Donald Trump tore up yet another page in the Republican rule book this week with his full-throated re-endorsement of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, giving political cover to a man accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, including one who says he touched her when she was 14.
Many Republican leaders followed him — or didn't protest. The Republican National Committee, which withdrew support three weeks ago with Trump's consent, is now helping the campaign again. Even Senate leaders, among the strongest voices calling for Moore to step away from the race, dealt with the strategy shift with quiet resignation.
Now, what seemed unthinkable just a month ago falls squarely within the realm of possibilities: Moore, if he wins Tuesday's election, could arrive in Washington in good standing with the White House — and as a force to be reckoned with in a wary Senate.
"We don't want to have a liberal Democrat in Alabama, believe me," Trump said Tuesday, when asked why he had reversed his decision to let the party cut ties with Moore.
Trump's willingness to buck some of the conventions of politics has challenged many of his GOP brethren's instincts. From the "Access Hollywood" tape in which Trump boasted of sexual assault to the daily controversies promoted with presidential tweets, they find their own views drowned out and sometimes contradicted by Trump's unexpected responses in the political arena.
In the case of Moore, Trump saw an opportunity to help push Moore to victory, and he worried he would probably take blame if Moore lost. He also didn't like the idea of backing Moore less than wholeheartedly, according to aides.
"Trump sees the vote as important," says Chris Ruddy, a longtime friend of Trump's, who speaks with him regularly. "He also doesn't like the media jihad against Moore, with accusations dropped just a few weeks before the election. Trump certainly doesn't like it because he was victimized by it in his mind."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has called for Moore to leave the race, said Tuesday that he has had "no change of heart" on Moore, did not expect the National Republican Senatorial Committee to reestablish ties with Moore and still predicted an immediate Ethics Committee investigation if Moore is elected, to look into the misconduct allegations. But McConnell also refused to comment on Trump's decision to direct the national party to reestablish ties.
Several of McConnell's colleagues also did their best to dodge questions about Trump's judgment. "Doesn't really matter what I think at this point, right?" Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said when asked about the decision.
"I'm not going to try to run the RNC," Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she would not endorse Moore. "The president's going to do what the president's going to do," she said.
The only Republicans actively opposing the president's moves find themselves on the margins. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney warned Monday that Moore in the Senate would "be a stain on the GOP and on the nation." Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has announced he will not run for reelection, wrote a $100 check to Democrat Doug Jones, Moore's opponent. "Country over party," Flake wrote on the check.
For the White House, the general Republican deference is welcome. One lesson for the Trump team from the 2016 presidential campaign was that the voting public put less stock in questions of personal conduct than many in the political class expected. "There's a difference for voters between what offends you and what affects you," explained Kellyanne Conway, Trump's campaign manager who is now counselor to the president.
Moore has denied the allegations of sexual misconduct and giving alcohol to minors, who say they dated him in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was in his 30s. Moore has allowed for the possibility that he dated teenagers older than 16 at the time, though he says he does not remember those relationships.
In late November, RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel called the allegations against Moore "very concerning." On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump continues to feel the same way. "[He] didn't say they were lying," Sanders said of the accusers. "The president's position hasn't changed — still finds those concerning."
Democrats plan on testing the political wisdom of this position in the 2018 midterm elections. They hope to use the party's embrace of Moore as a weapon in other races around the country, much like Democrats pummeled Republicans for the ill-informed comments about rape and pregnancy by Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin in 2012.
"Whether he wins or loses, Republicans own him, and we are going to make sure the public knows that for the next year," said Joshua Karp, a spokesman for American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC that has taken out digital ads tying Senate candidates in Ohio, Arizona and Nevada to Moore. "Roy Moore is going to be a constant thorn in the side of Republican candidates in 2018."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Tuesday attempted to broaden the ramification of Trump's decision to endorse Moore. "Speaker Ryan must unequivocally disavow the RNC and refuse the support of the Committee in 2018," said Tyler Law, a spokesman for the DNC. "Any organization that spends money to elect child molesters has no place in the political process." Ryan did not respond.
For months, Republican leaders have employed similar tactics of trying to tie the Democratic brand to officials who have been accused of misconduct. Republican House leaders have demanded that Democrats return donations to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who was accused of groping a woman while she slept.
McDaniel has called on Democrats to return all donations from Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of assaulting and harassing dozens of women. "If Democrats and the DNC truly stand up for women like they say they do, then returning this dirty money should be a no-brainer," McDaniel said in October.
Democrats' ability to counterattack Republicans over Moore may be hampered by the sexual harassment scandals in their own ranks. On Tuesday, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) resigned from office, following a series of accusations, while a once-rising star, Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) continued to resist Democratic leadership calls for his resignation after an accusation against him.
In Alabama, Democratic nominee Jones took a tougher tone Tuesday over the allegations against Moore. Jones praised the "nine courageous women" for sharing their credible stories about Moore's conduct and behavior. "I believe these women and so should you," he said to applause at a campaign event in Birmingham. Men who "hurt little girls should go to jail, not the United States Senate," he added.
With a week to go before the Dec. 12 special election in Alabama, the RNC transferred $170,000 to the Alabama Republican Party on Tuesday, according to a Republican official, though there was no public announcement of how the money would be spent. When the group pulled out in November, it ended contracts with 14 paid staff on the ground, and at least one of those people has since moved to a different state to work on another race. "It is somewhat difficult to get the gang back together, so to speak," said David Pinkleton, who lost his part-time job as an RNC organizer. He said Tuesday that he had not yet heard from the party about being rehired.
Alabama Republicans had been working to make up the difference and were quick to capitalize on Trump's position. In a piece of direct mail that went out last week, the Alabama Republican Party prominently featured Trump's Nov. 26 tweet that labeled Jones a "Schumer/Pelosi puppet who is weak on crime, weak on the border, bad for our military and our great vets."
But there's evidence that the Republican campaign has been missing some beats. The direct mail piece was shared with The Washington Post by two Alabamians who regularly vote Democratic. Jones has largely owned the airwaves since mid-November, with his campaign and the allied Highway 31 super PAC outspending Moore by a 10 to 1 margin. Even in rural areas where Moore has run strongly in the past, there's little visible evidence of support. In larger cities where Jones is trying to maximize votes, lawn signs and billboards for the Democrat are hard to miss.
"Jones has been running a 2017 campaign; Moore has been running a 1957 campaign, on a shoestring," said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster whose firm is working on the race for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "If the RNC is going to commit resources and expertise to drag Moore across the finish line, that matters. For the final six, seven days of the campaign, he'll have some traditional resources."
The most visible impact of new Republican support might come on the airwaves. The Great America PAC, aligned with former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, and the Trump-aligned America First Policies together have suggested they will spend $1.5 million on the race, cutting Jones's advantage. People familiar with the ads say they will probably highlight Jones's support for abortion rights, and echo Trump with the claim that Jones is soft on illegal immigration.
At a Tuesday night rally in Fairhope, Ala., at a picnic venue where Moore and Bannon held their final pre-primary rally, Bannon made fun of Flake's $100 donation to Jones and said voters could deliver a blow to "globalists" by defeating the Democrats and the media.
"If they can destroy Roy Moore, they can destroy you," Bannon said. "They're trying to send a signal to every young man, woman and child in this country that if they try to stand up for their people, they'll be destroyed."
Bannon also lit into Romney for criticizing Moore, saying the 2012 GOP nominee for president had dodged service in Vietnam while Moore served honorably.
"You hid behind your religion," Bannon said of Romney, who belongs to the Mormon faith. "You went to France to be a missionary while guys were dying in rice paddies."
Back in Washington, allies of McConnell have taken to sizing up the Alabama race with cold stoicism. "It is what it is," they say.
They have defended McConnell's largely unsuccessful navigation of the race, insisting he did all he could, by setting a methodical plan in motion to reject Moore, attempt to inoculate the party from the allegations and come up with last-ditch ways to field alternative candidates.
But he was unable to force Moore to step aside. Now, with Trump driving party strategy, McConnell stands to suffer politically more than most other Republicans. Not only has he witnessed his political influence wane, but if Moore wins, McConnell will also have to deal with a rogue lawmaker in his ranks armed with a powerful alliance with Trump and determined to dislodge him from power.
Philip Rucker in Washington and Robert Costa in Birmingham, Ala., contributed to this report. Weigel reported from Montgomery, Ala.