WASHINGTON - The Trump White House's handling of abuse charges against men in its midst is frustrating prominent Republican women as the party's yearslong struggle to attract female voters stretches into the 2018 midterm elections.
"It's the mixed signals. They've just got to be stronger, more consistent, clearer in the message" to women, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said Tuesday. "It's difficult being a Republican woman to have to fight through that all the time."
The thrice-married Trump added a new chapter to his difficult history with female voters in the past week by refusing to offer public words of support to the ex-wives of two senior presidential aides.
Rob Porter, the president's staff secretary, resigned last week after ex-wives Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby came forward with allegations of abuse. DailyMail.com published photos of Holderness with a black eye. Porter denied harming either of them.
A second White House official, Trump speechwriter David Sorensen, left the White House last Friday after his ex-wife, Jessica Corbett, described physical abuse that included being thrown into a wall and burned by a cigarette. He too denied the allegations.
But Trump has had only good things to say about Porter and voiced sympathy for him. The president has refused to express support for the women involved or personally condemn domestic abuse.
"Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new," Trump said in a tweet Saturday. "There is no recovery for someone falsely accused — life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?"
But House Republicans are investigating how Porter was allowed to work at the White House under an interim security clearance despite the abuse allegations. Questions about Trump's approach sparked exasperation.
"C'mon, clearly we all should be condemning domestic violence," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters, rolling his eyes. "And if a person who commits domestic violence gets in the government then there's a breakdown in the system" that needs to be addressed.
"I'm extremely disappointed in this situation. Abuse is never OK," Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said on CNN Tuesday.
The president still hammers at his vanquished 2016 rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, whom he once threatened to throw in prison. His support among Republicans wavered just before Election Day with the release of an "Access Hollywood" recording in which Trump can be heard bragging about grabbing women by their genitals. And more than a dozen women have accused Trump of harassing or assaulting them. Trump called them liars and said he'd sue them — though that hasn't happened.
The White House says Americans issued their verdict on all of that when they elected Trump. Some 42 percent of women voted for Trump, while 56 percent went for Clinton. That's similar to the gender gap for Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2012. Among registered voters, more than half of women — 54 percent — identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, compared with 38 percent who say they align with Republicans, according to 2016 Pew Research Center statistics.
But winning over women has long been an uphill battle for the GOP, and there are signs in recent polling that Trump is making it more difficult.
Most recent surveys have shown Democrats running ahead in national preference polls for Congress. One survey this month by Marist College showed Democrats leading by 21 percentage points among women. Another by Monmouth University released Jan. 31 showed Democrats up by 13 percentage points among female voters. In both polls, about 6 in 10 women disapproved of Trump.
Some GOP activists said Trump's approach risks alienating moderate Republican women.
"The party and party leadership has had so many opportunities to try to right its wrongs, and Donald Trump's wrongs, with women, to take a stand ... and they haven't," said Meghan Milloy, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, previously called Republicans for Hillary. The GOP, she said, "is going to start losing women."
Jennifer Horn, former New Hampshire Republican chairwoman, added, "Every single time the president tries to excuse a man who has assaulted women, it makes it harder and harder for our candidates to run credible campaigns."
As questions swirled over the White House's timeline on Porter's dismissal, his security clearance and whether it's OK for alleged abusers to work as top presidential aides, Trump left it to some of the women around him to condemn domestic abuse.
"Above everything else, he supports the victims of any type of violence, and certainly would condemn any violence against anyone," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday.
Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway said in a weekend interview on CNN that she had no reason to disbelieve accounts by Porter's ex-wives. But when asked if she was concerned for top White House aide Hope Hicks, who reportedly was dating Porter, Conway said no because "I've rarely met somebody so strong with such excellent instincts and loyalty and smarts." Conway added that domestic violence "knows no demographic or geographic bounds," and that she understands there is a stigma that surrounds these issues.
In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Holderness wrote that Conway's first statement "implies that those who have been in abusive relationships are not strong. I beg to differ."