Roy Moore, GOP Senate candidate and former chief justice on the Alabama Supreme Court speaks during the annual Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit at the Omni Shorham Hotel on Oct. 13, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
Mark Wilson—Getty Images
By Ryan Teague Beckwith
November 10, 2017

When allegations of sexual misconduct about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore surfaced, many Republican lawmakers offered a variation on this line: If the story is true, he should step aside.

“If these allegations are true, he must step aside,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“If they are true, Judge Moore should immediately withdraw,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

“If there is any shred of truth to the allegations against Roy Moore, he should step aside immediately,” said Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.

There’s a reason that so many lawmakers relied on the same phrase to respond to the news. It’s a well-worn response to allegations of misconduct that keeps the elected official’s options open if the scandal either blows over or turns into a career-ender. (Moore has denied the allegations and so far has indicated he intends to keep running.)

But in light of a spate of recent revelations of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and sexual assault, the phrase may no longer be the right response for politicians seeking to avoid looking tone deaf on the issue.

Here’s a look at seven reasons why “if true, he should step aside” is problematic.

It takes no stand on the truth of the allegations

The Washington Post story which revealed the allegations involves interviews with more than 30 people, court records which backed up key details from the accounts and four women who independently volunteered their stories.” Saying “if these allegations are true” begs the question of what more evidence the elected official would need to make a determination.

To be fair, elected officials had only a single news story to go on when they gave that response — and many had not had time to read it thoroughly and carefully — and nothing has been proven in a court of law. But politicians are called on to make decisions based on incomplete information all the time, as former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney noted in his response.

It implicitly doubts the victims’ testimony

As other scandals have shown, many victims of harassment and assault fear that they won’t be believed. Responding to four separate women’s accounts of improper behavior by saying “if true” has unfortunate echoes of that disbelief and furthers the sense among other victims of other misconduct that they also won’t be believed.

Again, it’s understandable that politicians might want to hedge on a story that’s just broken, but there are other ways to phrase this, such as by calling for further investigation into the accusations. “If true” feels too much like a shrug, even if it’s not intended that way.

It offers no solace to the victims

Elected officials are going to be asked about the accused, so it’s natural that is how they respond. But “if true, he should step aside” also offers nothing aimed at the victims. (To be fair, some officials have made remarks along those lines.) A better response would include some words of support for those who suffered the harm.

It implicitly leaves the truth up to the accused

The other side effect of “if true” is that it puts the responsibility for determining whether the events in question on the accused. If they admit that they did what they are accused of, then it’s true. But it leaves open the possibility that they could deny everything, call their accusers liars and still be accepted at a later date.

Of course, there’s a reason why elected officials might want to leave the question open. For one, they don’t have all the facts yet. Further reporting or investigation might reveal more to the story. But in many cases, it’s more a test of whether the accused can weather the storm and still get elected. If so, then the allegations will be implicitly treated as though they were not true.

Not all politicians treated the allegations this way, it should be noted. Sen. John McCain was blunt.

It leaves the punishment at the discretion of the accused

The second half of the formulation, “he should step aside,” also leaves the power in the hands of the accused. Even in cases where the candidate alone can determine if they continue a campaign, it’s the least active response. For example, an elected official could urge voters to pick their opponent or write-in someone else or they could refuse to work with a candidate even if they are elected.

It keeps the focus on the politics of the situation, rather than the harm

To be fair, the question that elected officials face is what should happen politically. But again, the focus of “if true, he should step aside” is the narrow question of the accused’s political fate. It’s far different than saying that the accused should seek professional help or apologize to the victims or even make amends in some way.

It might make the accused less likely to step aside

By putting the truth up for grabs and leaving the punishment to the discretion of the accused, the remark also ironically makes it less likely that the candidate would actually step aside because doing so would essentially be admitting guilt. That makes it more likely the candidate will deny the accusations and stay in the race.

In summary, there are a lot of reasons why politicians from both parties have often relied on this well-worn phrase to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct. But the political environment has changed in the past year. It might be time for politicians to develop a new stock answer.

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