Donald Trump loves nothing more than a good controversy. But the president isn’t touching the Alabama Senate race, the biggest talker in American politics right now.
Resisting the entreaties of GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump has steered conspicuously clear of the firestorm surrounding Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate accused of pursuing, and in some cases harassing, teenage girls.
Trump’s absence from the race has compounded GOP worries the party is about to lose a seat it has no business relinquishing to Democrats. Republicans say a denunciation of Moore from Trump, a beloved figure in Alabama despite his problems elsewhere, offers the only hope of keeping the seat in the party’s hands.
But Trump sees nothing but negatives in getting involved, according to three White House aides, who say they consider the options laid out by McConnell and his team far-fetched. Many Alabama Republicans are also beginning to view the race as a referendum on McConnell and the Republican establishment more broadly, and Trump’s advisers say they fear any White House intervention is likely to backfire.
At the same time, Trump’s refusal to confront the disaster playing out in his own party is not without risk, and the president may face accusations that he abdicated his authority at a critical time for the GOP, which faces an uphill battle in next year’s midterm elections.
The tension between the White House and Republican leadership has underscored the desperate nature of the situation. Moore has refused to step aside even as accusations of sexual impropriety pile up against him. The Alabama Republican Party has stuck by him, and the state’s governor isn’t providing any relief to frustrated D.C. Republicans, either.
“I think the president is rightly being advised to stay out of this for now,” said a source close to the president and familiar with White House thinking.
“The president believes that these allegations are troubling and should be taken seriously, and he thinks that the people of Alabama should make the decision on who their next senator should be,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Thursday.
Trump’s reluctance stems in part from the fact that, from the White House’s perspective, they are confronting a host of bad options. McConnell and his aides on Thursday were furiously assembling a memo for White House chief of staff John Kelly laying out various avenues for legal recourse to pre-empt the Dec. 12 runoff between Moore and Democrat Doug Jones — or to keep Moore out of the Senate if he wins that race, which GOP leaders consider an increasingly remote possibility.
Trump’s advisers view many of these options with skepticism. Beyond that, White House advisers have come to believe that the involvement of Washington Republicans has become counterproductive.
“This is a guy where, the more people do in D.C., the less of a desired outcome one has a chance of getting,” said a senior White House aide.
Sanders said Thursday that the president finds the allegations against Moore “disturbing.”
“If those do happen to be true, then he should step aside,” Sanders said, adding that the president supported the Republican National Committee’s decision to sever its joint fundraising agreement with the Moore campaign.
But the president himself has studiously avoided the matter.
The latest option floated by McConnell and his team to push Moore out of the race is for interim Alabama Sen. Luther Strange to step down. They say that would trigger trigger a new special election that would pre-empt the Moore-Jones contest next month.
But Strange and state officials in Alabama rejected that idea out of hand. “I don’t think that’s even an option,” Strange said. “Not legal, and the governor said she wouldn’t move [the election] anyway.”
Alabama officials also waved off the possibility, saying that, were Strange to resign, his replacement would serve only until the Dec. 12 election. According to Alabama secretary of state Jim Merrill, “The person that succeeded him would have six or seven weeks to serve in that role. He was not elected by the people, he was appointed as the temporary successor.”
On Thursday, McConnell and his aides were scrambling to identify other options available to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, though local officials dismissed the idea that she would employ them.
Under Alabama law, the governor has the power to call a special election, and legal experts disagree about whether she could call another special election while the current one is ongoing — though it may not matter.
Ronald Krotoszynski Jr., a professor of law at the University of Alabama, said Ivey has the power to delay the special election until a date of her choosing. But Ivey was unlikely to move the election, he said, because she is running for reelection and faces a primary in which many of Moore’s supporters will vote.
“I think her options legally are pretty wide,” he said. But, he noted, Ivey is “on the ballot in the late spring of 2018, and she’s going to face these same Republican voters.”
And local officials say Ivey is not considering postponing the election. “I can tell you that is not a discussion that will receive any more attention for the rest of this cycle,” said Merrill, the secretary of state.
Ivey has already shown reluctance to intervene in the race, which has become a source of frustration for McConnell and his team.
“The election date is set for Dec. 12. Were he to resign I would simply appoint somebody to fill the remaining time until we have the election on Dec. 12,” Ivey told AL.com in response to an inquiry about how she would respond were Strange to resign.
The Alabama Republican Party continues to stand by Moore even as national Republicans have abandoned him en masse. The party’s steering committee met Wednesday evening and said in a statement afterward that the party “trusts the voters as they make the ultimate decision in this crucial race.”
A Fox News poll released Thursday evening showed Jones with an 8-point lead over Moore.
White House aides have dismissed the options presented by McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence and his chief of staff, Nick Ayers, as well as congressional liaison Marc Short and presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, were seriously weighing the idea of a write-in candidacy.
But they have since concluded the idea — which would have required the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the only Alabama Republican with the name ID to launch a write-in campaign — is not feasible.
“McConnell has pushed for a lot of things that have not turned out to be based in fact or law,” said the senior White House aide.
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
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