WASHINGTON -- Amid a growing number of sexual harassment allegations against Roy Moore, White House officials tried to walk a fine line Sunday -- acknowledging the seriousness of the allegations without outright calling for the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama to step down.
Nine women have accused Moore of a variety of inappropriate conduct, including pursuing them when they were teenagers, groping and assault.
President Donald Trump has not tweeted or spoken publicly about Moore since The Washington Post first reported on the accusations against the candidate. His sole comment on the subject came through White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said earlier this month that Trump believes that "if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside." Later, Trump told reporters, "I'll stick with my statement for now, but I'll have further comment as we go down the road."
On Sunday, asked about why the president has not condemned Moore, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told NBC's Andrea Mitchell on Meet the Press that Trump had "serious concerns" about Moore, but that Alabamians should decide Moore's race against Democrat Doug Jones, a former prosecutor.
Trump's reaction stands in stark contrast to his tweets about Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., which came within hours of Franken's acknowledgment of sexual misconduct toward Los Angeles radio host Leann Tweeden years ago.
When asked why there was such a different response, Mulvaney said, "Franken admits it, and Roy Moore denies it."
"Do you believe that the women who have come out against Roy Moore are credible?" Mitchell asked.
"I believe they're credible. I don't know who to believe," Mulvaney said.
"But if they're credible, why wouldn't you believe them?" Mitchell asked.
"Andrea, I run the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C." Mulvaney replied, suggesting that neither he nor a Washington journalist like Mitchell could judge the situation from 700 miles away.
"Some of the stories were brought out by Alabama journalists," Mitchell pointed out.
Mulvaney repeated himself: "Folks who vote in the Alabama election can ultimately decide."
On ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short said that "obviously if [Trump] did not believe that the women's accusations were credible, he would be down campaigning for Roy Moore."
But Short said Trump also had questions about allegations that were "38 years old" and virtually unprovable. "Roy Moore has been a public servant for decades in Alabama. He has run multiple times. The people of Alabama know best what to do and the right decision to make here," he said.
Before the allegations emerged, Trump had backed current GOP Sen. Luther Strange in the Sept. 26 primary to determine Attorney General Jeff Sessions' successor, and the president campaigned in the state, a Republican stronghold.
After Moore's victory, Trump made clear that he would back the anti-establishment candidate enthusiastically promoted by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Short, pressed repeatedly about whether Trump still supported Moore, said: "I don't think you have seen him issue an endorsement. You have not seen him issue robocalls." Short added, "I think you can infer by the fact that he has not gone down to support Roy Moore his discomfort in doing so."
Moore has forcefully denied the charges as "unsubstantiated" and "fake" even as more women have come forward to make complaints of sexual improprieties. Two women by name have said Moore molested them in the 1970s, when one was 14 and the other 16 and he was a local district attorney in his 30s, and three others said he pursued romantic relationships with them around the same time.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are among the many national Republicans who have urged Moore to step aside.
"I hope that the voters of Alabama choose not to elect him," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Sunday. "I don't know Doug Jones at all, but I've never supported Roy Moore. And I hope that he does not end up being in the United States Senate."
On Sunday, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., added his name to the list of Republicans calling for Moore to drop out of the race.
In an interview on Fox News Sunday, Scott said that "it is in the best interest of the country, as well as the state of Alabama, from my perspective, for Roy Moore to find something else to do." Scott said he thinks there was "a strong possibility with a new candidate, a new Republican candidate, a proven conservative, that we can win that race."
Moore's candidacy has left GOP officials in a bind, especially after Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said she will not postpone the election and will vote for Moore. The Alabama Republican Party has also thrown its support behind Moore, fearful of angering his supporters.
Voters like Larry Gibbs are putting their confidence in the Vietnam veteran long known as the "Ten Commandments judge," for putting shrines to the commandments in his courtroom and then in the Supreme Court rotunda.
"He comes up here to the church, and he's quoting Scripture and he relates to us," Gibbs said.
Even a relative of one of Moore's accusers is publicly siding with Moore.
"He fought like hell to keep the Ten Commandments in the damn courthouse," said a Facebook live video by Darrel Nelson. Nelson said his father, John Alan Nelson, is married to Beverly Young Nelson, who publicly accused Moore of sexually assaulting her as a teen.
Nelson's lawyer, Gloria Allred, refused comment on any relationship between her client and Darrel Nelson.
A Moore victory would leave GOP senators with a colleague some see as a troubling liability heading into the 2018 congressional elections.
McConnell has said Moore would almost certainly face a formal ethics complaint in the Senate if he were elected. Such an ethics complaint could lead to a Senate vote on expelling him.
Information for this article was contributed by Sarah Kaplan of The Washington Post and by Hope Yen, Jay Reeves and Johnny Clark of The Associated Press.
A Section on 11/20/2017
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