On the issue of abortion, former President Donald Trump and his party are caught in a predicament. The Republican base favors the pursuit of abortion restrictions. Meanwhile, the overturning of Roe v. Wade has infuriated and energized Democrats in remarkable ways — and protecting abortion rights against federal restrictions will be a key rallying cry for the party in the 2024 race. In a pre-taped interview that aired Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump displayed a novel strategy for dealing with this dilemma — he tried to appeal to voters in both parties.
You may not be surprised to hear this: It’s a trap.
During the interview, Trump said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to sign a six-week abortion ban was “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” But when NBC’s Kristen Welker pressed Trump on his own position, he continually refused to clarify, or even hint at, where he stands. When asked repeatedly whether he’d support a 15-week federal abortion ban, as some Republicans have, Trump refused to commit and then pivoted to a remarkable pledge. “I would sit down with both sides, and I’d negotiate something, and we’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years,” Trump said. “I’m not going to say I would or I wouldn’t [sign a 15-week ban bill]... we’ll come up with a number.”
Trump’s argument for getting Democrats to agree to restrictions on abortion is premised on a straw man.
Trump framed himself as a “mediator” between two “sides” and, at one point, said, “I think they’re all going to like me, I think both sides are going to like me,” portraying himself shepherding these diametrically opposed camps to some heretofore unimaginable promised land.
Trump attempted to advance this argument by claiming that Democrats also favor at least some restrictions on abortions. He claimed blue state status quo is extreme, with many allegedly getting abortions in the final months of pregnancy and even being “allowed to kill the baby after birth.” The baby-killing claim is preposterous, of course — infanticide is illegal across the country. And abortions after 21 weeks account for fewer than 1.3% of all abortions. Experts say that typically abortions that occur later in pregnancy are due either to deadly fetal anomalies or because they threaten the health of the mother. In other words, Trump’s argument for getting Democrats to agree to restrictions on abortion is premised on a straw man.
Moreover, the idea that there’s some magical number of weeks for abortion restrictions that will satisfy the majority of Republicans — who believe abortion should be mostly or always illegal — and satisfy the majority of Democrats — who view abortion as a human right — is absurd. That’s precisely why Trump’s talk about finding a compromise isn’t followed by tangible proposals for what it would look like.
When Welker asked Trump if he preferred that abortion law be handled by states or at the federal level, he replied, “It could be state or it could be federal, I don’t frankly care.” But his discussion about negotiating at which number of weeks to ban abortion only makes sense as a federal policy. The president and Congress have purview over federal law, not state law. And of course, multiple red states have already set draconian restrictions on abortion.
It’s difficult to assess how Trump would pursue the issue if he were in the White House again. But if Republicans controlled Congress, then there’s no reason to think he’d veto bills restricting or banning abortions.
As he faces a policy dilemma with no easy answers for Republicans, Trump promises the impossible. He’s doing something that is unusual for him — trying to win over a broad swath of voters. But he isn’t being guided by personal principle or by serious engagement with what the public wants. What he's seeking is to sound as inoffensive to Republicans and Democrats as possible to secure a win. In his exchange with Welker on abortion, Trump’s most honest answer was, “I don’t frankly care.”