Trump, who paved way for Roe repeal, faces abortion blowback from right

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Former president Donald Trump is facing sharp blowback from some antiabortion activists and conservative governors, including his top challenger in the Republican presidential primary, reflecting the intraparty divisions over an issue the GOP has struggled to navigate since Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer.

The tensions center on Trump’s recent comments disparaging an abortion ban after six weeks of pregnancy and pledging to work with “both sides” on a federal ban, though abortion rights advocates staunchly oppose such a restriction. Among those rebuking Trump are Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running a distant second behind Trump in many polls, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has frequently appeared with DeSantis on the campaign trail despite staying neutral in the primary. Both signed state laws barring many abortions, setting the bar at a point before many even know they are pregnant.

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The former president returned to Iowa on Wednesday, the first GOP nominating state – and one where abortion is a potent issue for many social conservatives expected to participate in January’s caucuses. During remarks in Dubuque, he touted his role in overturning Roe.

“And last year I was able to do something that nobody thought was possible,” Trump said. “And you have to really think about this, study this, because its very important, we ended Roe v. Wade. I did something that for 52 years people talked, they spent vast amounts of money in fighting it, but they couldn’t get the job done. Fifty-two years they fought and they fought hard. . . . They couldn’t get the job done. I got the job done. I got it done.”

He also warned against Republicans taking positions such as banning abortion even in the case of rape, incest or health of the mother. “Without the exceptions, it is very difficult to win elections,” he said. “We would probably lose the majorities in 2024 without the exceptions and perhaps the presidency itself.”

The frictions have cast a renewed spotlight on Trump’s long shifting posture on the issue of abortion. Even as he faces criticism from some in his party, Democrats are seeking to remind voters of the steps he took to curtail abortion rights as president. And many Republicans have been quiet about his posture, in part a reflection of his strength in the party and the belief by many that he will be the nominee. Over the years, Trump’s publicly stated positions have spanned from his support of abortion rights as a private citizen, to his Supreme Court nominees who helped overturn Roe, to his more recent efforts to appear less extreme on a divisive topic.

“His comments left a lot of folks in the life movement confused because he did such a great job in undoing Roe v. Wade,” said Roger Severino, a vice president at the conservative the Heritage Foundation who led the federal health department’s civil rights office during the Trump administration.

Trump has dodged attempts to pin him down on his views about abortion bans and the point at which one should kick in. “It could be state or it could be federal. I don’t frankly care,” he said in an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

He especially angered some antiabortion advocates when he called the six-week ban DeSantis enacted in Florida a “terrible thing and a terrible mistake” and said Republicans “speak very inarticulately about this subject.”

“It’s never a ‘terrible thing’ to protect innocent life,” Reynolds wrote Tuesday on X, the social media website formerly known as Twitter. “I’m proud of the fetal heartbeat bill the Iowa legislature passed and I signed in 2018 and again earlier this year,” she added, using a term favored by antiabortion advocates.

DeSantis then shared her post and applauded her. “Donald Trump is wrong to attack the heartbeat bill as ‘terrible.’ Standing for life is a noble cause,” he added, part of a volley of more direct attacks on the GOP polling leader this week.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), a vocal Trump critic who refused to join his efforts to overturn President Biden’s 2020 election victory, sounded similar notes, writing, “there’s nothing ‘terrible’ about standing up for life.”

Last year’s Supreme Court ruling allowed states such as Florida, Iowa and Georgia to try to enact bans on most abortions. Iowa’s ban has been blocked in court.

The court decision also helped galvanize abortion rights advocates to turn out at the polls to strike down antiabortion ballot measures in some conservative states, and Democrats who ran heavily on protecting abortion access found success in key battlegrounds. Since that time, Republicans have pushed different approaches on the issue, with some advocating what they say is a more compromising posture. With an eye on 2024, many Democrats are reminding voters of Trump’s record as president and already gearing up to run heavily on abortion once again.

“Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is responsible for ending Roe v. Wade. And if you vote for him, he’ll go even further,” Biden recently wrote on X. Earlier this month, the Biden campaign released an online ad highlighting Republican candidates on abortion, an early signal of how prominent the issue is likely to be in his reelection bid.

Within the crowded GOP presidential field, no clear consensus has emerged over whether to enact a federal ban on abortion at a certain point in pregnancy. DeSantis has repeatedly dodged directly answering whether he’d support nationwide restrictions, while former vice president Mike Pence has leaned into his longtime antiabortion credentials, calling for abortions to be banned in every state. Those divisions were on full display during the first GOP primary debate last month, underscoring how tricky the specifics of abortion policy has become for Republicans since Roe was overturned.

It remains to be seen how the issue will affect the standing in the GOP race of Trump, who holds a commanding lead and whose appeal to many supporters is not tied to specific policies.

Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the former president “will have a little more wiggle room with primary voters probably because of his record on the life issue as president,” but that Trump’s position that the six-week abortion ban is terrible “is not the position of our members, or the evangelical voters in Iowa.”

Dave Wilson, a conservative strategist in South Carolina, where the governor recently signed a six-week ban, said Republicans in his state “are not going to think that law is terrible” and that it could alienate some Republican voters.

Despite the pressure to take a firm position, two people who have spoken with Trump about abortion said the president is steadfast in his refusal to be tied to a specific number of weeks on abortion. One of these people said the former president has said that the six-week bills are extreme and wants to instead talk about “exceptions.” Trump often talks about the topic as a general election one and not a primary one, both of these people said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Kellyanne Conway, a longtime Trump adviser who has pushed him to accept a 15-week national ban, said in an interview that such a position is “both concession and compassion.” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally who has lobbied him on the issue, is continuing to talk to others about bringing up a 15-week federal ban in the Senate, according to people familiar with the discussions. Graham didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some voters in key early states said they were concerned about Trump’s recent comments. Standing outside a church in West Des Moines on Sunday afternoon, Denise and Dave Bubeck said they were surprised to learn of Trump’s opposition to a six-week ban.

“‘I’m the most pro-life president ever’ – that’s what he said, so it seems like he would be for the heartbeat bill,” said Denise Bubeck, who is president of the local political group Capitol Region Republican Women. She added that being against it “doesn’t resonate with Iowans because the Republicans of Iowa are very pleased” with the six-week law.

Chris Hanley, a South Carolina physician who is also a youth minister, said he was considering both Trump and DeSantis in the GOP primary until he heard Trump’s comments on abortion this past weekend.

“This idea that a human life, an unborn child is reduced to a negotiating position is appalling to me,” Hanley said on Wednesday, shortly after donating to DeSantis and telling a local DeSantis supporter that he was ready to commit. “I am going to volunteer as much time as I have available.”

Trump’s comments have given his primary opponents – who have often appeared wary of attacking the former president too harshly given his deep base of support in the party – a fresh opening to differentiate themselves from him.

An official with Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting DeSantis, said Wednesday that over the past 48 hours they have gotten outreach from many pastors and other faith leaders upset about Trump’s statements on abortion. A DeSantis adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal campaign deliberations, said they were thrilled to have audio of Trump attacking the Florida law. “Now you have to imagine we can make every pro-life voter in Iowa hear this,” the adviser said.

Trump’s views on abortion have shifted dramatically over the years. During an appearance on “Meet the Press” in 1999, Trump referred to himself as “very pro-choice,” though said he personally hated abortion.

By 2011, when he started seriously exploring a political run, Trump started referring to himself as “pro-life.” In 2016, when he was a leading candidate for president, he made headlines for saying that there should be “some form of punishment” for a woman who gets an abortion. The next day, Trump walked back those comments and said in a statement that “the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.”

Trump won over skeptical conservative GOP voters in 2016 by releasing a list of antiabortion judges he pledged to appoint to the Supreme Court as president. Over his four years in office, he nominated three to the nation’s highest court – all of whom voted to overturn Roe.

But, since then, Trump has blamed GOP losses in the midterms on the party staking stances that are too extreme on abortion. Trump repeated that sentiment on Friday during remarks in Washington, saying Republicans “don’t know how to discuss the subject. We do have to hold on to office, we do have to win. And we can win elections on this issue, but it’s very delicate and explaining it properly is an extremely important thing.”

Although a federal abortion ban of any kind is unlikely to pass the narrowly divided Congress, some antiabortion groups say GOP presidential hopefuls should clearly lay out their stance on federal restrictions. One leading antiabortion group, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said it won’t endorse any candidate who doesn’t support at least a 15-week ban on most abortions, which Trump has so far failed to do.

“Trump was wrong in attacking the heartbeat bill in Florida,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president, said in a statement. In 2016, Dannenfelser was instrumental in extracting antiabortion promises from the former president amid concerns that Trump couldn’t be trusted on the issue.

Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life Action, wrote a letter to Trump on Monday asking him to clarify his position.

“We need to see him acknowledge that abortion is also a federal issue as well as a state and local issue,” Hawkins said in an interview Wednesday. Her group has had conversations this week with the Trump team about its letter and broader concerns about his stance on abortion.

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Isaac Arnsdorf and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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