Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon is keeping the door open to ditching Roy Moore as the sexual-assault allegations against the Alabama Republican Senate candidate continue to pile up.
Publicly, the Trump confidant and Breitbart chairman has stood behind Moore, who is now accused of attempted rape of a 16-year-old girl. Bannon has also railed against what he and his allies dub “fake news” and the GOP establishment for trying to push Moore out of the race.
“This is just another desperate attempt by Mitch McConnell to keep power, and it’s not going to work,” Bannon said on Monday’s episode of Breitbart News Daily. “You know, people in Alabama see through this. The good folks of Alabama are going to be able to weigh and measure this… This is an orchestrated hit from the Uniparty.”
But over the past few days, Bannon has begun privately taking the temperature of those in his inner circle to see what they think of the Moore allegations and to get their sense of how to proceed, according to four knowledgeable sources. Late last week, the Breitbart chairman said, “I will put him in a grave myself,” if he determines that Moore was lying to him about the numerous accusations, a source close to Bannon relayed.
Bannon emphasized, to both friends and colleagues, that he’s uncomfortable with the charges of sexual harassment and child molestation that have been levelled at Moore. But he wasn’t convinced that the initial flood of on-record testimony, starting with the first Washington Post story last week, was anything more than a hit job. And he believes it may have been planted by #NeverTrump operatives to put the screws to Moore’s campaign.
Several of Bannon’s most trusted allies have already told him that it would be “insane,” as one put it, to believe at this point that the Moore accusations are baseless. They have also warned that the time is rapidly approaching when he would have to disavow Moore before it appeared as though he was simply caving to political pressure. (Critics of Bannon, of course, argue he should never have backed Moore in the first place.)
It is unclear if those points have completely resonated. Bannon is currently in Japan, where he went to deliver a speech. He is scheduled to fly back at the end of the week.
For Bannon, the stakes are far higher than one Senate seat. He and his allies saw Moore’s candidacy as a referendum on the Republican establishment, which went all-in for Moore’s primary opponent, Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), and is now threatening to remove Moore if he prevails. In particular, Bannon believes that a Moore win would be a stinging defeat for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who he and others at Breitbart fault for stalling Trump’s legislative agenda and for the longer-term corrosion of ideological purity in the Republican Party. As the website’s editor in chief Alex Marlow told Politico on Tuesday, the Alabama senate contest “represents so much beyond one race.”
Shortly after the first Moore allegations surfaced, Bannon and his editorial leadership dispatched two of its top journalists, including political editor Matt Boyle, to Alabama in a so-far fruitless attempt to uncover evidence discrediting the Post story. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Breitbart homepage led with defiant headlines such as, “MCCONNELL SENDING BANNON A MESSAGE,” “ESTABLISHMENT HOPES TO ‘STOP MOMENTUM’ OF ‘AMERICA FIRST,’” and “[RUSH] LIMBAUGH: ‘SEARCH-AND-DESTROY MISSION’ AGAINST ROY MOORE.”
But even as he defended the publication’s aggressive efforts to discredit Moore’s accusers, Marlow also made a seemingly surprising concession. If the allegations against Moore are true, he said, “[Moore] should not be a United States senator.”
Additionally on Tuesday, the front page of Breitbart featured a prominently placed headline that read, “POTUS TO REVISIT ROY MOORE SUPPORT AFTER RETURNING TO U.S.” from his Asia trip—roughly the same position Bannon now finds himself in.
Team Bannon’s political enemies on the right have been lining up to publicly wash their hands of Moore—someone who, should he remain in the race, appears in danger of losing the seat to Democratic contender Doug Jones next month. Polls have shown the race tightening, though Moore still enjoys plenty of conservative support in the heavily Republican state.
Senate Republicans, including McConnell, have begun exploring options for replacing Moore with another Republican candidate, running a competing write-in candidate, or in removing Moore from office if he is elected. Sen. Cory Gardner, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, disavowed Moore on Monday and said he should be expelled from the Senate if elected. The NRSC last week withdrew from a joint fundraising agreement with Moore, the Alabama Republican Party, and the Republican National Committee. By Tuesday evening, the RNC had finally followed suit.
The Trump administration has been increasingly critical of Moore, as well. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president’s press secretary, relayed his view last week that Moore should withdraw from the race if the allegations against him are true. On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said, “I think there’s a special place in hell for those who actually perpetrate these crimes. And I think Roy Moore has to do more explaining than he has done so far.”
Tuesday evening, Sean Hannity, who'd seen a few advertisers exit his Fox show after a sympathetic radio interview with Moore last Friday following the Post bombshell, said on his Fox show that "the judge has 24 hours" to "immediately and fully come up with a satisfactory explanation for your inconsistencies that I just showed. You must remove any doubt. If he can’t do this, Judge Moore needs to get out of this race.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who previously held the Alabama Senate seat, insisted this week that he has no interest in returning to the chamber even as McConnell reportedly is exploring potential avenues for installing him there should Moore prevail in the election. At a congressional hearing on Tuesday, Session also emphasized that he has “no reason to doubt these young women” accusing Moore of past sexual violence or misconduct.
Though it constitutes a last-ditch effort to spare the Republican caucus from the political baggage of a Moore victory, McConnell’s efforts are also feeding Moore’s allegations of a political conspiracy against him. The candidate and his allies, including Breitbart, have begun attacking McConnell far more aggressively than they’ve gone after Jones.
On Tuesday, Moore began appending a new hashtag to his defiant tweets: #DitchMitch.