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Trump’s Actual Position on Abortion Is Obvious

He’s distracting the media with his usual word vomit, but his record is quite clear.

Donald Trump in 2020

On Monday, Donald Trump released a short, pre-taped video that ostensibly revealed, after months of speculation, his position on abortion. “My view is now that we have abortion where everybody wanted it from a legal standpoint, the states will determine by vote or legislation or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land, in this case, the law of the state,” he said. He also claimed that if he became president and Republicans put a national abortion ban on his desk, he would not sign it.

Many news organizations saw this as a triangulation of sorts. Trump was trying to distance himself from the most extreme Republican policies but without doing too much to alienate anti-abortion voters: If you like your state’s abortion restrictions, you can keep them.  

So much for that position! A day later, Arizona’s right-wing state Supreme Court reinstated a Civil War–era law banning nearly all abortions—and of course Trump was asked whether the ruling went too far. 

“Yeah, it did,” he said on Wednesday. “It’ll be straightened out, and as you know, it’s all about states’ rights. It’ll be straightened out, and I’m sure that the governor and everybody else are going to bring it back into reason and that’ll be taken care of, I think, very quickly.” In the same interview, he also criticized a six-week abortion ban that is slated to go into effect in Florida on May 1. Then, hours later, Trump said that states should be allowed to prosecute doctors for performing abortions. “Let that be to the states. Everything we’re doing now is states, and states’ rights,” Trump said.

To recap: Over the course of roughly 48 hours, Trump said abortion policy should be left to the states, criticized two states for going too far in efforts to restrict abortions, and said that states should be allowed to imprison doctors for performing abortions. It is a perfect encapsulation of the problem Trump poses to both media organizations and his opponents: He thrives on chaos and confusion, which he creates not because he’s a savvy political operator but because he’s a birdbrain who has no political beliefs or moral principles to speak of.

Much of the coverage of Trump’s initial statement rightly focused on its political intent. In the three years since the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade, reproductive rights have become the most consequential electoral issue in the country. Anger over the Dobbs decision played a crucial role in the GOP’s underperformance in the 2022 midterm elections; even in many red states, ballot initiatives enshrining abortion protections have prevailed. With Trump leading in most national and swing state polls, abortion—even more than his growing authoritarianism—is seen as his Achilles’ heel. 

And for good reason. Roe would not have been repealed if not for the three justices that he appointed to the Supreme Court, and only weeks ago Trump was toying with the idea of backing a national abortion ban at 15 or 16 weeks. By saying that abortion should be left to the states, Trump was trying to wash his hands of the issue: Texas can make rules for Texas; New York for New York. Trump wouldn’t step in either way. The fact that some Republicans—including former Vice President Mike Penceand anti-abortion groups criticized the move was seen as evidence that Trump had found a kind of middle or “moderate” ground. 

“With his clearest statement yet on the future of abortion rights since the fall of Roe in 2022, Mr. Trump laid bare how faulty a messenger he had always been for the anti-abortion cause,” wrote The New York Times’ Lisa Lerer and Elizabeth Dias, before laying out Trump’s long history of pro-choice statements. Now Trump was once again breaking from party orthodoxy, refusing to commit to a national abortion ban and trying to distance himself from a contentious issue that is immensely important to millions of Republican voters. 

But it’s not at all clear that this is what’s actually happening. For one thing, in Monday’s video Trump also bragged about appointing the justices who were crucial to Roe’s repeal, saying he was “proudly the person responsible” for the end of the nationwide right to abortion. He’s speaking directly to mainstream conservatives here, many if not most of whom consider this his shining accomplishment. That Trump personally cares less about abortion than other aspects of his political projects—immigration and authoritarianism, notably—is immaterial. America had national abortion protections before his presidency, and now, because of his presidency, it doesn’t. This is why establishment Republicans, of whom Senator Mitch McConnell is an avatar, made their peace with him.

For another thing, no matter what Trump says now, it’s highly likely that he would sign a national abortion ban, were one to pass Congress. Throughout his short political career, he has happily done the bidding of the religious right: The three justices he appointed to the Supreme Court are the best example, but he also pushed for a national ban on late-term abortions in his 2019 State of the Union address. Since leaving office, he has repeatedly boasted about repealing Roe. In interviews—and in reporting about his private conversations—he has appeared at best agnostic about the possibility of a national ban. “It could be state or it could be federal, I don’t frankly care,” Trump told ABC News last September. 

Now Trump rightly sees abortion as the biggest threat to his chances of retaking the White House and is attempting to neuter the issue. Trump, as Jamelle Bouie argued in The New York Times, is attempting to carve out a path that creates the appearance of moderation, particularly compared to other Republicans. He is attempting to sidestep the issue altogether, making the case that the states should determine abortion policy based on ballot initiatives, legislation, or “both.” 

There are a few problems with this ploy, however. For one, the position Trump is staking out is a de facto endorsement of the status quo. In the wake of the repeal of Roe, abortion policy is left to the states and no one likes it. Support for abortion rights transcends partisanship, in fact: In states that have recently had referendums, support for abortion outpaces support for Biden by more than 10 points in counties that Trump won in 2020. For another, Trump is the architect of this status quo, having appointed those three justices. 

Trump’s efforts to find an abortion policy that isn’t a political albatross are, like most Trumpian efforts, the result of improvisation rather than ideology. This could be seen as a departure from the norm in Republican abortion politics, which has been guided by the religious right for decades. (Pence, an evangelical Christian who wants a 15-week abortion ban as a “minimum nationwide standard,” called Trump’s comments on Monday a “slap in the face.”) But Trump’s first term made clear that his method mattered less than his actions, and as president he delivered exactly what the religious right wanted. He would do it again if he won a second term.

With this week’s flurry of incoherent statements, Trump is either hoping to muddy the waters on abortion or unintentionally doing so. Either way, his position on abortion isn’t actually that complicated. He opposes abortion rights as the law of the land. He supports locking up abortion doctors. And he’s OK with most abortion bans—even if it’s only because, being emotionally impoverished, he wants to bask in the glow of conservative America’s approval. He alone did this! Now let’s hope the voters truly give him credit for it.