Trump’s federal abortion dodge draws fire from both sides

April 8, 2024

Former President Trump declined to take a position on a potential abortion federal ban Monday and instead acknowledged the issue is being left to the states as he looks to navigate the politically fraught issue ahead of November.

Trump’s lack of an explicit endorsement drew criticism from some on the right, including a prominent anti-abortion group, while Democrats said his position is unchanged and accused him of obfuscation.

The video message shared early Monday morning on Truth Social was Trump’s attempt to clarify his views on abortion after months of wavering. Trump has been flirting with endorsing a 15- or 16-week ban and has said for months that if elected he would “negotiate something” that would “make both sides happy.”

Abortion has galvanized Democrats in the nearly two years since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and Trump has struggled with whether to embrace or downplay his role in the decision.

The reaction to his statement shows the political potency of abortion, and how Trump’s attempts to have it both ways could threaten his chances in November. 

“He’s clearly trying to thread a needle that’s very difficult to thread, if it’s even possible,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “Depending on who you talk to, he’s trying to take a moderate stance on it, or he’s doing something that’s not going to make anybody happy.”

In the roughly four-minute statement, Trump took credit for ending Roe and expressed support for certain exceptions: rape, incest and to protect a mother’s life. He argued Republicans ultimately must be able to win elections, brushing back calls from some groups for him to embrace a national ban and endorse a specific limit.

“Always go by your heart, but we must win. We have to win,” Trump said.

Trump didn’t specifically say he opposed a federal ban, but instead said his “view” was that “the states will determine by vote or legislation or perhaps both,” and whatever they decide must be the law.

“This 50-year battle over Roe v. Wade took it out of the federal hands and brought it into the hearts, minds and vote of the people in each state,” Trump said. “It was really something. Now it’s up to the states to do the right thing.”

Alyssa Farah Griffin, a onetime Trump White House communications director who is now a frequent critic of the former president, called his approach “smart.”  

“Allows him to punt to Govs while maintaining ‘conservative’ position that it’s up to states,” she wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, adding it was “smarter than calling for” a 15-week ban.

Still, some conservatives expressed disappointment Trump did not go further in his comments.   

Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, called the statement “a slap in the face to the millions of pro-life Americans who voted for him in 2016 and 2020.”  

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a top Trump ally in the Senate who has previously introduced a bill to ban abortion after 15 weeks, said he disagreed with the former president’s position and would continue to advocate for a federal limit on abortions after 15 weeks, with exceptions.

Trump hit back at Graham later Monday, saying the senator was doing a “great disservice to the Republican Party, and to our Country” by giving Democrats fodder.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a leading anti-abortion group, had been lobbying Trump to endorse a 15-week ban and said it was “deeply disappointed” in Trump’s announcement.

But in a sign of Trump’s hold on the conservative base, the group’s president said it will “work tirelessly to defeat President Biden and extreme Congressional Democrats.”

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said it makes political sense for Trump to avoid staking out a federal position.

In a post on X, Hawkins said a 15- or 16-week ban is not good enough, and officially endorsing one would undermine the positions of states that have stricter policies. 

“Trump made the right call – and this leaves room for better action to be taken down the road,” Hawkins wrote.  

Students for Life is one of the coalition partners behind Project 2025, an effort helmed by The Heritage Foundation and former Trump administration officials to prepare policies and personnel who would be ready for day one of the next GOP administration. 

The group has outlined ways a future Trump administration can use executive authority and the levers of government to roll back access to abortion without involving Congress, including by undoing the approval of the common abortion medication mifepristone.

President Biden and his campaign were unequivocal Monday, however. Officials dismissed any suggestion Trump was moderating on abortion or that he was backing away from a potential federal ban.

“Let there be no illusion. If Donald Trump is elected and the MAGA Republicans in Congress put a national abortion ban on the Resolute Desk, Trump will sign it into law.” Biden said in a statement.

Polling has shown abortion is one area where voters trust Biden more than Trump. A Wall Street Journal poll of swing state voters published last week found 45 percent of voters trust Biden more on the issue, compared to 33 percent who prefer Trump.

The campaign stressed that Trump was siding with legislatures that have enacted severe restrictions on abortion access, pointing out that Trump is the reason states can decide that they want to ban abortion in the first place.  

Biden campaign officials said Trump has still not said how he would approach access to abortion medication. Despite seemingly endorsing states’ rights, he hasn’t specified how he will vote on a Florida ballot measure in November that would protect abortion access in the state.  

Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins called out Trump’s blatantly political calculations. 

Trump’s comments show “he is all over the place in terms of what he is willing to say. … Donald Trump will be whoever he needs to be in the moment. And that is what makes him so dangerous,” Hopkins said.