Trump's Abortion Triangulation Makes Political Sense but Belies His 'Pro-Life' Pose

Donald Trump speaking and pointing
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Before he ran for president, Donald Trump described himself as "pro-choice." But when he was seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he promised to appoint "pro-life" Supreme Court justices. "I am pro-life," he declared in his October 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton. He said Roe v. Wade would be overturned "automatically" if he were elected thanks to the justices he would choose, meaning that the issue of abortion regulation would "go back to the individual states."

After that prediction came to pass last year, Trump called it "the biggest WIN for LIFE in a generation." He bragged that the Supreme Court's June 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization was "only made possible because I delivered everything as promised, including nominating and getting three highly respected and strong Constitutionalists confirmed to the United States Supreme Court." But now that Dobbs has shifted public opinion and political energy toward abortion rights, Trump is trying to position himself as a moderate on the issue.

On NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday, host Kristen Welker asked Trump if he would "sign federal legislation that would ban abortion at 15 weeks." That cutoff would allow the vast majority of abortions—more than 93 percent, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Trump still was reluctant to endorse the idea.

"No, no," he replied. "Let me just tell you what I'd do. I'm going to come together with all groups, and we're going to have something that's acceptable. Right now, to my way of thinking, the Democrats are the radicals, because [they would allow abortion] after four and five and six months."

As that response makes clear, Trump's objection is not based on federalist principles. Last year, he told Fox News that Dobbs "brings everything back to the states, where it has always belonged." Now he is saying that, as president, he would hammer out "something that's acceptable," meaning he thinks the federal government does have a role in determining when and under what circumstances women may terminate their pregnancies.

That "something" apparently would not entail a 15-week ban, and it definitely would not entail a six-week ban, which Trump brought up as an example of legislation that clearly goes too far. He noted that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his leading opponent in the Republican presidential contest, had signed such a "heartbeat" bill, which would prohibit most abortions. Trump described that law, which will take effect only if the Florida Supreme Court reverses precedent to uphold the state's prior 15-week ban, as "a terrible thing and a terrible mistake." But he assured Welker that "we will agree to a number of weeks, which will be where both sides will be happy."

Unlike Trump's pledge to appoint justices who would vote to overturn Roe, that promise is plainly impossible to keep. Whatever cutoff Trump settled on, it would not satisfy abortion rights supporters unless it went no further than existing regulations in states with the mildest restrictions. And it certainly would not satisfy opponents of abortion who view it as tantamount to murder.

More to the point, this is not how a "pro-life" politician talks. Just two days before his interview with Welker, in a speech at the Concerned Women of America Summit, Trump said he was "proud to be the most pro-life president in American history." To back up that claim, he noted that he was "the first sitting president ever to attend the March for Life rally right here in Washington, D.C." and that he had appointed three justices who joined the opinion in Dobbs. But if Trump rejects a six-week ban out of hand and is unwilling to endorse even a 15-week ban, he is clearly not "the most pro-life president in American history." George W. Bush, for example, opposed abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or a life-threatening danger to the mother.

DeSantis ripped Trump's position in a radio interview this week. "Protecting babies with heartbeats is not terrible," he said. "Donald Trump may think it's terrible. I think protecting babies with heartbeats is noble and just, and I'm proud to have signed the heartbeat bill in Florida."

More generally, DeSantis said Trump's avowed openness to compromise should worry abortion opponents. "Anytime he did a deal with Democrats, whether it was on [the] budget, whether it was on the criminal justice FIRST STEP Act, they ended up taking him to the cleaners," he said. If Trump is "gonna make the Democrats happy with respect to the right to life," he added, "I think all pro-lifers should know that he's preparing to sell you out."

Since Trump is beating DeSantis by more than 40 points in polling, his triangulation on abortion probably is not a serious threat to his prospects of winning the Republican nomination. "If support for Trump is the central plank of the new G.O.P. orthodoxy, then the pro-life movement will find its cause subordinated to Trump's ambitions as long as he reigns," New York Times columnist David French warns. "If he believes the pro-life movement helps him, the movement will enjoy the substantial benefits of his largess—for example, the nomination of pro-life judges, including the Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade. But if he perceives the movement to be hurting his political ambitions—as his comments to Welker suggest he feels now—then its members will be cast as the heretics and will stand outside, in the cold, complaining about their lost influence to a Republican public that will not care."

There are sound reasons for Trump to think a hardline stance on abortion would hurt him in the general election. After a leaked, preliminary version of Dobbs was published on May 2, 2022, the share of Americans who told Gallup they thought abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances" dropped from 19 percent to 13 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage who say abortion should be legal in "all" circumstances has risen by a few points, and so has the percentage who say it should be legal in "certain" circumstances.

Even before Dobbs, the Pew Research Center likewise measured an increase in the share of Americans who say "most" or "all" abortions should be legal, which stood at 61 percent in March 2022. And "when abortion referendums have been placed on statewide ballots," French notes, "the pro-choice movement has won. Every time. Even in states as red as Kentucky, Kansas, and Montana."

Trump's current position, in other words, makes political sense. If he made opposition to abortion a prominent feature of his agenda, it could alienate potential supporters. Perhaps more important, it would tend to energize abortion rights supporters who favor Joe Biden but might otherwise stay home on Election Day.

At the same time, Trump's new wishy-washiness makes no logical or moral sense. As DeSantis notes, someone who opposes abortion in principle would never promise that his solution would make the other side "happy." But except on a few issues where Trump's current positions correspond with his longstanding instincts, such as trade and immigration, consistency has never been a concern for him.

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