As a candidate for president in 2016, Donald Trump promised to put “pro-life justices” on the Supreme Court. He even issued a list of potential nominees that featured some of the most conservative judges in the country.
As president, Trump made good on his promise, appointing three of the six justices who voted last year to overturn the Supreme Court’s precedent in Roe v. Wade and end, after years of erosion, the constitutional right to an abortion.
Each of these appointments — Neil Gorsuch in 2017, Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and Amy Coney Barrett in 2020 — was a landmark occasion for the Trump administration and a major victory for the conservative movement. Trump used his court picks to energize Republican voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election and, later, took credit for the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that made Roe obsolete.
The Dobbs decision, Trump said in a statement, was “the biggest WIN for LIFE in a generation” and was “only made possible because I delivered everything as promised, including nominating and getting three highly respected and strong Constitutionalists confirmed to the United States Supreme Court.” It was, he continued, “my great honor to do so!”
As recently as last week, in remarks to the Concerned Women of America Summit, Trump bragged about the anti-abortion record of his administration. “I’m also proud to be the most pro-life president in American history,” he said. “I was the first sitting president ever to attend the March for Life rally right here in Washington, D.C.” The biggest thing, he emphasized, was his appointment of three Supreme Court justices who “ruled to end the moral and constitutional atrocity known as Roe v. Wade.”
“Nobody thought that could be done,” Trump said.
Whether or not Trump is personally opposed to abortion is immaterial. The truth, established by his record as president, is that he is as committed to outlawing abortion in the United States as any other conservative Republican.
There is no reason, then, to take seriously his remarks on Sunday, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he criticized strict abortion bans and tried to distance himself from the anti-abortion policies of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. “I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” Trump said, taking aim at Gov. Ron DeSantis’s decision to sign a six-week ban into law in Florida in April. Trump also rejected the 15-week federal ban pushed by his former vice president, Mike Pence, and promised to negotiate a compromise with Democrats on abortion. “Both sides are going to like me,” he said. “I’m going to come together with all groups, and we’re going to have something that’s acceptable.”
Trump is triangulating. He sees, correctly, that the Republican Party is now on the wrong side of the public on abortion. By rejecting a blanket ban and making a call for compromise with Democrats, Trump is trying to fashion himself as an abortion moderate, a strategy that also rests on his pre-political persona as a liberal New Yorker with a live-and-let-live attitude toward personal behavior.
There is a real chance this could work. In 2016, voters did not see Trump as a conservative figure on either abortion or gay rights, despite the fact that he was the standard-bearer for the party that wanted restrictions on both. It would be a version of the trick he pulled on Social Security and Medicare, where he posed as a defender of programs that have been in the cross-hairs of conservative Republicans since they were created.
But there’s an even greater chance that this gambit falls flat. There are the Democrats, who will have his record to highlight when they go on the offensive next year, assuming he’s on the ballot as the Republican nominee. There is the political press, which should highlight the fact that Trump is directly responsible for the end of Roe (so far, it mostly has). And there are his rivals, like DeSantis, who are already pressing Trump to commit to further anti-abortion policies in a second term.
It’s probably no accident then that Trump went to Iowa — where the Florida governor is investing the full resources of his campaign — to remind voters of his role in ending Roe. “They couldn’t get the job done, I got the job done,” Trump said. “I got it done. With the three Supreme Court justices that I appointed, this issue has been returned to the states, where all legal scholars on both sides said it should be. Of course, now the pro-life community has tremendous negotiating power.”
Trump is no longer the singular figure of 2016. He is enmeshed within the Republican Party. He has real commitments to allies and coalition partners within the conservative movement. He is the undisputed leader of the Republican Party, yes, but he can’t simply jettison the abortion issue, which remains a central concern for much of the Republican base.
“We’re at a moment where we need a human rights advocate, someone who is dedicated to saving the lives of children and serving mothers in need. Every single candidate should be clear on how they plan to do that,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a statement issued in response to Trump’s comments on “Meet the Press.”
Trump will have to talk about abortion again and again, in a context that does him no political favors.
There is a larger point to make here. Because we are almost certain to see a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, it is easy to think that the next election will be a replay of the previous one in much the same way that the 1956 contest between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson was virtually identical to the one in 1952.
But conditions will be very different in 2024 than they were in 2020. Trump will not be an incumbent and, according to my colleague Nate Cohn, he may not have the same scale of Electoral College advantage he enjoyed in his previous races. He’ll be under intense legal scrutiny and, most important, he’ll be a known quantity.
The public won’t have to imagine a Trump presidency. It will already know what to expect. And judging from Trump’s attempt to get away from his own legacy, he probably knows that a majority of the voting public isn’t eager to experience another four years with him at the helm.
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