Donald Trump considers a federal abortion ban a losing proposal for Republicans as the party prepares to enter the first presidential election since the supreme court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade – and is unlikely to support such a policy, according to people close to him.
The former president has told allies in recent days that his gut feeling remains leaving the matter of reproductive rights to the states – following the court’s reasoning in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization that ended 50 years of federal abortion protections.
But Trump’s crystallizing stance appears to be, in essence, a recognition that a federal abortion ban could cost him in the 2024 election should he become the Republican nominee, mainly because a majority of Americans simply do not support making abortion mostly or entirely illegal.
The thinking is informed in part by Republicans’ losses in the midterm elections they were supposed to dominate, which interviews showed were tied to the supreme court ruling. And in the six states where abortion-related questions were on the ballot in 2022, voters chose to reject further limits.
The issue has emerged as an early litmus test for Republican presidential candidates, and Trump’s reluctance to endorse national restrictions would put him squarely at odds with prominent leaders of the anti-abortion movement who are demanding federal action.
Yet his refusal to embrace the most hard-line position of party activists provides an opening for potential rivals such as Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his former vice-president Mike Pence to run to his right on an issue.
Worried about the political risks of being viewed as draconian on abortion, Trump’s allies told him they were surprised last week to see DeSantis, his expected rival in the 2024 race, sign into law and become the face of the state’s six-week abortion ban.
The feedback to Trump – which is shaping his stance – was that for all the claims by DeSantis that he was supposedly an electable alternative to Trump for the GOP nomination, the Florida governor would undermine his chances in a general election by becoming the face of a six-week abortion ban.
Trump has talked about striking a balance, people close to him said: leaving abortion up to the states, while endorsing exceptions for rape, incest and in cases of harm to the mother, as well as appointing conservative judges to the federal bench and removing federal funds for Planned Parenthood, which he did as president.
Trump’s less extreme stance on abortion underscores the enduring potency of one of America’s most politically charged issues. But his posturing could prove risky in the Republican primary, where social conservatives have outsized influence in the early-voting states, especially in Iowa.
On Saturday, Trump is scheduled to speak at Iowa’s Faith and Freedom Coalition event – one of the most conservative conferences in the country – where he may be pressed on his abortion stance.
Asked about Trump’s stance on abortion for 2024, the campaign reiterated his White House policies: “President Trump believes that the supreme court, led by the three justices which he supported, got it right when they ruled this is an issue that should be decided at the state level.”
It added: “Republicans have been trying to get this done for 50 years, but we were unable to do so. President Trump, who is considered the most pro-life president in history, got it done. He will continue these policies when re-elected to the White House.”
Trump’s political thinking was also on display when the draft supreme court decision to overturn Roe v Wade was leaked last year, the people said, when he turned to friends and said it would anger suburban women and lead to a backlash against Republicans in the midterms.
He initially demurred about taking credit for the ruling – unusual for someone typically so keen to claim any credit – and was silent even as Pence and other conservatives from his administration declared victory for the anti-abortion movement.
Later, Trump made sure to issue a statement applauding himself for sticking with his three nominees to the supreme court, who all ended up in the 6-3 majority opinion reversing Roe v Wade. “Today’s decision … [was] only made possible because I delivered everything as promised,” he said.
Trump has described himself as the “most pro-life president” in history, though he is a former Democrat from New York who once supported abortion rights until around the time that he ran for president in 2016.
In office, Trump paved the way for the post-Roe legal landscape, also appointing to the federal bench in Texas US district court judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, whose recent ruling revoked the Food and Drug Administration’s 23-year-old approval of the abortion drug, mifepristone. The decision has been temporarily stayed.
Trump’s comments about abortion being a political liability for Republicans have angered former allies. When Trump blamed the party’s midterm losses on “the abortion issue”, prominent anti-abortion groups fired back with a pointed warning that the former president still needed to earn their support.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America group, told reporters prior to the March For Life in January that any candidate who did not support national restrictions on abortion had “disqualified him or herself as a presidential candidate in our eyes”.
Jon Schweppe, policy director of the conservative American Principles Project, said Trump was not wrong that abortion had hurt Republicans in recent elections. He said, though, that the answer was not to abandon the push for a nationwide ban, but to build consensus within the party around a federal standard, such as a prohibiting the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
“I think [Trump] sees abortion as why we lost the midterms, and he’s not totally wrong,” Schweppe said. “But the answer is not: ‘There’s no federal role. We’re not going to do anything any more – I delivered you Dobbs.’ It’s gotta be: ‘This is the next step.’
“The pro-life movement still has quite a bit of sway, and it’s going to have a major sway in the presidential primary.”
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