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How Trump decided to go with ‘states’ rights’ on abortion

When Donald Trump’s campaign issued a statement to The Washington Post last April saying abortion laws should be decided by states, some allies began aggressively lobbying him to change course, while others took the rare move of publicly disagreeing with him.

It was a “morally indefensible position,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, who runs Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

Former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and a range of antiabortion advocates went to Mar-a-Lago and talked to him by phone. By taking such a position, he would be implicitly supporting some states that allow abortions up until birth, they told him. Conway made another argument: Trump would also be implicitly backing states such as South Dakota, Arkansas and Florida with early-in-pregnancy bans he believed were too restrictive and politically problematic. If he took a position like banning abortions after 15 weeks, she argued, he could make a compelling case against Democrats for supporting later abortions.

Trump listened to the arguments for almost a year, including as recently as this weekend. And for some number of months, he polled advisers about a 16-week limit, according to four people who spoke with him.

“What about 16 ?” he said during one meeting. “I don’t like 15. Sixteen is four months.”

But some of his closest campaign advisers urged him to adhere to the campaign’s original position. Antiabortion voters would stick with him anyway, they argued, and backing a national ban would be further inserting himself into an issue that has been politically damaging for Republicans. Some Republican senators lobbied him that such a position could hurt both him and them in battleground states, according to people close to Trump.

One year after his campaign’s statement, Trump told allies he wanted to release a video in his own words that would stick to his original position — partially to quell the questions and meetings about what he calls the “a-word,” which ranks as a bad issue for Republicans.

“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 released Monday morning.

Until the end, Trump had waffled, according to people who spoke with him. That left many guessing until the last minute about where he would land.

“He goes back and forth between states’ rights and 15 weeks,” one person in touch with Trump said ahead of his announcement.

“Trump has the special ability to keep people on their toes,” said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life.

Trump’s thought is that antiabortion voters will continue to give him wide latitude on the issue because of his record in office, and that supporting such a national ban would be politically harmful with the voters he needs to win, according to people familiar with the calculation.

Trump has complained that Republicans have hurt themselves on the issue, saying it is a “bad issue,” said one person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. At one point, he asked a group of conservative activists pushing him on a national ban late last year why they were not more thankful for what he had already done, and said they should fight at the state level.

Trump is in many ways an unlikely champion for the antiabortion cause and decades ago even declared himself “pro-choice in every respect.” But he took an opposite stance as he sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, making headlines at a town hall for saying that if abortion was outlawed, women who get them should face “some form of punishment.”

As president, he delivered on his campaign promise to appoint Supreme Court justices who would go on to overturn Roe v. Wade and end the nationwide right to an abortion. It was a seminal accomplishment for the antiabortion community.

In his video on Monday, Trump said he was “proudly” responsible for ending Roe. But he is cognizant of the price Republicans have paid at the polls ever since. During the 2024 GOP primary, he sidestepped questions about whether he would sign a federal abortion restriction into law, sometimes promising to find a limit that would somehow — albeit improbably — make all sides happy. “We’ll make a deal,” he told one activist talking to him about the issue.

He has attributed Republican losses to abortion and has quizzed advisers and lawmakers about how they think abortion will affect the presidential race.

In private, Trump has repeatedly complained that some Republicans don’t say at the outset that they support exceptions to bans and has emphasized that exceptions “can’t be the small print,” according to a person in touch with him. In recent weeks Trump has also commented that too many state bans are too restrictive, the person said.

Several advisers described Trump as “thinking about a general election,” in the words of one.

He risked the ire of influential social conservatives by calling Florida’s six-week ban “terrible.” Antiabortion leaders were taken aback in February by a New York Times report saying Trump liked the idea of a 16-week federal limit with exceptions, and Trump’s team — furious about the reporting — insisted that no decision had been made, worried about the general election.

In a radio interview last month, Trump said “people are agreeing on 15, and I’m thinking in terms of that.” At the time, he floated such a ban privately, but he also said people agreed that “it’s a state issue.”

Trump’s calculation appeared to be largely correct that most conservative groups and lawmakers would not criticize him.

The sharpest criticism came from former vice president Mike Pence, who ran against Trump but dropped out of the 2024 primary before the first vote was cast. He called it a “slap in the face to millions of pro-life Americans” and a “retreat on the right to life.”

But most others argued that even if Trump’s statement was disappointing, he is a better option than President Biden. Penny Nance, chief executive of Concerned Women for America, said she favors federal limits on abortion, but she will still support Trump because of his record in office.

Dannenfelser, the president of SBA Pro-Life America, who has made supporting a 15-week federal limit a litmus test for candidates to receive her group’s endorsement, said Monday that the organization was “deeply disappointed” in Trump’s position. But she did not call it morally indefensible and said the pro-life grass roots would “work tirelessly to defeat President Biden.”

Kevin Roberts, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in a recent interview that although his organization is “unabashedly pro-life,” it hears from many activists who recognize the political barriers to their goals on abortion.

The activists say, “let’s go win the election on what we can win the election on, which is the economy, the border and the lack of public safety in cities, and save the abortion conversation for a later cycle,” Roberts said.

Some abortion opponents are planning for ways Trump could curtail abortion access without Congress. Many are focused on possible actions by federal agencies, including revisiting the approval of an abortion drug and blocking the mailing of abortion pills.

“The action in the next administration is going to revolve around undoing the Biden administration’s actions on abortion as opposed to a national gestation protection,” said Roger Severino, vice president of domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said he still thought Trump would sign antiabortion legislation if presented to him, and that voters should work to elect antiabortion Republicans in Congress. “I take the president’s statement with a comma, not a period,” he said.

Graham, a sponsor of a 15-week federal ban who had lobbied Trump on the issue, said a “states’ rights-only rationale” would age as well as the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling in the Dred Scott case that concluded that enslaved people could not claim U.S. citizenship.

“I respectfully disagree with President Trump’s statement that abortion is a states’ rights issue. Dobbs does not require that conclusion legally, and the pro-life movement has always been about the well-being of the unborn child — not geography,” Graham said on Monday.

Trump, who has noted that Graham is often booed when he appears with him, immediately attacked the senator from ruby-red South Carolina.

“Senator Lindsey Graham is doing a great disservice to the Republican Party, and to our Country. At first he wanted no Abortions under any circumstances, then he was up to 6 weeks, where you’re allowed Abortion, now he’s up to 15 weeks, where you’re allowed Abortion, but what he doesn’t understand, or perhaps he does, is the Radical Left Democrats, who are destroying our Country, will never approve anything that he or the Republicans want,” Trump wrote on Truth Social.

But Democrats have made clear they will attack Trump over abortion no matter the specifics of his 2024 platform. They are reminding voters nonstop about his pivotal role in Roe’s end in 2022. When a court cleared the way last week for Florida’s six-week ban to take effect, Biden highlighted Trump’s past boast that “without me, there would be no 6 weeks.”

“You already made your statement, Donald,” Biden responded on social media.

Democrats, viewing abortion as a key election issue, are expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on abortion in the fall.

One person close to the former president who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations said his team is closely monitoring how the Biden campaign was attacking Trump on abortion in swing states.

On Monday, Democrats jumped on Trump’s statement and argued he was backing all the bans — the same argument Conway had made privately.

Biden said in a statement that Trump, “more than anyone in America,” is responsible for “the cruelty and the chaos” that have followed Roe’s demise.

Michael Scherer, Paige Winfield Cunningham and Michelle Boorstein contributed this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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