very unlikely we'll ever have definitive proof of a decades-old encounter between two people. In other words, Senate Republicans' comments don't seem all that likely to force Moore out.
But buying time is about all these comments did. At some point (and soon, given that the election is a little more than a month away), Republicans are going to have to decide whether to line up with Trump or with Romney — whether to grant Moore the reasonable doubt that Trump emphasizes or to decide that reasonable doubt need not apply here.
As James Hohmann notes in today's Daily 202, the Alabama Republican Party holds the power to boot Moore from the race and spur a write-in campaign to hold the seat for Republicans. But those same Alabama Republicans seem to be standing behind Moore. Unless and until the Senate GOP and the GOP establishment decides it is going to force the issue more than it did Thursday, it seems unlikely they'll ever get any resolution besides Moore finishing the race.