This article has been updated to incorporate Mitch McConnell’s latest comments about Roy Moore.
Two weeks ago, Senate Republicans warned that if Roy Moore were to win Alabama’s Dec. 12 special election, they’d move to oust him. “I believe the women,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of Moore’s accusers. “He’s obviously not fit to be in the United States Senate.” Sen. Cory Gardner, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, declared that if Alabama were to elect Moore, “The Senate should vote to expel him, because he does not meet the ethical and moral requirements of the United States Senate.”
Don’t believe it. If Moore wins, his Republican colleagues will accept him. In fact, they’ll argue that voters, by electing him, cleared him of sexual misconduct. How do I know they’ll do this? Because they’ve already done it.
When Donald Trump ran for president, more than a dozen women—possibly as many as 20, depending on how you define the offense—accused him of sexual harassment or assault. Trump said they were all liars. But a month before the 2016 election, an audio recording was released that showed Trump privately bragging, during a 2005 taping of Access Hollywood, about groping women. At the time, Republican senators denounced Trump’s remarks. A dozen called on him to step down as their party’s presidential nominee or said they would no longer vote for him.
A month later, Trump won the election. Instantly, the dissenting Republican senators congratulated and embraced him. Sen. Ben Sasse declared that “the people have spoken.” Sen. John Thune said, “It was a painful and difficult campaign for a lot of us, but he’s now our president-elect.” Sen. Rob Portman congratulated Trump on his “historic election victory” and said it was time “to put behind [us] an election that we’re probably happy to forget.”
A year later, other prominent men are losing their jobs over sexual harassment, and reporters are inquiring about the unresolved allegations against Trump. On Nov. 17, a reporter asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders: “Is it also fair to investigate this president and the allegations of sexual misconduct made against him by more than a dozen women?” The allegations were “covered pretty extensively during the campaign,” Sanders replied. “The American people, I think, spoke very loud and clear when they elected this president.” Ten days later, after Trump reportedly questioned the authenticity of the Access Hollywood tape, Sanders told the press: “This was litigated, and certainly answered during the election, by the overwhelming support for the president and the fact that he’s sitting here in the Oval Office today. He’s made his position on that clear at that time, as have the American people.”
This argument—that voters, by electing Trump, vindicated his denials—has been adopted by Republican senators. On Nov. 19, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked Sen. Roy Blunt: “What about the women, more than a dozen, who came out during the 2016 campaign against President Trump? Were they credible?” Blunt replied: “Well, whatever they had to say, people heard that. And they elected President Trump.” When CBS’s John Dickerson asked whether it was time to revisit the charges against Trump, Sen. Tom Cotton shrugged, “It happened in the middle of the campaign last year, John, and the American people had their say on that.” On Nov. 26, when ABC’s Martha Raddatz asked about the Access Hollywood tape, Sen. Tim Scott retorted that “the voters of this country had the information before the election of 2016,” and “they chose Donald Trump with all of the evidence, all the information, before them.”
That’s why you shouldn’t believe McConnell, Gardner, or any of their Republican colleagues when they suggest that if Moore wins, they’ll expel him or refuse to seat him. The hard line they took two or three weeks ago, when they thought they could chase him out of the race, was a bluff. They folded for Trump, and they’ll fold for Moore. They need his vote to bolster their narrow Senate majority. If Alabama voters give them political cover, by electing Moore despite the allegations against him, Senate Republicans will take it. They’ll say that the voters were Moore’s jury and that the jury cleared him.
The White House has already signaled this position. On Nov. 19, Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, said of Moore: “The right decision will be what the people of Alabama decide.” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Short whether the Senate should investigate the charges against Moore if he won. Short replied that he had never heard of a case in which “all the public information was out there, and the people made an election, and then the Senate decides to overturn the wisdom of the people of the state.”
As Moore has recovered in Alabama polls, Republican senators have followed the White House line. On Nov. 26, Scott declared: “The judge and the jury in this case will be the voters of Alabama.” Two days later, Sen. Marco Rubio, who had previously declared charges against Moore “credible” and “disqualifying,” hedged. “This information is before the voters of Alabama,” said Rubio. “If they elect him, and then you as a Senate have ethics hearings to remove him from office or something like that. … That’s a little bit more difficult, because voters will have this information before them when they vote for him.” On Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz was asked whether the Senate should expel Moore. “Of course not,” Cruz scoffed. “This is an issue that the voters have in front of them, and they’ll make a decision. I think we need to respect the will of the voters.”
On Sunday, McConnell joined the chorus. “Do you believe that Judge Moore should be in the Senate?” asked George Stephanopoulos. McConnell replied: “I'm going to let the people of Alabama make the call.” As to whether the Senate would seat or investigate Moore, McConnell shrugged, “It'll be up to the people of Alabama to make this decision. And we’ll swear in whoever's elected and see where we are at that particular point.”
What happened to Trump will happen to Moore. Senators, expecting his support to collapse, initially jump ship. Then, when voters prove to be indifferent, the senators crawl back on board. They frame this reversal not as a matter of partisanship, cowardice, or amorality, but as principled acceptance of the will of the voters. As to the merits of the charges, they say the election settled them.
So if you’re a conservative voter in Alabama, take heed. When Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Gov. Kay Ivey suggest that you should set aside the allegations against Moore and elect him based on other issues, they’re suckering you. If he wins, they’ll brandish your ballot as an affirmation of his innocence. Vote accordingly.