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Trump isn't talking about delivering on a major abortion campaign promise

Trump's unusual silence about having named the Supreme Court justices who appear set to overturn Roe v. Wade may speak to his eying a 2024 general election.
President Trump Attends Swearing-In Of Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh
Then-President Donald Trump listens as Brett Kavanaugh is sworn-in to the Supreme Court during a ceremonial event at the White House in 2018.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who were certain to overturn Roe v. Wade. And he did just that. 

More than anyone in Republican politics, Trump reshaped the court so that the landmark abortion rights ruling was bound to fall. Yet the former president, always eager to tout his every accomplishment, has been uncharacteristically quiet about his own decisive role. 

His silence may be evidence of his changed political fortunes and the extent to which he’s commandeered the party. In 2016, Trump faced a sprawling primary field and doubts about whether he even opposed abortion. He needed to reassure a skeptical  GOP electorate that he would be a  reliable ally.

But looking ahead to the 2024 GOP primary, Trump is a more formidable candidate. Polling shows him comfortably atop the potential field. If he decides to run again, he’d likely win. So he no longer needs to court anti-abortion voters who’ve already seen him deliver. They’re locked in.

“I don’t think that the Supreme Court decision will be the determinative factor of people supporting Trump in the primary if he chooses to run,” said Corey Lewandowski, a former campaign manager to the former president and a longtime Trump confidant. “What we’re going to see is if Donald Trump runs again, he’s going to be the Republican nominee.”

More valuable to Trump are general election voters — particularly the suburban women who abandoned him for Joe Biden in 2020. Most don’t want an anti-abortion warrior in the West Wing. One recent survey found that 57 percent of women want Roe upheld, compared with 50 percent of men. That may explain Trump’s reticence: There’s no need to remind moderate voters that he helped yank a constitutional right that they’d hoped would endure.

Other potential GOP candidates are in a more tenuous spot. Top of mind for them is winning over the conservative activists who enjoy an outsized influence in primary races. That means bolstering their own anti-abortion bonafides — at Trump’s expense if need be.

Mike Pence, who was Trump’s vice president, drew an implicit distinction with his former boss when speaking recently to reporters in South Carolina. Pence said he was involved in the “cause of the right to life for all my adult life.” Not so for Trump. In 1999, when Trump was 53 years old, he appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and said that he was “very pro-choice.” 

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Christian evangelical who is also girding for a presidential run, tweeted that if Roe is overturned those who’ve been exploiting the issue for “political gain” might “abandon our principles.” It’s not clear whether Pompeo was suggesting that Trump may go wobbly once Roe is struck down and states regain power to ban abortion outright. He didn’t name names. But Pompeo’s message was unmistakable: He’s a true believer who can be trusted to stop abortion cold, while others can’t.

Abortion figures to be an issue in the 2024 Republican primary that will test the field in novel ways. For decades, there was ample incentive for candidates to adopt the party orthodoxy and say they opposed legal abortion and wanted Roe overturned. Only 38 percent of Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. (For Democrats, the figure is 80 percent.) Now that the court is poised to scrap Roe, candidates will face a difficult set of questions about how states should balance a woman’s health and safety with a fetus’s viability.

Do they support banning abortion after six weeks as Texas has done — a point when a woman may not even know she is pregnant? Should a woman who gets an abortion in violation of state law be criminally punished? A bill passed recently by a Louisiana House panel labeled abortion “homicide,” possibly exposing women to a murder charge if they end their pregnancies. 

Scott Walker, a former Republican governor of Wisconsin, said that many candidates who say they oppose abortion rights have never really grappled with the issue’s complexities. “You’re going to see some people profess to be pro-life flip-flopping all over the place,” he told NBC News. “There are going to be [voters] who want the real deal: someone who can passionately defend that position.”

Trump tripped over the abortion issue in 2016, when he said in an interview that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who get an abortion after it is banned. He later walked that comment back, after it prompted a rebuke from one of his GOP primary rivals at the time, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who said that Trump hadn’t “seriously thought through the issues.” 

What’s evident is that several possible presidential hopefuls will embrace an anti-abortion platform to the right of Trump. Two of them, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, signed bills banning abortion that make no exceptions for rape and incest.

When Pompeo served as a Republican congressman from Kansas, he told an interviewer that he opposed abortion in cases where the mother was raped, contending that “that child — however conceived — is a life.” 

That’s not Trump’s position. He has said he would support abortion in cases of rape and incest, and when the mother’s life is in danger. Trump laid out those exceptions in 2019, within days of Alabama enacting a strict law banning abortion in every instance except if the mother’s life was at risk. Trump didn’t mention Alabama by name, but the timing suggested he was at odds with the state’s stringent stance.

Pence has consistently opposed abortion rights, though he has wavered on which exceptions should apply. Answering a questionnaire from the organization Indiana Right to Life in 2010, Pence, at the time a congressman, stated that abortion should never be legal. Running for governor in 2012, he responded to the questionnaire by stating that abortion should be legal only to protect the mother’s life. Asked about Pence’s belief today, one of his aides told NBC News that the former vice president supports three exceptions: rape, incest, and the mother’s life.

That position mirrors Trump’s. Still, some conservatives believe that Pence, a Christian evangelical, is a better bet to pursue policies barring abortion altogether. 

“I have no doubt that Mike Pence — with his pro-life stance, his pro-family stance — was talking in the ear of Mr. Trump and saying, ‘We have to go pro-life.’” said Mark Smith, president of Columbia International University in South Carolina, where Pence recently gave a commencement speech. (Pence is no longer in Trump’s ear; the two had a falling out when Pence defied Trump by certifying Biden’s 2020 victory.) 

If the Supreme Court’s draft opinion holds, it would stand as one of the most momentous rulings in history, one that would bear Trump’s indelible imprint. Three of the justices signing the majority opinion are likely to be the ones he nominated. That won’t necessarily bode well for Trump in a general election, given the level of national support Roe v. Wade carries. But none of his rivals in a GOP  primary can claim having fulfilled so far-reaching a campaign promise.

“President Trump gets the benefit of keeping his word,” John McLaughlin, a Trump pollster, told NBC News. “When he first started running for president, a lot of people were skeptical when he said he was pro-life. Now he’s proven them wrong and gotten support from a lot of people who were skeptics.”