Deny. Diminish. Defend. Denounce.
Republican officials in Alabama and across the country have had mixed responses to a Washington Post report detailing allegations that Roy Moore, the Republican candidate in Alabama's special U.S. Senate race, initiated sexual contact with a 14-year-old when he was 32 and pursued relationships with three other teenagers while he was in his 30s.
Some politicians are casting doubt on the women's stories, while others are expressing dismay — and, in some cases, Republican officials are defending Moore's alleged actions as not problematic at all.
The Post's report was based on interviews with 30 people. None of the four women approached the newspaper, the Post says; reporters reached out to them after hearing rumors of Moore's behavior in the '70s and '80s.
The woman who described the assault at the age of 14 told her story consistently and was corroborated by friends and records, the Post says. She described meeting Moore, who was then an assistant district attorney, at the courthouse in Etowah County, Ala., where he offered to watch her while her mother attended a custody hearing. Days later he took her home and removed their clothes, she said, touching her over her underwear and placing her hand on his underwear-clad genitals. The age of consent in Alabama is 16.
The other women say Moore pursued them at the ages of 16, 17 and 18.
Moore denies the allegations. His campaign has described them as a Democratic attempt to undermine his bid for the Senate, ahead of the special election on Dec. 12. (The Post said none of the four women has donated to or worked for Moore's Democratic opponent in the race, Doug Jones.)
That line of response has been picked up by many others. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told the Huffington Post that the timing of the report was "odd," and Madison County GOP Chairman Sam Givhan told the outlet he is "obviously suspicious" of the story.
Some right-wing commentators, without outright denying the allegations, sought to downplay the significance of the story.
Joel Pollak, an editor at Breitbart, appeared on MSNBC to argue that three of the four women's accounts had "no business" in the national news, because a 30-something Moore pursuing relationships with 16- to 18-year-olds was not inappropriate. "As far as we know, there's only one relationship that's been alleged that's problematic," Pollak said, referring to Moore's alleged sexual contact with a 14-year-old.
He did not, however, attempt to defend the described sexual encounter with a 14-year-old, which would have been a criminal act under Alabama law at the time.
But multiple officials did defend the alleged behavior.
Daniel Dale, a reporter for the Toronto Star, spoke with a number of Alabama Republican county chairs. One said he didn't see the "relevance" of a 32-year-old man kissing a 14-year-old girl or "trying" to touch her genitals. (The woman says Moore touched her over her underwear.) Another said that "14-year-olds don't make good decisions."
At least two said they would vote for Moore even if he had committed sex crimes against a 14-year-old.
And Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler seized headlines when he said there is "just nothing immoral or illegal" about the described encounter, comparing the assault to biblical marriages.
"Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist," Ziegler told the Washington Examiner. "Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus."
Some evangelical leaders sharply criticized Ziegler's response in comments to The Washington Post. Ed Stetzer, who is the Billy Graham chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College, called the comparison to Mary and Joseph "simultaneously ridiculous and blasphemous."
Ziegler also noted, in defense of Moore, that Moore married a woman who is younger than him — he was 38 and his wife 24 when they married.
But nationally, GOP leaders were less likely to defend Moore's actions and more likely to say the allegations were disturbing, without necessarily ruling on their veracity.
Most Senate Republicans took an "if true" stance, as Talking Points Memo puts it — that is, saying that the women's accounts of their experiences are not enough to prompt calls for Moore's resignation but that he should remove himself from the race if the accusations are legitimate.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, however, tweeted that Moore should step aside "immediately."
As NPR reported last night, Moore, who was removed as Alabama's chief justice twice for his refusal to comply with federal court decisions, shows no signs of being inclined to leave the race.
"In a statement, Moore's campaign chairman, Bill Armistead, said, 'Judge Roy Moore has endured the most outlandish attacks on any candidate in the modern political arena, but this story in today's Washington Post alleging sexual impropriety takes the cake. National liberal organizations know their chosen candidate Doug Jones is in a death spiral, and this is their last ditch Hail Mary.'
"Moore later sent out a series of tweets blaming 'The Obama-Clinton Machine's liberal media lapdogs,' referring to 'the forces of evil' arrayed against him and fellow conservatives who 'are in the midst of a spiritual battle.' ...
"Moore rose to fame after he refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments he'd had placed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. That led to his being removed from the bench the first time. He was subsequently elected again to the bench but later suspended after ordering state judges to defy the Supreme Court's 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the country.
"Moore has campaigned as a Christian nationalist, frequently touting his faith and conservative social positions. In the past, Moore has said that 'homosexual conduct' should be illegal and has compared such acts to bestiality. The Post has also reported that Moore did not disclose the $180,000-per-year salary he took for part-time work he did for his charity, the Foundation for Moral Law."