RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. (AP) — Facing a tough re-election bid in a presidential battleground state, North Carolina U.S. Sen. Richard Burr said Thursday that he accepts Donald Trump's statements that he didn't commit sexual assault and still supports Trump politically because he's worried more about Hillary Clinton's "lack of judgment."
In his only scheduled debate with upstart Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, Burr became the latest Republican candidate to have to explain his continued backing for the GOP presidential nominee.
Burr said he has forgiven Trump for his comments, in line with what his late father, a minster, preached and has criticized him in the past. When asked by Jonathan Karl of ABC News whether the behavior Trump described in the video constitutes sexual assault, Burr replied: "I think that if in fact he did it, that would be sexual assault. I take him at his word; he said he didn't do it."
Ross found fault with that: "Sen. Burr has toed the party line even when Donald Trump has crossed the line."
First there was the release of a 2005 video in which Trump brags about kissing and groping women without their permission. This week, published reports of several women accusing Trump of inappropriately touching or attacking them have followed. Trump apologized for the 2005 comments but called the newest allegations "pure fiction" and his accusers "horrible, horrible liars."
The Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, who was added to Trump's national security advisory council last week, said he has concerns about both candidates but more about Clinton "because of her lack of judgment, because of the way she's handled her official business as secretary of state." He cited her placing classified email on her private email server and the deaths at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
"When I look at our choice, it's not close to me. I'm going to support my nominee," he said.
Ross, once considered a second-tier Democratic challenger and now getting substantial help from outside groups, said Clinton's handling of her emails was inappropriate but she "is prepared to be commander in chief on Day 1." It's Burr, she responded, who has shown poor judgment.
"You can forgive someone, but you do not trust that same person with the awesome responsibility of being commander in chief," she said.
The Trump talk has been a political distraction for Burr's campaign and Republican allies seeking to spotlight Ross' work history as a lobbyist for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and later in the state legislature. Ross faced questions Thursday about her concerns in the mid-1990s as the ACLU lobbyist for legislation creating a sex offender registry. Ross said she always supported a registry.
Ross kept pushing to paint Burr as someone benefiting financially during his 20-plus years on Capitol Hill. Her campaign has cited his increased net worth while in the Senate and for voting against a bill banning insider trading by members of Congress. He's said it was redundant to pass another law prohibiting such trading. Burr also said much of that wealth increase came from his wife's successful real estate business.