Senate Republicans turned to President Trump on Wednesday in hopes he would join their urgent attempt to force GOP nominee Roy Moore out of the Senate race in Alabama following allegations of sexual misconduct — but Trump did not oblige.
Instead, back in Washington after a 12-day Asia trip, Trump was silent on Moore, who has been accused by two women of initiating unwanted sexual encounters when Moore was in his 30s and they were 14 and 16. Moore has denied the allegations.
His daughter Ivanka Trump, however, voiced confidence in Moore's accusers and said there is "a special place in hell for people who prey on children" in comments to the Associated Press. She did not call for Moore to step aside.
In Alabama, Moore showed no signs he was preparing to bow out. His campaign sought to discredit one of his previous accusers at a hastily announced afternoon news conference where officials took no questions.
On Twitter, Moore sought to align himself with the president, charging that the same forces that tried to defeat Trump as a presidential candidate in 2016 are now trying to beat Moore with "lies and smears."
Moore said in a statement issued Wednesday night: "Are we at a stage in American politics in which false allegations can overcome a public record of 40 years, stampede the media and politicians to condemn an innocent man, and potentially impact the outcome of an election of national importance?"
His Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, told reporters in Alabama that "the statements made by the women up in Etowah County have much more credibility than the denials, whether by Roy Moore himself or by his handlers."
After days of forcefully repudiating Moore and urging him to withdraw to no avail, Senate Republican leaders increasingly see Trump as pivotal to restoring some order to a race that has spiraled quickly out of their control. Republicans are now at risk of either losing a seat to Democrats that has long been in GOP hands or being saddled with a deeply controversial figure in their ranks.
"I think he's in a position to exercise a good amount of influence on the race down there," Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking Republican senator, said in reference to Trump.
Thune added that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is "of a mind that the president could be influential." McConnell and Trump spoke by phone Wednesday.
Trump did not respond to questions from reporters about Moore after touting his Asia trip at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. The president sidestepped questions about Moore during his travels.
After The Washington Post reported on the first accusations last Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president believes that if the allegations are true, Moore "will do the right thing and step aside."
The White House consented to the Republican National Committee pulling out of a joint fundraising committee with Moore's campaign and, according to one administration official, discussions about Moore's campaign have been ongoing among White House officials since Trump returned from Asia.
But there is consensus among senior White House aides that the president is in a bind. If he publicly calls on him to withdraw and Moore demurs — or, worse for Trump, wins the race nevertheless — the president could suffer another embarrassment in Alabama. Yet continued silence from Trump may not be tenable.
"There are no good options," said one White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
A person close to former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon said that the Breitbart chief believes Moore's denials and still supports him. But Bannon's circle has also made clear that this support hinges on a continued belief that Moore is innocent of any inappropriate relationships with teenagers and could change in the future.
Inside the West Wing, presidential advisers believe that every time McConnell calls on Moore to withdraw, he may be motivating voters in Alabama to, as one official put it, raise a collective middle finger to Washington. Trump's advisers worry that condemnations from the president could only exacerbate the dynamic.
There is another risk for Trump. If he were to say that he believes the women's accusations, as McConnell and others have done, it would raise comparisons with the sexual harassment accusations that he has faced and denied.
This week, Republican senators have been asked about the allegations against Trump, creating discomfort and redirection efforts.
"We're talking about a situation in Alabama," McConnell said Tuesday when asked if he believes the women who have accused Trump. "And I'd be happy to address that."
Still, some Republican senators think that Trump could be helpful in persuading key GOP officials in Alabama to turn on Moore. Many local leaders have defended him, in sharp contrast to the response in Washington.
"He's the head of the party," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "Yeah, it'd probably be good if he'd say something."
On social media, Moore seemed to be lobbying Trump by comparing his situation with what the president faced last year.
"The Republicans and Democrats who did everything they could to stop Donald Trump and elect Hillary Clinton are the very same people who are now trying to take us down with lies and smears," he wrote on Twitter.
At a news conference in Birmingham, Ala., where members of the state GOP were meeting to discuss the race, Moore campaign attorney Phillip Jauregui raised questions about the validity of accusations that Beverly Young Nelson made against Moore this week.
Nelson, now 56, accused Moore 70, of sexually assaulting her and bruising her neck in the late 1970s when she was 16 years old. In a news conference, she showed a copy of her high school yearbook that she said Moore signed on Dec. 22, 1977, with the inscription, "To a sweeter more beautiful girl I could not say 'Merry Christmas.' " It was signed, "Love, Roy Moore D.A."
Pending a review of the yearbook, Jauregui said it was possible that the signature had been copied by a forger. He called for Nelson and her attorney to send the yearbook to a "neutral custodian" so a handwriting expert could inspect it.
Moore, according to Jauregui, had never signed "D.A." after his name, but had an assistant with those initials who would write them in Moore's documents.
On his radio show Wednesday, conservative host Sean Hannity — who had said Tuesday he would call for Moore to quit the race unless he proved the allegations wrong within 24 hours — said the candidate had been smart to ask for a forensics test.
"He's now basically throwing it in the hands of science," Hannity said.
It is too late to remove Moore's name from the ballot in the Dec. 12 special election. But if the state Republican Party were to disqualify him, they could prevent any votes for him from being certified. There have been no signs so far that party officials are willing to do that.
Senate Republican leaders have singled out Attorney General Jeff Sessions as someone who could wage a competitive write-in campaign. But Sessions has shown no public interest in the prospect, and people in his orbit have batted down the idea.
GOP leaders in Washington are increasingly concerned about the limited options before them. The National Republican Senatorial Committee conducted a poll this week showing support weakening, with Moore trailing Jones by 51 percent to 39 percent, according to findings shared by a Republican familiar with the survey. The survey was conducted Nov. 12-13 among 500 registered voters reached by live interviews on landline and mobile phones.
The Post reported last week that Leigh Corfman alleged that Moore initiated a sexual encounter with her when she was 14 and he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney. Moore has denied the accusation.
In addition, several other women interviewed by The Post in recent weeks said Moore pursued them when they were teenagers and young women and he was in his early 30s, episodes they said they found flattering at the time but troubling as they got older. None of the three women said Moore forced them into any sort of relationship or sexual contact.
Anne Gearan, Michael Scherer and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.