— -- While the number of Republicans withdrawing their support of Donald Trump continues to increase – amid his lewd comments about women and allegations of sexual assault -- Sen. Richard Burr stuck by the GOP presidential candidate during a debate in Durham, North Carolina, for the hotly contested Senate seat in a presidential battleground state.
Burr doesn't believe Trump actually committed the acts he described in the 2005 video leaked last Friday, he said.
“I think, if in fact he did it, that would be sexual assault," Burr said Thursday night of allegations against the real estate developer-turned-politician. "I take him at his word: He said he didn't do it."
Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also refused to weigh in on Trump’s skepticism that Russia is behind recent hacks of Democrats’ emails, although Burr did not appear to be aware that the intelligence community, in a statement released earlier this month, specifically blamed Russia for “direct[ing] the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.”
Emails from the Democratic National Convention and Democrats associated with the Hillary Clinton campaign have been leaked by various websites including Wikileaks and DCLeaks.com, both of which the statement also mentioned explicitly.
But Burr said he was unaware that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had made that assertion.
“If you’re talking about the hacks of the Democratic Party, I’m not sure he’s addressed specifically those,” Burr said.
In addition to a presidential race that’s so close here, North Carolina’s Senate race also has significant national implications. Democrats need to gain four or five net Senate seats, depending on who becomes president, in order to retake control of the Senate, and for many political observers, it has become more competitive than expected.
At least one campaign ratings site, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, considers the Senate contest to be a “toss-up” race instead of “lean Republican,” which would favor Burr.
Burr’s opponent in the presidential battleground state, former state representative Deborah Ross, defended Clinton. She said she would have voted “yes” on several key bills had she been serving in the Senate at the time: The Affordable Care Act, which established what’s commonly known as Obamacare, and a bill to establish comprehensive immigration reform.
An NBC/WSJ poll of North Carolina likely voters released Thursday showed Clinton up 4 points, with 45 percent. Trump, meanwhile, scored 41 percent. Burr and Ross were tied in the poll, each with 46 percent.
The candidates were also asked about some of the major topics within the state, including the issue of policing and race, in light of the police shooting of Charlotte resident Keith Lamont Scott in late September.
When asked whether he believes there is a systemic problem with police officers’ racially discriminating against minorities, Burr said he was the “last one that would try to answer that.”
He also noted that the officer who shot Scott was African-American, and therefore, he argued, would not have been motivated by racial bias.
The candidates also discussed House Bill 2, a North Carolina law preventing cities from expanding LGBT anti-discrimination protections, reversing a Charlotte ordinance that declared that transgender individuals should be able to use whichever public bathroom corresponded with their gender identity.
Asked whether he believed transgender individuals should be able to use the bathroom that reflects their gender identity, and not necessarily what’s on their birth certificate, Burr responded, “I don’t think so.”
He added that he didn’t think the law, which entities like the NBA and PayPal say compelled them not to bring their business to the state, had affected the local economy.
“I can only base it on what I see in the economic data. We still attract investment and we still create jobs every week,” he claimed, despite boycotts by major corporations.