The White House on Monday joined a growing chorus of Republicans declining to formally back embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore but stressing the GOP-held seat is too important to lose.
The president and senior White House officials have declined publicly calling for Moore to drop out of the race or giving him an official endorsement. But a GOP talking point has emerged in recent days that was repeated in various forms.
Trump “wants people in the House and the Senate who support his policies,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president’s top spokeswoman, said during Monday’s White House press briefing.
That followed an apparent contradiction from Trump and Sanders from last week. The president criticized Sen. Al Franken amid sexual assault allegations that surfaced against the Minnesota Democrat last week; then, on Friday, Sanders said Trump is more concerned about his policies than keeping the Alabama Senate seat. Yet, the White House has criticized Franken while remaining largely mum on Moore.
Sanders’ comments were the clearest sign yet that the White House has decided against trying to force Moore from the race amid a slew of sexual assault and misconduct charges. Despite the charges, Moore remains competitive and has a legitimate shot at winning the Dec. 12 special election for the seat now occupied by appointed GOP Sen. Luther Strange.
Trump has declined to weigh in directly on the Moore matter, with Sanders and other top aides last week saying Trump expects the former judge to drop out of the race if the allegations are true. And late last week, Sanders told reporters it should be up to Alabamians, not the president, to determine whether the charges are true.
There were signs late last week and then earlier on Monday that the Republican Party — including the Trump White House — was preparing the new line.
The first senior official to publicly say that while she has no reason to doubt Moore’s accusers but views the Senate seat as too important to hand to Democrats was Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.
“We need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like Supreme Court justices, other appointments the Senate has to confirm and make major decisions,” Ivey said Friday. “So that’s what I plan to do, vote for the Republican nominee Roy Moore.”
Early Monday morning, senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway uttered a different version of that stance during an interview on Fox News Channel.
“Folks, don’t be fooled. [Democratic nominee Doug Jones] will be a vote against tax cuts,” Conway said.
Also on Monday morning, Katie Walsh, a former Trump White House deputy chief of staff, told Fox News Radio that “the allegations against Judge Moore are deeply troubling, and I believe that he should step aside if there’s any truth to them at all, but the reality is Kellyanne is right, that we need the votes to pass tax reform.”
“And so where the president is on this I believe, and Sarah Sanders has been vocal on this, which is it’s up to the people of Alabama, and I think you know, they’ll make their decision in a couple weeks here,” Walsh said.
Trump himself remained mum on Moore on Monday. When reporters were allowed into a Cabinet meeting, Trump spoke for more than five minutes.
He addressed his recent Asia trip, putting North Korea back on the state sponsors of terrorism list, plans to pass a “very large” new penalty on the North, the GOP tax overhaul push, and his intention to send lawmakers early next year proposals on Welfare reform and an massive infrastructure package.
When he was done, reporters shouted questions about Moore. Trump opted to remain silent.
As the White House tries to stay out of the race while also doing little to hinder Moore’s prospects, the candidate’s campaign quickly began raising money off Conway’s comments.
“I imagine a silence swept through Washington this morning when … Conway told Fox News Donald Trump needs me in the U.S. Senate to lead the fight for tax cuts and ObamaCare repeal,“ Moore wrote in an email seeking donations ranging from $5 to $50.
“But their silence turned to anger and rage when … Conway railed against liberal Democrat Doug Jones, warning Alabama voters of his radical left-wing views,” Moore wrote to supporters. “She’s right — I will lead the fight to cut taxes and REPEAL ObamaCare in the U.S. Senate.”
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.