Playing all sides in the Alabama Senate race, President Donald Trump has made it known he won't set foot in the state on behalf of embattled Republican Roy Moore, even as he intensified his insistence that voters must never elect Moore's Democratic foe.
In search of safe political ground, Trump is embracing a tried-and-true tactic before the Dec. 12 special election. Weighing political needs, loyalty to his base supporters and his own struggles against allegations of sexual impropriety, the president is staking out a position that should bring him the least political exposure.
Trump has repeatedly assailed Democratic candidate Doug Jones, has publicly defended Moore against allegations of child molestation and has broken with other GOP leaders calling on Moore to get out of the race. On the other hand, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday the president has no plans for an in-person appearance on Moore's behalf and in fact is too busy to "do anything between now and Election Day" for the candidate.
In addition, the president previously signed off on a decision by the Republican National Committee to cut off support for Moore's campaign.
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Still, Trump had held the door open to personal campaigning for Moore last week, when he all but endorsed the pugnacious conservative's candidacy while criticizing Jones. But he's carefully stopping short of that actual endorsement.
For weeks the center state in the Alabama race has been held by accusations that Moore, now 70, sexually molested or initiated sexual contact with two teens, ages 14 and 16 — and tried to date several others — while he was in his 30s. Moore has denied the allegations of misconduct and has said he never dated "underage" women.
"This is simply dirty politics and it's a sign of the immorality of our time," Moore said Monday night during a campaign event in the rural town of Henagar in northeast Alabama. Lashing out at national Republicans who want him to step aside, Moore said: "They are aware of my past. They are aware I am difficult to manage."
Trump has been burned in this race before. He traveled to Alabama months ago to back Moore's Republican primary opponent, Sen. Luther Strange, who was then defeated in a September rout.
Moore had the backing of the GOP's conservative and populist wings, including Trump's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, but Trump acceded to requests from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to try to boost Strange. Trump later seethed to White House aides that the episode left him looking politically weak.
Also, appearing with Moore now could expose Trump to a politically unpalatable image as allegations of sexual misconduct in politics, entertainment, business and the media fill the news. As he looks toward his own re-election in 2020, he doesn't want new attention focused on his own accusations of sexual impropriety in the waning days of the 2016 presidential election.
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The White House clarified Monday that Trump isn't contesting the authenticity of the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women, and for which he issued a rare apology. "The president hasn't changed his position," Sanders said.
In the meantime, the president is determined not to alienate his core supporters — many of whom continue to defend Moore — at a time when his presidential popularity is lagging and his agenda faces headwinds in Congress. The outcome in Alabama could be crucial in the ongoing GOP fight for a tax overhaul, since a victory by Democrat Jones would narrow the Republicans' Senate majority to a mere two seats.
Trump bashed Jones repeatedly on Twitter over the weekend. "The last thing we need in Alabama and the U.S. Senate is a Schumer/Pelosi puppet who is WEAK on Crime, WEAK on the Border, Bad for our Military and our great Vets, Bad for our 2nd Amendment, AND WANTS TO RAISES TAXES TO THE SKY," Trump wrote from Florida, referring to Democratic congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.
Moore's campaign quickly highlighted Trump's comments on social media and in a fundraising email.
"President Trump calls them like he sees them. And, he's got my opponents in D.C. scrambling," Moore wrote
Jones, speaking to reporters in Birmingham, shrugged off Trump's criticisms, saying his vote in the Senate would not be a partisan one. He said Alabama residents are focused on issues such as the economy, education and health care.
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"My record speaks for itself," Jones said. "I think I am very strong on the issues that the people of Alabama care for."
Earlier in the month, the Republican National Committee pulled roughly a dozen paid staffers out of Alabama as the allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore piled up. Republicans involved in that decision said Monday they would be angry if Trump ordered the committee to re-engage, although there was no such discussion underway as of Monday afternoon.
Opposition to Moore hadn't softened at the National Republican Senatorial Committee either. The Senate GOP campaign arm turned its back on Moore earlier in the month, and its chairman, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, said his Republican colleagues should expel Moore from the Senate if he's ultimately elected.
Alabama's other senator, Republican Richard Shelby, said Monday he did not vote for Moore. "I voted absentee. I didn't vote for him. I voted for a distinguished Republican write-in," Shelby told reporters, according to The Hill newspaper.
Some Washington-based Republicans on Monday suggested they actually would welcome an opportunity to expel Moore if it comes to that. Such an action could mark "a public cleansing" for the party as it struggles with low approval ratings ahead of the 2018 midterms, said one Republican official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the Alabama race and commented only on condition of anonymity.
There was still pressure for Trump to step in in person.
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Said former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg: "It's his choice. Does he want to be the first president in two decades not to have two Republican senators from Alabama?"
Associated Press writers Kimberly Chandler, Steve Peoples and Thomas Beaumont contributed to this report.