President Trump faces pressure to join other Republicans in calling on Roy Moore, GOP candidate for Senate in Alabama, to drop out of the race amid a growing wave of sexual misconduct allegations, some of them from women who said they were minors when Moore pursued romantic relationships with them or even assaulted them.
Trump was halfway around the world on Monday when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he believed the women stepping forward to accuse Moore of inappropriate behavior, breaking with the White House officials who had maintained skepticism when discussing the allegations.
And when a fifth accuser surfaced Monday afternoon with the claim that Roy Moore physically attacked her when she was 16, all eyes fell on Trump to see how he would react to the collapse of a campaign he backed earlier this year.
White House officials were largely silent as Republican senators lined up to express their hope that Moore would not become their colleague on Dec. 12, when voters will cast their ballots in the special election to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But some West Wing aides floated the idea to reporters that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, could name Sessions to his old seat in the event Moore wins the contest next month and gets expelled from the upper chamber by his peers.
A Republican close to the White House said the plan, which would create a high-profile vacancy atop the Justice Department, is not outside the realm of possibility.
“Nothing is too farfetched here. However, Jeff Sessions would have to agree to this which doesn’t seem likely,” the Republican told the Washington Examiner.
“We will have to see what Trump does when he returns to the United States because he is distracted at the moment,” the Republican said. “One can imagine he is going to weigh in the opposite of what the establishment wants Moore to do.”
Trump’s trip to Asia will end on Tuesday, when he heads back to Washington from the Philippines. The president has already attempted to deflect questions about Moore once by claiming he knew little about the accusations, an excuse that could prove difficult for him to use again given the intense focus on the scandal this week.
Although Trump supported Moore’s opponent, Sen. Luther Strange, in the GOP primary, he threw his support behind Moore in late September following Strange’s defeat and has since described the former state supreme court judge as a “great guy.” Trump’s decision to back Strange in the primary race was viewed at the time as a victory for McConnell, who had pledged to protect Strange as if he were any other Republican incumbent, and a blow to Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who supported Moore and has plans to support insurgent primary challengers in races against a number of GOP incumbents next year.
“I think the president would cut any tie with Moore if it thought it would do any good,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist. “This is really for the voters of Alabama to decide.”
Before the fifth accuser came forward Monday, White House officials had attempted to put distance between Trump and the Moore allegations by arguing the controversial former judge should be judged primarily by Alabama voters and not from the West Wing.
For example, White House legislative director Marc Short said Sunday that “the people of Alabama know Roy Moore better than we do here in D.C.”
"If more evidence comes out that can prove that he did this, then sure, by all means he should be disqualified," Short said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” "But that’s a huge if, and I think we have to allow that more facts come out."
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders had also preached caution last week before jumping to conclusions about Moore’s viability in the Senate race.
“Like most Americans, the president believes that we cannot allow a mere allegation, in this case one from many years ago, to destroy a person's life," Sanders told reporters traveling with Trump to Vietnam on Friday.
Sanders did not respond to a request for comment.