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11.20.17 5:07 PM ET
In the span of a single week, the White House and President Donald Trump’s top allies have gone from laying the groundwork to ditch Roy Moore—accused of, among other things, sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl—to laying the groundwork to celebrate his possible victory next month.
The shift has been evident in the White House’s messaging on Alabama Senate race, which on Monday centered on warning against the election of his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones. And it reflects a frantic effort behind the scenes to lobby the president not to go wobbly on the Republican candidate, who faces sexual assault and harassment allegations from nine women, some of whom were as young as 14 when the alleged incidents took place.
Multiple sources in and out of the West Wing say that some of Trump’s closest advisers have recommended that he not criticize Moore publicly prior to the election in November. Among those privately encouraging him to stay mum have been Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor and former campaign manager, and Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and current Breitbart chairman.
According to two sources—one a White House official and the other a Republican source close to both the White House and Bannon—Bannon has spoken multiple times on the phone to President Trump since late last week. At least one of those calls was devoted to discouraging the president from rejecting or criticizing Moore in public statements.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, Bannon himself had started to waver and have second thoughts in the wake of a torrent of assault allegations against the former state supreme court chief justice. After days of consideration—during which The Drudge Report knocked Bannon and labeled the candidate “Judge Whore”—and after consulting with his inner circle, Bannon ultimately decided to redouble his support for Moore, rather than be portrayed as caving to the establishment Republicans he loathes.
As part of that renewed effort, Bannon also made entreaties to other prominent Moore allies, such as Fox News host Sean Hannity, who was publicly voicing doubts about Moore’s candidacy. Hannity later walked back his threat to withdraw his support from Moore’s candidacy. Hannity did not respond to a request for comment.
The advice President Trump received simply reinforced his own preferences with respect to the race. Trump hasn’t been eager to publicly weigh in on Moore, in part due to the fact that doing so would immediately open him up to questions about the onrush of sexual harassment and assault allegations he faced shortly before his own election. The official position of the White House is that all of the president’s many female accusers are lying.
Last week, Trump’s top aides were actively trying to figure out the best way for the president to disentangle himself from the toxicity of Moore, a candidate Trump previously praised. At the time, two White House officials told The Daily Beast that it was unclear how Trump and his team would eventually proceed, though campaigning with Moore or formally endorsing his campaign were off the table.
Eventually, the president announced, through press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, that Moore should step aside from the race—if the allegations were true. Senior White House staffers were even more harsh.
“I think there’s a special place in hell for those who actually perpetrate these crimes,” said White House legislative affairs director Marc Short in an interview last week. “And I think Roy Moore has to do more explaining than he has done so far.”
“There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children,” said Ivanka Trump, mirroring Short’s language, in an interview with the Associated Press. “I’ve yet to see a valid explanation and I have no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts.”
“Whatever the facts end up being,” Conway said last week, “the premises, of course, the principle, the incontrovertible principle, is that there is no Senate seat worth more than a child. And we all want to put that forward.”
Since then, however, the White House’s communications strategy has shifted to a Moore-friendly stance. Days after saying a Senate seat wasn’t more valuable than a child, Conway was emphasizing the opposite.
“I’m telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through,” she said, when asked on Fox and Friends on Monday morning if she believed people should vote for Moore. She went on to stress the importance of GOP votes in the Senate, and the threat Jones posed to Trump and the Republican agenda.
Short, too, softened his position. He suggested both that the president believes the allegations against Moore, but that he should remain in the race, in an interview with ABC’s This Week.
“[I]f [Trump] did not believe that the women’s accusations were credible, he would be down campaigning for Roy Moore. He has not done that,” Short said. But he added, “I think that the right decision will be what the people of Alabama decide.”
As of Monday afternoon, President Trump has kept his mouth shut about Moore and the assault allegations leveled against the far-right Republican candidate. He hasn’t even tweeted about it, despite sending a missive at Democratic Sen. Al Franken, who has been accused of forcible kissing and groping two women.
“The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?,” Trump tweeted from his personal account. “And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women. Lesley Stahl tape?”
And despite the change of direction in White House messaging, Sanders told reporters on Monday that its stance towards Moore had remained entirely consistent.
“Our position hasn’t changed over the weekend,” she insisted.
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