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How Will the GOP Leadership Reckon With Allegations of Roy Moore’s Sexual Misconduct?

Since Thursday, five women have accused the Alabama Senate candidate of harassing or assaulting them, but the only prominent GOP official to condemn Moore has been the embattled Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

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Former Alabama judge Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy has become yet another post–Donald Trump crisis of ethics for the Republican Party, whose leaders must once again decide whether they’ll be humiliated and misled by a flamboyant ideologue who stands accused, by several women, of sexual misconduct. More likely than not, the Republican leadership will fail this test of elementary principles as pathetically as they’ve failed every other ethical challenge of the Trump era.

At a Monday press conference, famed women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred introduced Beverly Young Nelson, the fifth woman to publicly accuse Moore of sexual misconduct, to the press. In her painful account, Nelson said Moore cornered her in a car, groped her, and violently forced her head into his lap before she escaped. As proof of Nelson’s connection to Moore about 40 years ago, Allred presented the Alabama businesswoman’s high school yearbook bearing Moore’s signature and regards: “To a sweeter more beautiful girl I could not say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Christmas 1977. Love, Roy Moore.”

As Nelson’s high-powered legal counsel, Allred is asking the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to interview Moore under oath about the former judge’s history of underage predation. Nelson’s account is the latest in a series of sexual misconduct allegations against Moore, and hers is the most violent recollection of Moore’s sexual misconduct shared to date. On Thursday, The Washington Post reported accusations from four other women, including Leigh Corfman, who says that Moore, at age 32, molested her during two “dates” in his home in the woods when she was 14 years old. On Monday evening, only a few hours after Allred concluded her press conference, The New Yorker published a report in which multiple sources claim that a mall in Gadsden, Alabama, once banned Moore from the premises because he “repeatedly badgered” teenaged girls. (Two of Moore’s accusers, Gloria Thacker Deason and Wendy Miller, first established the Gadsden Mall as a favorite pick-up spot for Moore in the initial Post story.) In Gadsden, Moore carried a strange reputation through the late 1970s and 1980s. “It was common knowledge that Roy dated high school girls,” one of Moore’s old coworkers, Teresa Jones, told CNN. “Everyone we knew thought it was weird. We wondered why someone his age would hang out at high school football games and at the mall. But you really wouldn’t say anything to someone like that.”

Together, these recent stories about the arch-conservative Moore portray an ideologue who has repressed an ugly history of sexual misconduct. It’s distressing to consider how little that misconduct matters to conservative politicians and activists whose greatest conviction, and perhaps their only conviction, is to retain a U.S. Senate seat at all human costs. In the five days since the Post reported the initial allegations, many conservative media figures have encouraged Moore to stay in the race, while many GOP senators first offered weasling, conditional calls for Moore to step aside only if he’s unable to deny the allegations, or until some greater, mythical standard of evidence is met. Though many conservative commentators have celebrated the wave of sexual misconduct allegations that have disgraced Hollywood liberals such as Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., few elected Republicans seem to regard several allegations of child molestation as an immediate dealbreaker for their candidate in Alabama.

The Alabama special election is four weeks away, and Moore isn’t just any Republican nominee. He’s an evangelical rogue who, as the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, cultivated a national, reactionary fan base by dramatically defying court orders with regard to state-sponsored religious displays and equal marriage rights. Moore is an archetypically Trumpian candidate who upset the Alabama race despite President Trump having supported his GOP primary opponent. Moore has positioned himself as the only figure capable of rehabilitating Trumpism at the polls this year, following a wave of Democratic victories in last week’s off-year elections. For months, Moore has antagonized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with a series of attack ads and interview insults belittling his leadership. “He has repeatedly let down the president's agenda,” Moore told Newsmax in October, “and the proof is in the inaction we see on ending Obamacare, toughening immigration laws, and getting tax reform on the road to passage.”

Few Republican senators seem to respect Moore, but McConnell is one of only a handful of GOP senators who have unconditionally called on Moore to exit the Alabama Senate race. If Moore had never set out to humiliate McConnell, it’s quite possible that the beleaguered Senate hopeful would have the full support of the Republican leadership in Congress. Many Senate GOP caucus members, plus House Speaker Paul Ryan, have all said that the allegations should disqualify Moore only “if true,” as if the carefully and abundantly sourced Washington Post story were little more than a hasty, hostile op-ed. Asked at Monday morning’s press conference whether he believes the allegations to be true based on the reporting available, McConnell answered frankly, “I believe the women, yes.” Within an hour of McConnell’s remarks, Moore struck back at the majority leader. “The person who should step aside is @SenateMajLdr Mitch McConnell,” Moore tweeted. “He has failed conservatives and must be replaced. #DrainTheSwamp.”

Despite McConnell’s opposition, Moore has found several defenders of child molestation in the conservative press. Sean Hannity interviewed Moore on Friday, and he’s defended Moore’s “consensual” relationship with a minor to the point of an advertiser boycott that provoked conservatives, in counter-protest, to demolish their Keurig coffee machines with a vengeance. (Hannity later apologized for characterizing the alleged statutory rape as “consensual.”) On Twitter, Ann Coulter has repeatedly minimized Moore’s alleged victimization of several minors by invoking JFK’s affair with a 19-year-old White House intern, Mimi Alford. One of Moore’s local allies went so far as to compare Moore’s midlife courtship of teenagers to the age difference between the Virgin Mary and Joseph. But no one cut to the chase quicker than the conservative columnist and documentarian Dinesh D’Souza, who has characterized the Post reports as liberal propaganda. “I was lukewarm on Roy Moore until the last-minute smear,” D’Souza tweeted. “Now we must elect him to show that the @washingtonpost sleaze attack failed.” On Sunday, one poll found that 37 percent of evangelical voters said they were more likely to vote for Moore following the Washington Post report. On Sunday, Moore’s wife recirculated a letter of support for the candidate, which included the names of more than 50 pastors in Alabama before the allegations were publicized. While three of the pastors have asked for their names to be removed from the letter, many of Moore’s evangelical supporters have not denounced him in the wake of the recent reports. The only wickedness these religious leaders seem to perceive is the zeal of Moore’s accusers and critics.

Of course, the allegations against Moore carry an echo of the vulgarity and misconduct that seemingly should’ve disqualified Trump among evangelical voters, but didn’t. The parallels between Trump and Moore are distressingly obvious; in fact, the former White House adviser Steve Bannon, who bet hardest on Trump’s survival during the Access Hollywood scandal, has publicly compared the vulgar predicaments of both candidates. “The Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post that dropped that dime on Donald Trump, is the same Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post that dropped the dime this afternoon on Judge Roy Moore,” Bannon told a room full of conservative donors last week in New Hampshire. In his enduring support for Moore, Bannon doesn’t speak as an adviser who has carefully considered the accounts and concluded that his ally Moore is aboveboard. Instead, Bannon has determined that Moore is an indispensable pawn in his political project, and proof of his wisdom; and so Bannon’s decided that the inconvenient accusations made against Moore are, necessarily, lies.

Moore and his supporters are crafting this conspiracy narrative in a media bubble of their own design. A day before the Washington Post story broke, a CBS affiliate in Alabama reported that Moore declined the network’s invitation to face his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, in a televised debate. “While we appreciate the invitation from WHNT,” Moore’s campaign chairman wrote, “the differences between the two candidates are crystal clear." In light of the Post report, Nelson’s subsequent account, and now the latest story from The New Yorker, it seems likely that Moore ducked his debate with Jones in order to avoid discussing the sexual assault and misconduct allegations against him on an unfriendly platform. But he’s got Sean Hannity in his corner, and Hannity’s support for Moore is worth more than whatever funds McConnell and the aligned Senate Leadership Fund are withholding from Moore’s campaign. GOP senators such as McConnell, Susan Collins, and Jeff Flake may dislike Moore. If he wins the special election, they may resent him for replacing Luther Strange in the Senate. They may smile nervously at him in the hallways. But the Senate leadership will learn to live with the embarrassment as they’ve learned to live with Trump.