Speaking before he left Washington for Thanksgiving, President Trump laid out a coldly rational case for backing Roy Moore, the troubled Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama. Despite the multiple women who have aired allegations running from sexual assault to merely deeply creepy behavior, Trump said, he preferred a solid vote for his agenda in the Senate.
But less noted was his analysis of the actual accusations against Moore. “Let me just tell you, Roy Moore denies it,” Trump said. “That’s all I can say. He denies it. By the way, he totally denies it.” That isn’t much response to multiple allegations that even Trump’s own daughter has deemed credible, and the answer appears even stranger in light of a New York Times report over the holiday weekend.
But the paper added: “He suggested to a senator earlier this year that it was not authentic, and repeated that claim to an adviser more recently.”
But the tape is authentic. Trump acknowledged as much when it was revealed, and apologized for his words (though not to the women upon whom he boasted about preying) while claiming that he had not actually done the things he bragged about having done. Billy Bush, the television host with whom he was speaking on the tape (and who, unlike Trump, lost his job simply for not reacting with disgust to the comments) also acknowledged it was real.
In short, the suggestion that it was not Trump on the tape is either deeply dishonest or unhinged from reality, or both. While Trump lies with abandon, and has done so throughout his career, this is a particularly curious case, one where not only is there no real dispute about reality, but in fact documentary evidence in the form of a recording of Trump discussing the acts himself.
In the early days of the Moore allegations—before Beverly Young Nelson, before the stories about how Moore’s preference for young girls was well-known, before stories about how he’d been banned from the Gadsden Mall, before the story of him calling one object of his affection at her high school—many Republicans took a cautious track, refusing to pass judgment on the claims. After the deluge, most of them quickly announced they believed the women.
This is, in a way, consistent with Trump’s approach to the allegations against him, which he has made great jumps of logic to dismiss. First there were a few stories about unwanted attention to women, ranging in degree of seriousness. Then came more, including serious allegations from Jill Harth, who said Trump repeatedly groped her and tried to force her into a bedroom at Mar-a-Lago. Finally came the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump openly boasted about improperly touching women. One didn’t even need to take the women’s allegations as truth to believe that the president’s behavior was unacceptable. Trump claimed at the time that he hadn’t really done what he said he had.
Is there any evidence that would prove allegations against Trump? If a tape of Trump making the claims himself can be explained away, even a videotape of the act might be insufficient.
Yet there are also signs that Trump is sometimes incapable of discerning real life from fiction. The fact that the president shared his doubts about the tape not via Twitter but in private conversations—including, amazingly, with a U.S. senator—might suggest that the problem is not that Trump is out to fool the public but that he himself has fallen into the trap of rewriting his memory. That the president could be so inconstant on a matter of provable fact is for obvious reasons worrisome in the policy sphere.
It turns out, though, that there are some claims the president is prepared to accept. Trump has been quick to credit allegations made against political opponents, from groping claims against Senator Al Franken to the multiple sexual-assault and rape claims against Harvey Weinstein.
It may be that the president’s approach to the claims against Moore reflects a similarly bald political calculus. Monday morning, a White House official told the AP that Trump would not travel to Alabama to campaign on Moore’s behalf, which may represent White House pessimism about Moore’s prospects. If the president sticks to that—and as we’ve seen, he frequently reverses his own staff’s statements—it would represent a remarkable act of Solomonic baby-splitting. On the one hand, the president doesn’t think it’s worth hitting the trail for Moore, yet he also is willing to stake his credibility on dismissing all evidence against Moore. For Trump, the truth is something that can be played with, but politics is serious business.