Trump’s conflicting abortion stances are coming back to haunt him – and his party

On Monday, Donald Trump declared that abortion decisions should be left to the states, a statement he made to tamp down a fervor about his lack of clarity over how he’d handle the issue as president.

It did the opposite.

In the past three days, the former president has energized scores of Democrats across the country, elevated the marquee issue of his opponent’s campaign, potentially put a key battleground state at risk and drawn fire from onetime allies in his own party.

Trump’s dizzying stances on abortion this week — on Monday embracing states’ rights and on Wednesday distancing himself from a state-based outcome — demonstrate the messaging impossibilities that are ahead for him as he moves into the general election and tries to shed the stain of Roe v. Wade’s fall.  

Trump made a transparently political decision Monday, moving against a part of his party and not speaking in support of a national abortion ban. In his video statement, he noted that electoral politics influenced his thinking, lamenting GOP losses since Roe was reversed. 

If Trump thought he was taking the more politically palatable route, he was stung one day later by an Arizona Supreme Court decision that triggered an 1864 law saying anyone who performs the procedure or helps a woman access an abortion could face felony charges and up to five years in prison. 

Since the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark abortion case, Republicans have failed to find a way to neutralize the issue.

On one hand, embracing nationwide restrictions on abortion drives the potential for down-ballot Republican losses. On the other, embracing states’ rights forces Trump to own the most extreme measures in those states.

States’ rights — up to a point

On Wednesday, Trump told reporters he would not sign a national abortion ban as president. Then, signaling he is still muddling through messaging, Trump late Wednesday released two videos about the issue on his Truth Social media platform.

“We brought it back to the states, and now lots of things are happening, and lots of good things are happening,” Trump said in one video.

In another, he accused Democrats of trying to distract from immigration and the economy.

“The only issue they think they have is on abortion, and now all I say is the states are handling it and it’s totally killed that issue,” he said.

But one of the problems as Trump tries to combat a Democratic messaging juggernaut accusing him of being responsible for every state decision and of threatening a federal abortion ban is that at one time or another, he has supported both.

Trump has bobbed and weaved on abortion for the entirety of his political career. In 1999, he proclaimed that as a lifelong New Yorker, he was “pro-choice,” even saying he would support “partial-birth abortion.” That flipped by the time he ran for president as a Republican in 2015, though he initially still praised Planned Parenthood. By the time he took office in 2017, he was vowing to appoint judges to overturn Roe v. Wade.

At the same time, as president, he urged Congress to pass a 20-week abortion ban. 

“I call upon the Senate to pass this important law and send it to my desk for signing,” Trump said as he addressed the anti-abortion-rights March for Life in Washington, D.C. He made the statement after the House had already advanced the measure, which he applauded in real time.

But on Monday, he said he supported states rights. Two days later, after a frenzy erupted over Arizona’s court ruling, which was a direct result of Roe’s fall, he said the court had gone too far.

His campaign later told NBC News that Trump believes decisions should be made at the electoral or legislative levels in the states — not by the courts.

“President Trump could not have been more clear. These decisions should be left to the states to ‘determine by vote or legislation or perhaps both,’” Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said.

But hours after Trump’s remarks Wednesday, Arizona Republicans blocked a legislative attempt by Democrats to quickly repeal the law. The Republican House speaker said Democrats were trying to rush it.

Trump, meanwhile, has proudly taken credit for the Supreme Court’s knocking down Roe v. Wade, because he nominated the three conservative justices who made it possible.

It is at least the third time — the others were in Alabama, where a ruling calling embryos children caused in vitro fertilization to come to a halt, and Florida, where a court is allowing a six-week abortion ban to move forward — that Trump had spoken against local laws or rulings that have emerged since Roe v. Wade was overturned.

“From a purely political perspective, both the Alabama and Arizona Supreme Court decisions should be considered in-kind donations to Democratic super PACs,” said Matthew Bartlett, a Republican strategist. “It has thrust the issue, in stark terms, upon the Republican electorate and those running.”

Bartlett said that Republicans from Trump on down are trying to “flip-flop, moderate or change into a position that is looking more like the American public” but that it could take more than one election cycle before the party finds its footing. 

Democrats go on offense

With Trump’s “leave it to the states” tactic now facing blowback after the Arizona ruling, it is again clear than Republicans continue to lack an effective way to counter messaging from Democrats attacking them on abortion rights.

“This is the first presidential election where abortion will be front and center,” Republican strategist Alex Conant said. “This is just not an issue where Republicans are likely to win.”

Meanwhile, Democrats have been able to effortlessly unearth years — decades, in some cases — of comments that Republicans in key races have made that make it all too easy to paint a broad swath of GOP candidates as hypocritical or unprincipled or anti-woman.

“Voters don’t believe brand new information, but they really believe when you tell them something they already know or think is true,” said a Democratic operative working on a key battleground congressional race. “And that’s exactly what’s happening in the case of abortion. Democrats are saying: ‘Republicans do not want you to have this right. They have been saying that your entire life; you should believe them.’ And voters believe that.

“Republicans are saying, ‘We changed our minds; you should have some rights. Don’t look at what I’ve said five years ago,’ and voters rightly know that that’s bulls—,” the person added.

The issue has become a centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign and one of the few areas in which early polling finds him ahead of Trump. 

Christina Amestoy, a spokeswoman for the group Think Big America — Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s nonprofit group working in battlegrounds like Arizona to help support abortion-related ballot measures for the fall — said the timing of Trump’s statement Monday only further linked him to the court decision. 

“Just 24 hours after he said it, we got to see exactly what Trump is supporting by leaving it up to the states,” Amestoy said. “Arizona just rolled back the clock on women’s rights 160 years to a time when doctors didn’t even know to wash their hands.” 

The challenge for Trump and the party is that, regardless of how Republicans handle their individual contests, another controversial state ruling will inevitably pop up that everyone is asked to then take sides on.

“It’s clear the anti-abortion movement wasn’t stopping at abortion — they’re coming after IVF, they’re coming after contraception, they’re coming after women,” she said, demonstrating how Democrats intend to message on the issue between now and November.

GOP backlash to Trump’s position

In recent months, Trump publicly and privately flirted with coming out with a public statement supporting a national abortion ban, listening to a segment of his party that was pushing for such a measure. He suffered backlash Monday after he failed to address the topic. And by Wednesday, he said he would not sign such a ban.

Former Vice President Mike Pence called Trump’s video Monday “a slap in the face to the millions of pro-life Americans who voted for him in 2016 and 2020.”

In his 4½-minute video, Trump claimed that there was public consensus about the high court’s dismantling of Roe even though polling consistently indicates that a majority of Americans favor those federal protections.

“My view is now that we have abortion where everybody wanted it from a legal standpoint, the states will determine by vote or legislation, or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land,” Trump said in the video. 

By Wednesday, Trump was saying the Arizona court’s ruling went too far, but he downplayed the significance, saying that “it’ll be straightened out” and that the “will of the people” will prevail. 

“I’m sure that the governor and everybody else are going to bring it back into reason, and that will be taken care of, I think, very quickly,” he said. 

Trump also suggested Florida is likely to vote to overturn its new abortion law in November.

“It’s the will of the people. So Florida is probably going to change. Arizona is going to definitely change. Everybody wants that to happen,” he said. 

Not long after his remarks, the anti-abortion-rights group Susan B. Anthony List, with which Trump had aligned himself, slammed the same ballot efforts in those states — citing the same “will of the people” phrasing Trump used. 

“The proposed ballot initiatives in Florida and Arizona have been written by the far Left and if enacted would allow for painful late-term abortions in the fifth, sixth, seventh month of pregnancy and beyond,” SBA Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement. “They would wipe away all pro-life laws put in place by the legislature, reflective of the will of the people. These initiatives are fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars of left-wing money designed to deceive voters about their true intent. Pro-life candidates and officials must oppose them.”

GOP’s no-win scenarios on repeat

In the nearly two years since Roe fell, abortion rights have won every single race in which they have appeared directly on the ballot.

That hot streak has extended to numerous Democrats — in races for the Senate, governor, state Supreme Courts and others — who made their support of abortion rights (and their opponents’ opposition to them) central features of their campaigns.

It also gave way to a growing number of Republicans who encouraged the party’s candidates to talk more about the issue and back something specific. But even in races in which Republicans went on offense with a deliberate policy approach to the issue, they lost — a data point over which Republican strategists still worry and Democratic operatives still salivate.

In Virginia’s November elections, for example, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin persuaded a large slate of Republican candidates in the legislative races to coalesce behind his proposal for a ban on abortion after 15 weeks — which included exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the woman — as part of his effort to gain Republican control of both chambers of the Legislature.

Strategists and politics watchers, sensitive to the party’s broad struggles on abortion, saw the proposal as an important and hopeful test message for Republicans looking for a more nuanced reproductive rights policy and message — one they hoped could appeal to moderates and independents — in the post-Roe era.

But that failed, too. Democrats walked away with control of both chambers — an outcome that further cemented the notion that Republicans cannot win on the issue even if they run on a non-extreme and thoughtful proposal.

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