On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went there in regard to the candidacy of embattled former Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.
“I think he should step aside,” McConnell said of Moore, the Republican Senate nominee who is facing accusations from four women that he pursued relationships with them when they were teenagers – one as young as 14 – and he was in his early 30s. “I believe the women,” McConnell added.
McConnell’s move comes after a weekend that saw a handful of Republicans senators — Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to name two – calling for Moore to leave the race.
The political reality – of Moore and Alabama – is that McConnell’s decision will have approximately zero effect on the Republican Senate nominee’s calculation as to whether to stay in the race or leave it before the December 12 general election.
Indeed, after McConnell’s remarks in Washington, Moore fired back.
“The person who should step aside is @SenateMajLdr Mitch McConnell. He has failed conservatives and must be replaced. #DrainTheSwamp,” Moore tweeted.
Moore has insisted – repeatedly and vociferously – that the charges against him are false and the product of a “fake news” campaign to beat him. He has not explained why four women would go on the record to air these accusations or why more than two dozen corroborating witnesses would also speak to the Washington Post to confirm the story.
In fact, it’s possible that there is nothing anyone not named “Roy Moore” says about the accusations will have any impact on whether or not he can win next month.
But, if there is anyone who can make a difference, it’s President Donald Trump. Trump is extremely popular in Alabama and – despite endorsing Moore’s GOP opponent in the primary and runoff – carries real weight in the state.
Moore ran in the primary promising to support Trump’s in Washington. “Don’t let anyone in the press let you think that because he supported my opponent I do not support him and support his agenda,” Moore said after winning the primary.
So far, however, Trump, who has been traveling in Asia since the news broke, has not been willing to say all that much on Moore.
“I’ve been with you folks so I haven’t gotten to see too much,” Trump said when asked about the allegations against Moore during a press gaggle on a flight in Vietnam over the weekend. “And believe it or not even when I am in Washington and New York I do not watch much television. I know they like to say, people that don’t know me like to say I watch television.”
Pressed on the matter, Trump added: “Honestly, I’d have to look at it and I have to see because again I am dealing with the President of China, the President of Russia. I am dealing with the folks over here so I haven’t devoted, I haven’t been able to devote very much time to it.”
White House advisers have struck a similar tone.
“The President and others in the Republican Party have made clear that if the allegations are true, this man should step aside,” said senior counselor Kellyanne Conway to ABC on Sunday. “But I’ve gone farther than that, and I’ve reflected something the vice president said as well which is everybody should know that conduct is disqualifying. And Mr. Moore has denied that conduct I think you’ve got other people are out there talking about what did or did not happen many years ago.”
“It appears that there is a significant issue here that needs to be addressed,” said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on CBS.
You get the idea. Everyone in Trump’s orbit is in a holding pattern until Trump gets back from Asia on Wednesday – at which point it will become much, much harder for him to say he doesn’t know enough about the Roy Moore situation to offer an opinion.
It’s hard to imagine Trump says nothing about Moore. But, what he will say is harder to predict than you might think.
A typical president – say, George W. Bush – would likely have already issued a call for Moore to withdraw his name from the race due to the seriousness of the accusations and the fact that Moore’s defense has been nothing more extensive than to say this is all “fake news.”
But Trump is no typical president. Trump has actively waged a campaign against the media since he began running for president in June 2015. He has claimed credit for coining the term “fake news.” He identifies with Moore’s outsider persona and vilification of the political establishment – the same establishment who didn’t take Trump seriously and then actively worked to keep the GOP nomination from him in 2016.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist during the campaign and his sort of spirit animal in terms of approach to politics and politicians, remains an active Moore supporter. And Trump may well be once bitten, twice shy when it comes to crossing Moore.
Running counter to Trump’s natural anti-media and anti-establishment instincts is the fact that pressure in Washington – from the likes of McConnell and his ilk – will mount on the President to say something more about Moore from, roughly, the second Air Force One touches down on Wednesday.
It’s possible Trump won’t care about that pressure. But remember that he needs McConnell to carry his tax reform measure over the coming weeks – and he needs the rank and file Republicans in the Senate, many of whom are expressing increasing alarm about Moore, to vote for the package if he wants to have a major legislative accomplishment completed (or close to completed) before 2018 begins.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Trump urges Moore to get out and Moore refuses. But, for Republicans looking for some way out of this slow-motion political car crash, Trump is their last, best hope. And that prospects should scare every establishment Republican out there.