The man who essentially ended the federal right to abortion thinks that he can now run for president in 2024 as a “moderate” on the issue.
In recent weeks, according to two people familiar with the matter, Donald Trump has privately remarked that several anti-abortion leaders — people who spent the past year pushing him to commit to enacting a draconian national ban — now have no “leverage” to force him to do anything.
Despite their very public pressure campaign for that abortion ban, the former president insists that they will all fall in line and back him soon enough — with or without specific policy promises — in large part because they have nowhere else to turn. Trump has also mocked certain “disloyal” and “out of touch” leaders in the movement for tacitly supporting Florida governor and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, who has failed to loosen Trump’s grip on the party, one of the sources adds.
According to the two sources and other Trump allies and aides familiar with the situation, Trump and his team are looking past the primary towards a general-election fight against President Joe Biden — and they think they can somehow run the former president as a supposed “moderate” (as three sources put it) on abortion, at least compared to the majority of the 2024 Republican field. For months, the sources tell Rolling Stone, Trump and some of his closest aides — such as top campaign adviser Susie Wiles — have planned for the ex-president to position himself in a way that “makes both Republicans and Democrats very happy,” as Trump is fond of saying.
Such a premise seems, on its face, laughable. “It’s a complete joke,” says Pat Dennis, president of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century. Highlighting the absurdity of the idea, Dennis points to the fact that Trump is, at this very moment, running campaign ads in Iowa taking credit for the destruction of Roe v. Wade.
In the ads, Trump calls himself the “THE MOST Pro-Life President in history” — a boast that accurately characterizes the former president’s anti-abortion track record: appointing Supreme Court justices who would play pivotal roles in nullifying the landmark decision, reinstating and expanding the global gag rule, and stripping Planned Parenthood of Title X funding, among other decisions.
When Trump was in office, and years before Roe became history, he and his White House also backed a 20-week abortion ban. His softer rhetorical approach nowadays reflects a broader pattern of Trump triangulating on some issues to appeal to more moderate-leaning voters and independents, even if his equivocations are flimsy. For instance, during the 2016 campaign, Trump began trying to brand himself as a different type of Republican who would protect widely popular entitlement programs, veering away from the conservative dogma of demanding spending cuts. While president, though, Trump said he was open to slashing federal entitlements, even Medicare. Towards the end of his term, some of his most senior administration officials plotted a blitz of big spending cuts to occur after a reelection, when Trump would be less politically vulnerable.
But the political fallout from the end of Roe has been cataclysmic for the GOP. Across the country, Republicans dramatically underperformed in both the 2022 and the 2023 elections; all seven times abortion has been directly on the ballot since Dobbs, majorities of voters — even in conservative states like Kansas and Kentucky — have either voted against restrictions or in favor of expanded protections. Trump’s awareness that he would have to run against Biden with the Dobbs decision hanging around his neck has led the ex-president and his senior staff to prevaricate — especially on limits and a federal ban — in ways that infuriated anti-abortion organizers who hoped to condition their support on Trump bowing to their demands.
For more than a year, anti-abortion groups have been publicly and aggressively pressuring Trump — holding back their support, lavishing praise on his rivals, even picketing outside his events — all in an effort to force the former president into a more full-throated commitment to advance their anti-abortion agenda if he returns to the Oval Office. At the very minimum, these activists want the former president to support a 15-week national ban on abortion if they help put him back in the White House.
A year ago, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students For Life of America, harshly criticized Trump, stating she and her group were “not looking for ambivalence in those we support. We understand that we are at the beginning of a fight, and not the end.” Lila Rose, founder of Live Action, told Rolling Stone at the time: “Pro-life voters will not take a back seat or be treated like a second-class constituency…[We] are a powerful block, and we demand more than just lip service…The candidate who takes the boldest stance in defense of our nation’s most vulnerable should earn the pro-life vote.”
But that was then — when the humiliating rejection of Trumpism during the 2022 midterms and the assumed strength of a DeSantis 2024 run had the former president appearing freshly vulnerable. (Representatives for Students for Life and Live Action did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for comment.)
Nowadays, instead of granting concessions, Trump and his advisers now brag that not only have they consolidated enough support to very likely win the primary in a cake walk — they did it while calling abortion hardliners’ bluff. “The [anti-abortion] activists who thought they could force Donald Trump to commit political suicide were deeply mistaken,” a Republican close to the Trump reelection campaign tells Rolling Stone. “These were all-or-nothing types who should realize that he doesn’t need them. They need him.”
In recent months, Trump has argued to confidants and key allies that “even Republican” voters generally don’t want a national ban, based on the polling he’s been shown, the two sources say. He’s also blasted some conservative activists for pushing Republican candidates, not just him, to be too “extreme” on the issue, in a way that scares off suburban women voters.
Publicly, he has called Gov. DeSantis’ six-week abortion ban in Florida a “terrible mistake.”
Trump’s strategy appears to be to promise to remain pro-life if reelected, but to avoid endorsing policies like a national ban in 2024 — and hoping just enough voters don’t notice the cynical triangulation.
“It defies reality that Donald Trump and his advisers are greenlighting ads touting Trump’s role in killing Roe v Wade while millions of women in 21 states live every single day under laws severely restricting abortion access — and somehow simultaneously they have a strategy to moderate his position on the same issue?” Biden campaign spokesperson Seth Schuster said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “No one is buying that, and it obviously won’t work. Donald Trump spent his first term laser focused on ripping away a fundamental freedom from millions of women and he did it — and now he will live with the consequences next November.”
Just how many people — on both sides of the aisle — will end up buying what Trump is selling remains to be seen. When Trump first announced his candidacy more than a year ago, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, one of the largest and most powerful anti-abortion organizations in the country, did not rush to boost Trump. Instead, the group put out a statement calling on the former president to outline his “pro-life vision” and post-Dobbs platform. SBA has since declared that it will not endorse any candidates who do not support a 15-week ban.
In theory, that would include Trump, who has refused to make such a declaration. But the group is hardly backing away from the former president. “We’re thankful former President Trump was the most pro-life president to date, as he actively reminded voters through his recent pro-life ads,” says Mary Owens, spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. The organization, she tells Rolling Stone, “recognizes it will take more than 18 months to build a culture of life in this country.”
Owens did not respond to specific questions about whether anyone at the organization had meetings with the former president or his team trying to move him toward a 15-week national ban or if the group would endorse Trump if he refuses to back such a ban. The group has declared it would not endorse candidates for House or Senate candidates who did not back a 15-week ban.
Instead, in a statement to Rolling Stone, SBA Pro-Life America sought to highlight the contrast between Trump and his general election rival — proving the Trump campaign’s logic: “Just as former President Trump exposed Hilary Clinton’s abortion extremism for voters in 2016, we urge him to do the same in 2024. We must not forget who the real extremists on abortion are.”
The Trump campaign, for its part, cited SBA’s praise of the former president in a statement of its own. The former president “has given movement leaders negotiating power they have never had before and his actions are without parallel,” spokesman Steven Cheung said. “Throughout these unprecedented successes, President Trump has always advised Republicans must learn to talk about this critical issue the right way and remind voters that it is Democrats who are the extreme ones, not Republicans, despite the left’s attempt to paint it that way.”
During his time in the White House, Trump would sometimes make it clear to anti-abortion allies why he wasn’t as rhetorically gung-ho as many of them were. Last year, Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor and a faith adviser to Trump over the years, relayed a conversation he had with Trump at the White House, shortly after the 2020 Republican National Convention.
According to Jeffress, the then-president said that there were a lot of Americans with “nuanced opinions on the subject. He said the American people were conflicted on the issue, and that polls indicated there are Americans who object to abortion on demand, but don’t agree on an outright ban; that the majority of Americans are somewhere in between.”
Jeffress added: “‘It’s a tough issue,’ I believe, were his exact words.”
The pastor tells Rolling Stone he spoke to the former president more recently about the matter, saying that “some months ago when I was talking on the phone with President Trump about this issue, I agreed with him that Republican losses were due to extreme positions on this issue and that he had the right strategy. He is, of course, still very, very pro-life, but it is not going to do him, or the movement, any good to pretend that he should campaign on a six-week ban, like others have.”
Jeffress continues, “He is going to be the Republican nominee to take on Joe Biden … and anyone who thought they could muscle Donald Trump into doing or saying anything on this important issue clearly does not know Donald Trump.”
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