In the span of two days, Donald Trump has suggested that abortion be outlawed (and women be punished for violating such a ban) and forcefully defended his campaign manager, who has been charged with assaulting a woman journalist.
For a candidate and a party that struggles among women voters on election days, this week has provided more fodder for his critics inside the Republican Party and for Democrats who portray the GOP as unfriendly toward women.
“We have complained for years about the Democrats’ smear campaign about the war on women. Donald Trump literally has a campaign manager charged with beating a woman,” said Ryan Williams, Republican strategist who worked for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “(Trump) stands by people who beat up women.”
The Republican Party, while it has a strict anti-abortion platform, including its support of a constitutional amendment banning the procedure, has tried to distance itself from candidates that would turn away women voters.
During the 2012 presidential election, the issue of birth control and abortion weighed down the Republican primary between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Even Santorum, thought to be one of the most socially conservative Republicans in that race, didn’t support criminalizing women for abortions. He did support criminalizing providers.
During that same election year, the Republican Party suffered because of down-ballot candidates who espoused extreme positions on the issue. Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin spent weeks trying recover after saying rape should not be an exception for abortion because a woman won’t get pregnant because her body would "shut ... down."
Conservative women are also upset.
March for Life, an anti-abortion organization, put out a stinging statement in response to Trump.
“Mr. Trump’s comment today is completely out of touch with the pro-life movement and even more with women who have chosen such a sad thing as abortion,” said Jeanne Mancini, President of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. This is against the very nature of what we are about. We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment.”
Others are angry over the fact that Trump has vehemently defended Lewandowski. A group of women conservative media professionals, including Dana Loesch, Meghan McCain, S.E. Cupp and Mary Katherine Hamm issued a public plea calling on Trump to fire Lewandowski, saying it would “clearly highlight the difference between right and wrong.”
And those are just Republicans — members of his party. Democrats have already started to pounce, escalating a narrative that many Republicans don't want to revisit.
Justin Barasky, communications director for the pro-Clinton group Priorities USA, highlighted Trump’s comments.
In an email he told NBC News that he was “simply making a comment on the state of the today’s GOP. They’re all terrible on this issue.”
And Emily’s List, which prioritizes electing women to office, responded through spokeswoman Marcy Stetch.
“While it’s easy to get distracted by the daily drama of his campaign, let’s not forget that Trump has adopted the same extreme policies embraced and advanced by the most fringe in his party,” she wrote in a statement. “Republicans are about to nominate a truly dangerous man to lead their fight to restrict women’s access to abortion.”
Brian Walsh, Republican strategist who has helped to elect Republicans to the Senate, said Trump's positions could be problematic for the party.
"There’s no question that it would be an issue if he is the party’s nominee," Walsh said.
Republican down-ballot candidates could expect to be framed in terms like this from spokeswoman of the Democratic National Committee, Christina Freundlich.
“In a matter of 24 hours, Trump has gone from defending his campaign manager over charges that he assaulted a woman to now saying women should be ‘punished’ for having an abortion. Trump is simply reaffirming what the country has known for years — that the Republican Party doesn’t stand for women’s rights," she said.
And Finally the Walk Back — on the Third Try
After the a flood of negative reaction, including from abortion opponents, Trump reversed his position, but only after two previous attempts to clarify his statement.
First, Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, tried to clean up the controversy over abortion after the town hall, releasing a statement.
“This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination. Like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions, which I have outlined numerous times," Trump said in the statement.
And in a campaign rally in Wisconsin Wednesday afternoon, Trump inadvertently tried to address the issue.
“Nobody respects women more than me and nobody will be better to woman … nobody but Donald Trump. Believe me,” he said.
And then, a third attempt, sent just before 5:00 p.m. ET, this complete reversal entered reporters' inboxes: "If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb. My position has not changed — like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions."
Williams, the Republican strategist, however, said Trump has shown that he's not fit for the Oval Office.
"For all these Vichy Republicans out there considering capitulating to Donald Trump, this instance serves as another reminder that it is wrong," he said. "Trump needs to be stopped before he somehow gets to the nomination. We’re past the point of no return with him."