Debate could put Trump’s abortion posture to the test

June 27, 2024

Former President Trump’s attempt to walk a political tightrope on abortion could be tested by Thursday’s debate, which offers an opportunity for moderators — and President Biden — to try to pin him down on specifics of his policy. 

Trump has tread carefully on the explosive issue, as he and other Republicans try to placate their base without losing moderate Republicans and independents. There have been no explicit campaign promises from Trump about abortion, despite the lobbying by anti-abortion groups.  

The former president has settled on abortion as an issue for the states but has avoided talking about more details, including on the availability of the abortion pill mifepristone.   

Still, Trump regularly takes credit for the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and has criticized blue states that have enacted abortion protections. He’s also assailed red states like Florida and Arizona that he said went too far with their restrictions. 

Trump has a history of avoiding taking a direct stance on controversial issues, often leaving himself room to change his position or backtrack when politically expedient.  

Strategists expect him to stick to the same playbook during the debate. 

“I expect Jake Tapper and Dana Bash to really try to press him down and get his stance, but pressing him down is like trying to press Jell-O against a wall,” said Michael Starr Hopkins, an alum of Hillary Clinton and former President Obama’s presidential campaigns and an opinion writer for The Hill.  

Where Trump’s top VP contenders stand on abortion

Trump and Biden are set to face off in Atlanta in their first presidential debate this year, which will be hosted by CNN. The event is a unique one of sorts — while it’ll offer voters their first chance of the cycle to see the two men side-by-side as they debate policy issues and current events, breaking new ground will be challenging because they both have long records as presidents. 

The Biden campaign and Democrats have attacked Trump on abortion throughout the election cycle. Trump even caught flak from his former GOP rivals over his stance, though it was not nearly enough to topple him in the Republican contest for the White House.  

In April, Trump teased that he would deliver a big announcement about abortion.  

But that announcement amounted to a four-minute video posted to his Truth Social platform in which he argued that the issue of abortion should be up to the states while staying away from the issue of federal restrictions around abortion access.  

“The states will determine by vote or legislation or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land. In this case, the law of the state,” he said.  

During a Time magazine interview in April, Trump said he has “pretty strong views” on whether women should have access to mifepristone and would be making an announcement “probably over the next week.”

But that announcement never came. 

Anti-abortion activists have been trying to push Trump to be more explicit about his plans and hope that he is clear about his position during the debate. 

“Pro-life Americans want to hear President Trump unequivocally defend the pro-life principles in the party platform, articulate his administration’s pro-life achievements, and outline a clear plan for protecting and supporting families, including all preborn children, in a second term,” Lila Rose, the president and founder of Live Action, a social media-driven anti-abortion group, said in a statement to The Hill. 

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the politically powerful SBA Pro-Life America, said she wants Trump to go on the attack, rather than allow Biden to define his position.  

SBA is backing Trump but won’t endorse him officially because he won’t publicly commit to a 15-week ban. 

“One of the most powerful moves Trump can make during the debate is to hold Biden’s feet to the fire on where he draws the line on abortion,” Dannenfelser said in an email to The Hill. “Recent polling shows three-quarters of voters would limit abortion by 15 weeks of pregnancy, a point when babies feel pain, at the latest.” 

Still, Trump’s position on abortion is now essentially the official Republican position on abortion, echoed by House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

Jason Cabel Roe, former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, said having top Republicans agree that abortion should be a state issue defuses a potential attack claiming Trump wants a national abortion ban.  

“I think for voters, they’re going to see the Trump standard as the Republican position on this. So you have the potential next president, the current [minority] leader, the current speaker, all saying a federal ban isn’t on the table. It doesn’t leave a lot for the Democrats to say,” Roe said.  

Democrats and the Biden campaign have made it clear they are blaming Trump for every effort to limit reproductive rights since his Supreme Court justices voted to overturn Roe v. Wade two years ago.  

“Donald Trump is the sole person responsible for this nightmare,” Biden said in a statement through his campaign, marking the two-year anniversary of the decision overturning Roe. “For him, these cruel state bans are a ‘beautiful thing to watch’ — and they’re just beginning.” 

Philippe Reines, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton who played Trump during her 2016 debate prep, explained if he was one of the moderators or Biden, he wouldn’t allow Trump to retreat to his comfort zone of “leave it to the states” without pressing further. 

“For years, the crutch that Republicans used was ‘leave it to the states.’ I would not let him use that code, because that code means something very different now,” Reines said.

“Now it has been left to the states, and some of the states are doing some pretty draconian stuff,” Reines said. 

While his abortion position seems solid, Roe said he thinks Trump is vulnerable on other reproductive rights issues, like contraception and in vitro fertilization. 

“I do think there has to be some clarity of message on that and not just from Trump, but from all Republican candidates … I’ve not seen really an effort to unify the message on that and get people on the same script,” Roe said.