Updated at 6:55 p.m. ET
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday that President Trump believes the allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault against Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore are "very troubling and should be taken seriously" but stopped short of calling on him to step aside as other national Republican leaders have.
"He believes the people of Alabama should make the decision of who their next senator is going to be," said Sanders, who added later that she didn't expect Trump to campaign for Moore.
Multiple women have now come forward accusing Moore of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, from when most of them were teenagers decades ago. The reporting of allegations began one week ago when the Washington Post spoke to a woman, Leigh Corfman, who said that when she was 14 and Moore was in his 30s and then a local assistant district attorney, he pursued her romantically and initiated sexual contact with her.
On Wednesday another woman told the Post that Moore pursued her when she was a high-schooler working at the local mall and phoned her during school when she had ignored his advances in person at the mall. She eventually went out with him, but during that date he gave her an unwanted "forceful" kiss. Other local residents in the Gadsden, Ala., area have said it was well-known that Moore would hang out at the mall to try to pick up teen girls.
Sanders also pointed back to an earlier statement from Trump, saying that Moore should step aside if the allegations are true. The president "still firmly believes that," Sanders said Thursday. But other GOP leaders who had made similar statements last week have since dropped that qualifier as allegations against Moore mount.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.; National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; and other top Republicans have said they believe the women making the allegations against Moore are credible and that Moore should step aside.
The NRSC and the Republican National Committee have severed financial ties with Moore, who continues to deny the allegations. Moore faces Democrat Doug Jones in the Dec. 12 special election to succeed now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. McConnell and Trump both backed appointed Sen. Luther Strange over Moore in the GOP primary.
A Fox News poll released Thursday evening showed Jones leading Moore by 8 points, 50 percent to 42 percent. Jones was also the preferred candidate of women voters by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, 58 percent to 32 percent. A poll commissioned by the NRSC earlier this week showed Moore's support collapsing as he trailed Jones by 12 points, while other polls have shown a much closer race.
While national Republicans have abandoned Moore's candidacy en masse, the Alabama Republican Party announced Thursday it is still standing behind the former state Supreme Court chief justice.
"The ALGOP Steering Committee supports Judge Roy Moore as our nominee and trusts the voters as they make the ultimate decision in this crucial race," Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan said in a statement. "Judge Moore has vehemently denied the allegations made against him. He deserves to be presumed innocent of the accusations unless proven otherwise. He will continue to take his case straight to the people of Alabama."
Moore has remained defiant in the face of the allegations and the calls for him to exit the Senate race. On Thursday, his campaign held a more-than-hourlong news conference with various faith leaders who vouched for his character.
"Alabama will not kiss the ring of political hacks who have sold their soul to the devil to maintain political power," said one speaker.
Many who spoke in support of the former judge said Moore was being unfairly targeted because he has stood up for Christian principles. Moore is known for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument he'd had placed in the Alabama Judicial Building rotunda and for ordering state judges to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide under the federal Constitution — each of which led to his being removed from the bench on separate occasions. Other speakers decried the "LGBT transgender mafia" and said that Moore was the "enemy of both Democratic and Republican homosexualists."
Moore spoke briefly at the end of Thursday's unwieldy news conference, turning his fire back on McConnell and other GOP leaders.
"This is an effort by Mitch McConnell and his cronies to steal this election from the people of Alabama, and they will not stand for it," Moore said.
Moore paused to take questions when he finished but said he would only address policy issues and not any of the allegations against him. When reporters pressed Moore on the accusations instead, Moore and his wife, Kayla, walked out of the room.
The allegations against Moore have come during a cultural moment reflecting changing views about allegations of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and sexual assault. In the weeks since bombshell New York Times and New Yorker reports about Hollywood megaproducer Harvey Weinstein, several famous and powerful men have been accused of sexual misconduct and suffered varying impacts on their professional fortunes as a result — including men at NPR.
NPR's former top news executive Michael Oreskes resigned following sexual harassment allegations against him, and NPR CEO Jarl Mohn has taken a medical leave amid the fallout from Oreskes' departure. Thursday NPR reported that Roger LaMay announced he would step down from his position as chairman of NPR's Board of Directors at the end of his second one-year term and that NPR has placed David Sweeney, recently promoted to the position of chief news editor, on paid administrative leave as it reviews recent allegations about his conduct.
Also on Thursday, Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden said now-Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., forced himself on her and groped her while the two were on a USO tour in 2006. Franken has apologized for his actions, calling them "inappropriate." Democratic and GOP leaders are now calling for a Senate ethics investigation, which Franken says he will cooperate with.
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