President Donald Trump is returning from Asia to a political maelstrom in the United States — one that could force him to decide whether to push out Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a Hail Mary attempt to save the Alabama Senate seat Sessions once held.
Trump spoke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from Asia last week and the Senate leader made an urgent plea: Please help push Moore out of the contest. On Monday, as a new female accuser emerged, the Republican leader discussed the Alabama situation with White House chief of staff John Kelly and Vice President Mike Pence. The conversation centered on tax reform, but the Republican leader also proposed a dramatic idea: that Sessions run as a write-in candidate or be appointed to the seat he held for two decades.
White House officials plan to convene a meeting to talk through their options soon, and Trump widely expected to address the predicament publicly when he returns from abroad. In order for the president to get involved, some aides to the president say, he would need an airtight plan that limits his political exposure to any fallout.
It’s a vexing call for Trump. If he tries to pressure Moore out of the race, as some people close to the White House expect him to do, there’s no guarantee that the candidate will oblige. During the GOP nomination battle, Trump aggressively backed Moore’s opponent, appointed Sen. Luther Strange.
Moore, a former state Supreme Court justice who once defied a federal order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from a state judicial building, may feel that he owes the president little.
Intervening in a race against the candidate backed by conservative activists could also be seen as at odds with Trump’s own insurgent campaign in 2016.
Some of the president’s most loyal backers in the conservative state were angered by his decision to get behind the establishment-friendly Strange and desperately want him to stay out of the race.
“The establishment did everything they could to destroy Trump and we the people stood with him. It would be very disappointing to see Trump believe these lies and turn on a rock-solid conservative like Roy Moore,” said GOP state Rep. Ed Henry.
McConnell and his political team have other ideas. One option being batted around by the leader’s allies is having the state Republican Party withdraw Moore’s nomination and then have Sessions, an outsize figure in Alabama politics who served as senator for two decades, run as a write-in.
Speaking at a Wall Street Journal/CEO Council event in Washington Tuesday, McConnell was explicit that Moore would likely face expulsion proceedings if he wins. As for the write-in possibility, McConnell said any candidate would have to be "totally well-known and extremely popular."
"The Alabamian who would fit that standard would be the attorney general,” McConnell said, referring to Sessions.
Several Republican senators have appealed to Sessions in the recent days, asking him to save them from the prospect of a Democrat taking over his old seat.
Sessions, however, has expressed a desire to stay on as attorney general, according to several people familiar with his thinking. And one White House official expressed concern that, in the event Moore did not withdraw, a Sessions bid would only serve to split the Republican vote and hand a win to Democratic candidate Doug Jones.
But Sessions could have little choice in the matter if Trump pressures him to return to the Senate.
Some Sessions allies believe that swooping in to save his old Senate seat would give him the chance to make a graceful exit from his current role, where his relationship with the president has soured. He has stood by as Trump has publicly derided him for recusing himself from the Justice Department’s Russia investigation.
In recent days, Sessions has privately expressed dismay at how much of a mess the race for his old seat has become, said one person close to him.
Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, the attorney general said he trusted the accounts of Moore’s accusers.
"I have no reason to doubt these young women," he told the panel.
Since the allegations surfaced on Thursday, the White House has been quietly examining its options. Counselor Kellyanne Conway has been in touch with Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s office to discuss possible paths forward. And political director Bill Stepien has spoken with Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel.
On Tuesday, the RNC withdrew its support for Moore.
There’s frustration with McConnell In some corners of the White House. Three administration officials said the leader erred by publicly calling for Moore to drop out, saying all it did was give the beleaguered candidate more grist to portray himself as a victim of a Republican Party establishment trying to run him out of the race.
McConnell openly acknowledged Tuesday the jam he and other Republicans are in. A Moore loss would shrink the party’s already slim Senate majority. But a write-in candidacy would be a long-shot, and expelling Moore once he’s seated could trigger an uprising on the right.
"I’d like to save the seat and it’s a heck of dilemma," he said. "It’s a very tough situation."