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Roy Moore accused of sexual encounters with a minor

Media: NowThis News

As expected, Donald Trump responded Friday morning to the explosive charges that Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, then 32, initiated sexual conduct with a 14-year-old girl and tried to do the same with three other teens. Let's be clear about his position: The president did not call on Moore to step aside as a candidate.

A White House spokesperson said Trump "does not believe we can allow a mere allegation" from "many years ago" to "destroy a person's life," adding that it would be the "right thing" to "step aside," but only "if these allegations are true." Trump and multiple other Republicans who used the same he-should-step-down-if-true language are getting coverage that depicts them as shocked and appalled by the prospect of this being true, even as they essentially (and conveniently) leave it up to Moore to either make it true by stepping down, or render it undetermined - a "mere allegation" - by remaining.

This means it is likely that Moore, barring other developments, will stay in the race. And guess what: He could still very well win.

Top Democrats do think the chances that their nominee Doug Jones could still somehow prevail have improved. After speaking with senior Democrats familiar with the campaign's thinking, here's the view among them:

Democrats doubt that Moore (unless something even more shocking comes out) will step down. The stance of many Republicans, especially Trump, leaves him plenty of room to stay in. Plus, the response from chief Moore sponsors like Steve Bannon - that the liberal establishment and the media are conspiring to persecute Moore - sets a narrative that makes it less likely he'll quit. How can Moore capitulate to that nefarious alliance? Many of his voters will see him as the persecuted party, and root for him to persevere.

Some Republicans do appear to be looking for a way to get Moore to quit. But if he did, Moore would remain on the ballot, and Republicans would have to find a write-in candidate. Top Democrats think this could be problematic for Republicans, because a chunk of Moore supporters would probably stay home or vote for him anyway - seeing him, again, as the persecuted victim - possibly splitting the Republican vote.

But for now this looks unlikely. And regardless, the fact that Moore would remain on the ballot - rendering the write-in option tough for Republicans - perhaps helps explain the GOP "if true" language. If Republicans do end up stuck with Moore, that formulation lays the groundwork for them to retain a Senate seat even as these charges fade away, forever unresolved.

Top Democrats believe that for Jones to somehow win, three things have to happen. Dem-leaning independents and Democrats - especially African Americans - have to be unusually energized. Republicans have to be substantially less energized. And some untold number of moderate Republicans - especially moderate Republican women - have do more than just decide they can't stomach Moore; they have to vote for a Democrat.

Jones - who went after the Ku Klux Klan and, as a former prosecutor, has a bio that some moderate Republicans might accept - is theoretically well positioned to both energize the Dem base and win cross-overs. And Democrats think the new charges could make these goals more likely. They could further energize the base. They could demoralize at least some Republican voters (though they could energize those who believe Moore is being persecuted). And if there's anything that might get moderate Republican women to vote for a Democrat as a statement against Moore, it's this.

Even so, national Democrats are still hesitant to get involved deeply in the race. Here's the thinking: The race should be seen as nothing more than a contrast between unifying, temperamentally calm prosecutor Doug Jones, versus the bundle of traits that render Moore unfit for office - the flouting of the rule of law, the belief that homosexuality should be illegal, and, now, the accusations of sexual predation on a teenager. The trick in coming days will be to provide support to run a capable operation that gets out the Democratic vote without any show of force by the national party that could upend efforts to woo those crossover Republicans.

As one Democratic operative closely following the campaign summed up to me: "It's still a very tough path for the Jones campaign, but these additional factors are helping to move him along that path." Helping - but it's still very possible that Roy Moore will soon be a U.S. senator.

* MOORE'S ACCUSERS STAND BY STORY: The Wall Street Journal contacted a relative of the woman who accused Roy Moore of initiating sexual contact when she was a teen:

"A family member of [Leigh] Corfman's reached by phone said, 'The story as we know it is completely accurate.' He said he had heard the account from Ms. Corfman and added 'this happened, this is not fake news.'"

Meanwhile, two other women told the Journal that they stand by their claim that Moore pursued them when they were teenagers. So it might be tough to keep blaming this on a liberal media plot.

* 'NOTHING TO SEE HERE': This response in The New York Times to the Moore news, from one Alabama Republican, is remarkable:

"'There's nothing to see here,' said Jim Zeigler, the state auditor and a longtime supporter of Mr. Moore. 'Single man, early 30s, never been married, dating teenage girls. Never been married and he liked younger girls. According to The Washington Post account he never had sexual intercourse with any of them.'"

Zeigler did allow that Moore "went a little too far" with Corfman, but he's basically saying that this would be a nothingburger even if it were true as recounted.

* REPUBLICANS FRET ABOUT LOSING ALABAMA RACE: The New York Times reports:

"Private polling by both parties has shown that while Mr. Moore retains a passionate following among conservatives, he is a deeply divisive figure among more moderate Republicans, and some party officials now worry that the charges will convince moderates to stay home or vote for the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones, a former United States attorney."

But this is Alabama, where most people expected Moore to win despite having placed God's law above U.S. law and advocating for homosexuality to be illegal.

* PAUL RYAN BACKS OFF TAX CUT NONSENSE: Paul Ryan has claimed "everyone" will get a tax cut under the GOP plan. But Glenn Kessler takes apart the claim, pointing out that in the short term and the long term, it would actually hike taxes on millions of people, because of differences in their situations, and in the end would raise them on one-quarter of taxpayers.

Notably, a Ryan spokesperson concedes to Kessler that he misspoke, and that he really meant that all income groups will seen an average tax cut. This itself is nonsense - some groups will see an average tax hike by 2027. But still, Ryan's office is now effectively conceding that, yes, many will see a tax hike.

* WHY PAPADOPOULOS LIED TO FBI: Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos initially lied to the FBI about his contact with the Russians, and has now reached a plea agreement on that, so he's cooperating. ABC News reports on why he lied:

"Papadopoulos . . . initially misled agents out of what he claimed was loyalty to President Donald Trump, according to a person with direct knowledge of the investigation. Trump had publicly denied that there had been any contact between his campaign and Russian officials, and Papadopoulos did not want to contradict the official line, the source said."

Putting yourself at serious risk to be loyal to Trump is a great idea, because you can always count on that loyalty being reciprocated.

* AND A WILD TURN IN RUSSIA PROBE: The Wall Street Journal scoops that the special counsel is probing whether former Trump National Security Adviser Mike Flynn was involved in a plan to forcibly deliver a Muslim cleric living in the U.S. to Turkey for millions of dollars:

"Under the alleged proposal, Mr. Flynn and his son, Michael Flynn Jr., were to be paid as much as $15 million for delivering Fethullah Gulen to the Turkish government, according to people with knowledge of discussions Mr. Flynn had with Turkish representatives. . . . He is now facing military, congressional and criminal investigations into allegations that he improperly concealed his financial ties to Turkey and Russia, and into whether the ties played any role in his decisions as the president's adviser."

As Benjamin Wittes remarked on Twitter: "Robert Mueller is investigating whether the incoming National Security Adviser - during the presidential transition - was planning a kidnapping and rendition."