There was condemnation, but with a significant caveat. As the wave of responses to an allegation that Republican Senate candidate in Alabama Roy Moore initiated sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl poured in Thursday, there was a common phrase uttered by GOP members, including the president: “If the allegations are true.”
The story from The Washington Post made clear that the accuser, Leigh Corfman, now 53, had nothing, neither personal nor political, to gain from allegations and in fact had voted Republican in the last three presidential elections. Corfman said that in 1979, Moore, then 32, had taken her back to his home, removed her outer clothes and touched her over her underwear, while guiding her hand to touch him over his underwear on six separate occasions.
Neither Corfman nor three other women who were between 16 and 18 years old when they say Moore pursued them had reached out to the Post with their allegations. The accounts were verified and based on interviews with more than 30 people who said they knew Moore at the time.
And yet the majority of Republicans still felt it necessary to question the integrity of the accusers.
“If these allegations are true, he must step aside,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“If these allegations are found to be true, Roy Moore must drop out of the Alabama special Senate election,” came the echoing sentiments of National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner.
“If true, this would disqualify anyone from serving in office,” read a statement from Vice President Mike Pence.
Those comments can have very real implications for victims of sexual assault, said Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of UltraViolet, a leading national women’s advocacy organization.
“It sends an incredibly dangerous message to accusers,” Chaudhary told Newsweek Friday. “Why would a woman come forward with this if it weren't true? All of these women are likely to face a backlash at work, a backlash in their communities. They’re likely to be trolled by pro-Trump, pro–Roy Moore bullies on the internet. For any woman in this situation, a big part of the reason women stay silent is they’re afraid.”
Still, Republicans went on. It wasn't until Friday afternoon that the National Republican Senatorial Committee took the first concrete steps to distance itself from Moore by severing financial ties with the candidate who had been a strong favorite to defeat Democrat Doug Jones in the December 12 election.
Indeed, the thickest coating of caveats in its condemnation of Moore came from the White House.
“Like most Americans, the president believes we cannot allow a mere allegation, in this case, one from many years ago, to destroy a person's life,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said before repeating the familiar line, that “the president also believes that if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside.”
Trump, of course, has his own history with allegations of sexual abuse. During last year’s campaign, 16 women accused Trump of sexual misconduct. Just weeks before the election, a 2005 Access Hollywood recording was released in which Trump was heard bragging about committing sexual assault, saying, “When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Last month, Sanders stated that the official White House position on the accusers was that they were all liars.
Chaudhary was equally appalled by the White House’s latest statement questioning the integrity of sexual assault accusers.
“What about these women’s lives who were ruined by being preyed upon as children by Roy Moore—what do they deserve?" she said. “It’s incredibly sad and disgusting, but not surprising that that would be the statement out of this White House.”
Statements from Arizona Senator John McCain and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who said plainly that Moore should step aside now, provided an example to follow, Chaudhary added.
But for every one of those comments, there were those that went even farther than “if true.” Alabama State Representative Ed Henry claimed that Moore’s accusers should be prosecuted, stating that “you can’t be a victim 40 years later, in my opinion.”
Another Republican representative in Alabama, Marion County GOP Chair David Hall, brushed off the allegations entirely.
Sexual harassment, abuse and other misconduct is far from being a problem limited to Republicans and crosses both parties and industries. Yet the inability to outright condemn men accused of such violations does appear to be a Republican issue. And it could have damaging consequences for the party.
“If they're not willing to stand by women and say we believe these women and we find this objectionable, to the point we believe that nobody facing these kind of allegations has any business being near the U.S. Senate, they’re going to find themselves with a caucus full of extremists,” Chaudhary said.
The allegations against Moore come as the country is having a major cultural movement, with accusations of sexual misconduct emerging against prominent men from Hollywood to Washington, D.C. It is a moment that many have traced directly back to events of one year ago.
“It’s because so many women were politicized for the first time by waking up the morning of November 9, 2016, and realizing that an admitted sexual predator had been elected president,” Chaudhary said.