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How Trump came around to an accused child molester

Mitch McConnell had publicly disavowed Roy Moore when the Senate majority leader received one of several phone calls from President Donald Trump. McConnell wanted Trump’s help to push Moore out of the Alabama Senate race after he’d been accused of harassing or molesting teenage girls.

Instead, the president’s response left the straight-laced McConnell aghast.

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Trump, according to three sources briefed on the discussions, cast doubt on the claims leveled by Moore’s accusers. Who were these women, he asked, and why had they kept quiet for 40 years only to level charges weeks before an election?

Trump’s sentiment — he has also complained privately that the avalanche of charges taking down prominent men is spinning out of control — helps explain the president’s evolving attitude toward Moore over the past three weeks, when he has gone from uncharacteristic silence to a full-throated endorsement of the controversial candidate. The shift has benefited both men, helping the scandal-tarred Moore bounce back from what looked like a probable defeat to become a slight favorite in Tuesday’s special election — and offering the president a chance to claim credit if Moore ekes out a win.

Trump capped his endorsement at a Friday night rally in Pensacola, Florida, just 20 miles from the Alabama border. It was designed to be a crafty sleight-of-hand — a way for Trump to help Moore without venturing directly into Alabama. But by the time Air Force One touched down in the Florida Panhandle, a person close to Trump said, he might as well have been in Mobile or Birmingham. He was all in for the accused child molester.

White House aides advised the president against getting involved in the contest, and his endorsement is a testament to the futility of trying to guide a boss guided by instinct who relishes taunting the political establishment he now runs. That includes not just McConnell but members of his own staff and even his daughter Ivanka, whose harsh words for Moore worked only to push the president in the opposite direction.

In the midst of a two-week swing through Asia when the accusations first dropped, Trump was inherently sympathetic to Moore, an outsider whom the Republican establishment had left for dead. McConnell and Cory Gardner, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had called already called on him to step aside, and were threatening to expel him from the Senate if he were elected. Both the Republican National Committee and the NRSC severed ties with the Moore campaign.

Trump had experienced a similar desertion in the summer of 2016 when the infamous “Access Hollywood” take surfaced. He was angered to see the same establishment figures now ditching Moore.

“The president didn’t want to drop him like a hot potato to begin with,” said a senior White House aide.

At the same time, Trump has publicly praised women for speaking up about sexual harassment. The reckoning with the issue that the country is going through, he has said, is a good thing. “I think it’s very, very good for women, and I’m very happy a lot of these things are coming out,” he said in late November.

It was Moore’s appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Nov. 10, the day after The Washington Post reported that Moore had pursued several teenage girls, including a 14-year-old, while in his 30s, that caused Trump to question his stance. On Fox News, the former state Supreme Court justice would not deny the charges unequivocally.

“If we did go out on dates, then we did,” Moore said of one of his accusers, Debbie Wesson Gibson, who was 17 at the time. “But I do not remember that.”

From Vietnam, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement later that day. The president believes that “if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside,” she said.

For a week, the White House resisted entreaties from McConnell and his aides, who were desperate for the president to make a public statement calling on Moore to step aside. But Vice President Mike Pence, who was the point of contact with Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, along with his chief of staff, Nick Ayers, and political director Bill Stepien, viewed all of the prospective solutions offered by McConnell as wildly implausible. One option was a write-in candidacy by former Sen. Jeff Sessions, who triggered the special election in the first place when he was appointed attorney general.

Ivey, who spoke with Pence at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Austin, Texas, could have thrown Republicans a lifeline by postponing the election. But she refused to budge. During one phone call with Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, Ivey said the election would be on Tuesday, Dec. 12, period.

The White House was firm in its view that it was up to Alabama voters to decide the Moore matter — a line that McConnell would be forced to grudgingly adopt. Trump has always had contempt for McConnell, with whom he has feuded both publicly and privately, but that attitude spread through the White House political operation as McConnell and his team proposed Hail Mary options.

If anything, the Trump advisers came to believe, the Republican leader was hurting his own cause. Alabamians didn’t like being told what to do by outsiders.

Doug Jones is pictured. | Getty Images

McConnell ultimately came around to the White House’s position the week before the election, saying on ABC’s “This Week” that it was up to people in the state to decide the election. But, McConnell added, as he had said previously, that Moore would face an ethics inquiry if he wins.

“There’s been no change of heart” on Moore, McConnell told reporters last week. “I had hoped earlier he would withdraw as a candidate. That obviously is not going to happen. If he were to be elected, he would immediately have an Ethics Committee case, and the committee would take a look at the situation and give us advice.”

Two factors nudged the president from private sympathy to public cheerleading for the besieged candidate that would eventually draw the RNC, which had severed ties with Moore, back into the race.

The first was a perceived pile-on against Moore from his own advisers that left the president resentful and angry. His daughter Ivanka Trump told The Associated Press in mid-November that “there’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children.” She was repeating a statement from the White House’s legislative director, Marc Short, who used the same phrase days earlier in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd.

At the same time, the president had been asking aides for polling on the race, and Moore’s numbers began to bounce back. That meant a chance for Trump to claim credit for Moore’s comeback — and to redeem what he considered his mistaken and embarrassing endorsement of Moore’s primary opponent, Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed in February to temporarily fill the seat.

While both private and public polling showed Moore trailing Jones by as much as 8 points shortly after the publication of the Post story, by Nov. 21 surveys showed them running even.

“Moore was making a pretty strong comeback,” said Brian Walsh, president of the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, which has spent more than $ 500,000 on the race, according to public filings.

Trump had been privately airing doubts about the veracity of Moore’s accusers. But it was the same day the first public poll showed Moore bouncing back that Trump for the first time spoke up in his defense — though he stopped short of an official endorsement.

Roy Moore is pictured. | AP Photo

“Let me just tell you, Roy Moore denies it. That’s all I can say. He denies it. And, by the way, he totally denies it,” Trump told reporters as he prepared to board Air Force One for Mar-a-Lago for the Thanksgiving holiday. “He says it didn’t happen. And, you know, you have to listen to him also. You’re talking about, he said 40 years ago this did not happen.”

The precarious fate of Republican tax legislation, which passed the Senate 51-49 in early December, also weighed on him. It was a real-time reminder of the potentially grave consequences of losing even one Republican vote in the upper chamber. The president is conscious of the thin margin in the Senate as he looks to sign other legislation in the new year on issues including infrastructure and immigration.

“This was a clinical decision. It’s not an easy choice to give up a Senate seat that’s up in 2020,” Walsh said.

The president’s sentiments eventually pulled the RNC back into the race, a decision that has sparked blowback from some of its most prominent donors. A week after White House chief of staff John Kelly and White House political director Bill Stepien sat down with RNC chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel to discuss the race, the committee began funding Moore’s campaign again.

Since then, McDaniel has heard from donors infuriated by the move. At a dinner last week for nearly four dozen GOP donors, host Bobbie Kilberg, a well-connected Virginia Republican, told her — before the assembled crowd — that she opposed the decision.

“There are some things that are more important than a vote in the Senate,” Kilberg said in an interview. “Some things are more important, such as what the party stands for.”

Of McDaniel, Kilberg added, “She disagreed. She felt it was her responsibility as chairman of the party, in agreement with the entire Alabama delegation in the House and Senate, and the Alabama RNC delegation,” to help fund Moore’s campaign.

McDaniel herself has privately expressed unhappiness about investing on Moore’s behalf and felt blindsided by Trump’s decision to fully endorse him, said two people familiar with her thinking. But she feels she had little choice. The RNC, she has said, is the president’s de facto political arm.

Senate Republicans, many of whom have withdrawn their support for Moore, were muted. During a closed-door GOP Conference meeting last week, the Alabama race never came up, said two senators who were present.

The president’s personal skepticism about the allegations leveled by Moore’s accusers burst into public view in Pensacola. He gloated about a recent development: One of the women, Beverly Young Nelson, admitted that she had added a date and location to a yearbook inscription she said Moore wrote to her when she was 17.

“So, did you see what happened today? You know, the yearbook? There was a little mistake made,” Trump said.

White House officials pointed to the first line of the president’s official statement on the controversy, issued from Asia in mid-November, suggesting that it reflected his belief about the matter and that — as such — his position hasn’t evolved much.

“Like most Americans,” that statement said, “the president believes we cannot allow a mere allegation, in this case one from many years ago, to destroy a person’s life.”

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