Former President Trump is trying to have it both ways on abortion, reflecting the difficulties Republicans face as they try to navigate the issue since Roe v. Wade was overturned.
In the past week, Trump has dodged questions about national restrictions, blamed the anti-abortion movement for the GOP losses in last year’s midterm elections and criticized states like Florida and Georgia for their six-week bans.
In a “Meet the Press” interview earlier this month, Trump called Florida’s ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy a “terrible thing.”
During a campaign rally in Iowa on Wednesday, Trump said GOP candidates shouldn’t be taking a hard line on abortion, and that without talking about exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, “it is very difficult to win elections.”
“This issue cost us dearly in the midterms, and unnecessarily,” Trump said.
But he has also called himself the most “pro-life president ever” and has made it a point to remind people how he paved the way for the Dobbs decision that ended Roe v Wade.
“Last year I was able to do something that nobody thought was possible…we ended Roe v Wade,” Trump said. “I did something that for 52 years people talked, they spent vast amounts of money in fighting it, but they couldn’t get the job done. Fifty-two years they fought and they fought hard. … They couldn’t get the job done. I got the job done.”
Trump’s efforts to muddy the waters reflect his ever-shifting views on abortion, and while it could help in the general election, it also sets him up for criticism from both Democrats and his GOP rivals.
“I don’t know how you can even make the claim that you’re pro-life if you’re criticizing states for enacting protections for babies that have heartbeats,” Trump’s closest rival, Florida Gov. DeSantis (R) told Radio Iowa on Monday, following the “Meet the Press” interview.
DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban into law earlier this year and appointed state supreme court justices who appear ready to uphold it.
“I think all pro-lifers should know that he’s preparing to sell you out,” DeSantis said.
Yet many of the leading anti-abortion groups are treading carefully, given Trump’s massive lead in the polls and status as the presumptive GOP nominee. They don’t want to burn any bridges, but they also don’t want to let his comments go unchallenged.
Patrick Brown, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, said he thinks Trump made a mistake in openly criticizing GOP-led states for going too far on abortion.
Brown said he understands that anti-abortion groups may be reluctant to respond, but they need to show a strength of conviction.
“I think the worry for pro-lifers has to be, if they if they let these comments slide without saying anything, then they’re kind of giving permission for other Republican politicians to to try to take that same tack, who don’t have Trump’s sort of unique stranglehold on a certain base of the party,” Brown said.
“It’s a delicate balance to walk, but I would say … it’s not prudent to let comments like this slide. These kinds of things need to be called out whether or not it makes it easier to work with him down the line,” he added.
After the “Meet the Press” interview aired, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life Action, sent a letter to the Trump campaign seeking clarity on his positions,
“The pro-life vote is up for grabs,” Hawkins wrote, asking specifically for Trump to address his criticisms of the six-week bans.
“Heartbeat laws are far from terrible,” the letter stated. “They should be an absolute minimum for any Republican candidate committed to protecting many from death by direct abortion.”
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America has said they will not endorse any candidate unless he or she publicly backs a 15 week abortion ban — which Trump has not done.
“We need a National Defender of Life who follows the consensus of Americans, not wastes time negotiating with the no-limits abortion Left which isn’t interested in compromise on this issue,” the group told The Hill in a statement.
Still, GOP strategists and activists think Trump has essentially closed the book on the Republican primary and is focused on the general election. But there’s an open question whether the former president’s attempts to paint himself as an abortion moderate will gain more voters than it alienates.
Brian Seitchik, a Republican strategist and Trump campaign alum, argued Trump is clearly trying to target college-educated suburban women who voted for him in 2016 but not in 2020.
“If the focus is on Trump’s economic record … I think that has a chance to bring back those college educated voters,” Seitchik said.
He added that Trump may be willing to take positions that alienate some evangelical voters in the primaries because he has such a commanding lead.
“He has a lot of room to give up. So if he’s got to bleed some Christian conservatives in the primary with an eye towards bringing back swing voters in the general, I think it’s a smart move. Because at the end of the day, those Christian conservatives who may leave him in the primary will certainly come back in the general election,” Seitchik said. “They’re not going to vote for Joe Biden.”
But Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, a super PAC that’s funded state anti-abortion campaigns, said Trump needs to clearly commit to a federal abortion policy, because he needs the anti-abortion vote.
By waffling, Schilling said Trump risks those voters staying home.
“My big fear with him is that he thinks he’s going to be able to win Democrats over. These are people that are trying to put him in prison for crying out loud,” Schilling said. “There’s no world in which Democrats ever are at peace with him, or support what he’s doing.”
Abortion rights groups and the Biden campaign are well aware that Trump is trying to distance himself from his previous statements and focus on the center.
“This is a devastating position for [Republicans] to take, no matter how they try to message it or what words they use. People understand that their position is the problem,” said Angela Vasquez-Giroux, vice president of communications and research at the group Reproductive Freedom for All, formerly known as NARAL.
In 2016, Trump was able to obfuscate his views on abortion to convince some swing voters because politicians weren’t talking about abortion, Vasquez-Giroux said. For many people, the end of Roe was an abstract, not a reality.
But the world is different now, she said.
“The world has woken up to the new reality … that has been handed to them by Donald Trump and the Republican Party,” Vasquez-Giroux added. “And you can’t just put that back in a box.”
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