Abortion is a top concern for Trump as he considers his VP pick

Former President Donald Trump has been laser-focused on the abortion views of his potential running mates, viewing the issue as a potential vulnerability for Republicans.

SHARE THIS —

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Last month at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump was dining on the outdoor patio, engaging in his regular habit of stopping by the tables of club members and talking about whatever issue was top of mind. 

On this day, the GOP’s challenges on the issue of abortion became the focus when a member brought up the midterm elections and the hit Republicans took over reproductive rights. According to a source who was present, the member told Trump to pick a running mate who isn’t too hard-line on the issue. Trump then began making the rounds polling his dinner guests about abortion and the veepstakes.

In particular, he asked the diners — who included his campaign aides and club members — what they thought of the vocal anti-abortion-rights views of Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Would they turn off voters?

According to two sources close to Trump, including the person at the dinner, Trump has been laser-focused on the abortion issue, especially when it comes to his vice presidential pick. He sees it as the one major advantage for Democrats and a vulnerability for Republicans. 

“The president understands it as a treacherous issue — one that you can actually trip up and fall on your face with,” said the source, a person familiar with his thinking. The person added that Trump would most likely not risk picking “someone with a six-week ban in their discussions or someone without any commitment on the exceptions.”

In addition to Scott, the second source said, Trump has been asking about where other potential vice presidential contenders stand on abortion, specifically naming Sen. JD Vance of Ohio, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. 

“He’s concerned it will have a drag on the ticket if they’re seen as holding too staunch a position,” the person said. 

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has frequently been discussed as a potential vice presidential pick for Trump. Matt Rourke / AP file

The two sources said it has been a point of discussion among advisers and donors, as well, with people waving some red and yellow flags for certain shortlisters. 

The candidates most frequently mentioned with some concern are Scott and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. 

Noem’s team confirmed to NBC News that she met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago on Feb. 26, but it declined to disclose any details about the conversation. Her state was among those with trigger bans that took effect after the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade. Abortion is now completely banned there, with an exception only to save the life of the woman. 

She has called herself an “absolutist” on the issue, and she defended her state’s lack of rape and incest exceptions when she was asked in a CNN interview whether a 10-year-old rape victim should be forced to give birth. Last year, Noem told CBS News that her state’s ban on abortion is “a model for the Republican Party.”

“I’m pro-life, however as a mom and grandma, I want to help moms and families through whatever difficult situation they may be facing,” Noem said in a statement to NBC News. “We have to talk about this difficult issue with heart and with compassion. We don’t win by hiding from the conversation. Women on both sides feel strongly about the issue. But the women I talk to everyday around the country are more concerned about how Joe Biden’s America is making it harder for their kids and grandkids to achieve the American Dream.”

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has called herself an "absolutist" on the issue of abortion.John Raoux / AP file

South Carolina doesn’t have an all-out ban like South Dakota, but it recently passed a fetal heartbeat ban that outlaws abortion at around six weeks — a time when many women don’t even know they are pregnant. 

Scott is on the record praising the six-week ban; he called it “good news” last year. In an interview in April 2023, he left the door open for such a ban at the federal level. Scott said he would “sign the most conservative pro-life legislation that they can get through Congress.” 

Asked whether he would sign it even if it were a six-week ban, he declined to provide a number of weeks but said he would back whatever conservative abortion bill Congress could get to his desk. In his campaign launch video, he vowed to “protect the right to life,” and at the first GOP primary debate, he said he would support a federal abortion ban, saying, “We must solve that issue with a 15-week limit, at a minimum.” 

In an interview with The Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston, South Carolina, he said he would support exceptions to abortion in cases of rape or incest and instances in which the life of the woman was at risk.

He was also critical of Trump on abortion during the campaign, telling Fox News, “I think the former president is wrong on the issue,” responding to Trump’s criticism of Florida’s six-week ban. 

Scott’s office declined to comment for this article. 

“I would be stunned beyond belief if he chose somebody that gave him complications around that issue,” said one of the sources close to Trump, mentioning both Scott and Noem as among those who might do just that.

Donors are also chiming in with concerns. Given the campaign’s money challenges amid costly legal battles, getting it right on abortion could have financial implications, too. A woman who is a major Trump and GOP donor told NBC News she is wary of a ticket with Scott given his “fervent” posture on abortion; she said she recently reached out to a Trump adviser to express concern. 

She said she likes Scott and understands where he’s coming from but worries he would be too hard a sell to voters. 

“We don’t have that much bandwidth to explain where he’s coming from. We have to explain to women that we trust them. I think his statements on the campaign trail, where he would sign a 20-week or a 16-week or a six-week abortion ban in a nanosecond, is just — there’s no way the Republican Party can withstand that and the Democrats’ fundraising on that,” the donor said. 

As Republicans have taken hits at the ballot box when abortion has been a key issue, Democrats are again betting that the issue of reproductive rights can help drive voters to the polls. 

A Democratic strategist expressed hope that Trump chooses Scott or Noem, because Democrats would “have a field day” with them.

“When you have the second-highest candidate for office on their ticket supporting these types of policies ... that is going to bleed into races all the way down ballot. You would see that in television ads in every state in every race. ... This just only makes our job easier,” the strategist said.

Trump is keenly aware of that dynamic. Three sources said it has been eating at him since the 2022 midterms, when he was highly disappointed in the abortion rhetoric from multiple candidates he himself endorsed. As a result, he has become increasingly focused on how to shift and sharpen the Republican strategy. 

“Abortion is Donald Trump’s singular focus in the book of issues. He sees it as existential for the party. He understands how it plays in specific states. He understands how people have played it and won or lost,” one of the sources said.

Stefanik, another possible running-mate pick, has been vocally “pro-life” and has supported a 15-week federal abortion ban, with exceptions in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the woman. Stefanik has also supported legislation that would impose prison sentences of up to five years on doctors who perform abortions after 20 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and health of the mother.  

But her stance more closely aligns with what Trump has said both publicly and privately. The New York Times recently reported that Trump likes the idea of a 16-week national ban as he tries to appeal to the majority of Americans who support abortion rights, without alienating his conservative base. The Trump campaign has denied the Times’ reporting.

Trump has generally been careful about wading in on abortion, telling NBC News in September he thought he could bring “both sides” together. He has criticized members of his party who endorse abortion bans with no exceptions. But he is also inextricably tied to the issue, having named three of the conservative Supreme Court justices who ultimately overturned Roe v. Wade. 

Also on the list is Donalds, whose website declares an anti-abortion position, saying, “Every life is valuable, from conception to natural death, and I will fight to protect the life of every unborn child without exception.” 

Donalds recently said he backs in vitro fertilization, but in 2021, he also co-sponsored the Life at Conception Act, which says people at “all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization, cloning, or other moment at which an individual comes into being,” have constitutional rights. He didn’t co-sponsor the measure when it was re-introduced in the new Congress. 

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, a famed neurosurgeon who ran for president in 2016, has also been rumored as a possible pick. And while he has a murky record on the issue, those worried about the likes of Scott and Noem aren’t as concerned about Carson, because they feel his views are older news and aren’t as ripe for Democrats to exploit. 

At a Fox News town hall last month, Trump said the most important thing he was looking for in a running mate was “somebody that you think will be a good president” in case “something should happen.”

National press secretary Karoline Levitt said in a statement, “President Trump appointed strong Constitutionalist federal judges and Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade and sent the decision back to the states, which others have tried to do for over 50 years.”

Trump’s decision also comes at a time when some red states are tacking further right on reproductive rights. The Alabama Supreme Court ruling that embryos are children, which paused in vitro fertilization treatment in the state, was “politically a boon to Democrats,” the Democratic strategist said. 

“It shows,” the strategist said, that “what Democrats have been saying would come to pass since the fall of Roe is not hyperbole.”