Trump walks fine line on abortion, but allies and activists have big plans for a second term

Few issues epitomize the astonishing nature of Donald Trump’s political success as much as abortion.

Over the past two decades, his public statements on one of the most divisive American cultural issues have swung like a pendulum.

Trump has compared his shift on abortion to that of Republican icon and former President Ronald Reagan. It was an evolution that by Election Day 2016 had driven Trump into making unprecedented promises to anti-abortion advocates and allies.

And then he won.

And he delivered.

A New York businessman and reality television star who was once an unabashed supporter of abortion rights became, in Trump’s own words, “the most pro-life president in American history.” It’s the rare statement from the former president that draws vigorous agreement from supporters and vehement critics alike.

Trump’s three Supreme Court appointments are the reason Roe v. Wade is no longer in place. Since the high court’s 2022 Dobbs decision, hundreds of lower-court Trump nominees are helping shape the legal landscape in an intensifying battle that has already had significant electoral effect: State-level ballot initiatives have almost uniformly resulted in positive outcomes for abortion rights supporters and, by extension, Democrats.

For Trump, who has carefully tended to the anti-abortion Christian conservatives who form a cornerstone of his most dedicated supporters, the political realities have forced the appearance of a recalibration to mitigate any political risk.

After months of public intrigue and internal campaign deliberations on whether to support a nationwide abortion ban, Trump settled on an official position that carried with it echoes of his vacillation in years prior.

“The states will determine by vote or legislation or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land,” Trump said in an April recording posted to his Truth Social platform.

The position, which Trump has reaffirmed relentlessly since, marked a departure from his past support for a nationwide prohibition at 20 weeks and a rejection of anti-abortion groups pushing for a more restrictive ban.

It was in large part driven by a recognition of the electoral danger a hard-line approach to abortion poses, three people who spoke to Trump about the issue told CNN.

“This motivates Democrats like nothing else,” one of them said. “He sees it and isn’t going to fall into that trap.”

The delicate political balance Trump is trying to strike was on full display throughout this week. Speaking to a Christian group that has vowed to “eradicate” abortion, Trump expressed his support but delivered only brief, pre-taped remarks that did not include the word “abortion.”

A few days later, he was explicit in his warnings about the political risks in closed-door remarks with Republicans on Capitol Hill, which came the same day the Supreme Court rejected an effort by anti-abortion groups to restrict access to the abortion drug mifepristone .

Trump urged the GOP lawmakers not to run away from the abortion debate, a posture that he said cost Republicans as many as 40 seats in the midterm elections, one source in the room told CNN.

“Republicans are so afraid of the issue,” Trump said, according to the source.

He emphasized the importance of supporting exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother – a call to neutralize Democratic attacks that have framed his party as “extreme” on reproductive rights.

Yet Trump’s position is hardly as clear-cut as he’s presented it. While championing the right of states to pass their own regulations, he has assailed blue states that have enacted abortion protections and criticized restrictions on the procedure in Republican-led states such as Florida and Arizona that he said went too far.

It’s just another example of a rhetorical strategy Trump deploys with great skill on complex or politically inflammatory issues, giving himself space to change or backtrack if politically necessary.

When it comes to abortion, however, it’s a strategy that presents complications.

Trump, after four years in office, has a record.

Delivering on his promises

Supporters of a national abortion ban acknowledge that even if Trump backed such a ban, the prospects of it getting through Congress would be remote. After all, Trump – again, the “most pro-life president in American history” – didn’t have much in the way of anti-abortion legislative wins during his first term.

Instead, what he had were senior officials at key agencies with funding, legal and policy authority, who were unapologetically anti-abortion and sought ways to drive the administration in that direction.

Trump, former officials told CNN, was committed to delivering on his campaign promises to a critical block of voters, and like-minded administration officials were given wide latitude to push policy changes.

Those same supporters, while expressing disappointment in his decision not to back a nationwide ban, have made clear they will continue to aggressively push for Trump to deliver on their policy priorities.

Key anti-abortion leaders, all critical to Trump’s base of Republican support, have warned against any changes this summer to the party’s platform that calls on Congress to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks and for an amendment to the US Constitution giving the unborn the same rights as a person.

Trump may chafe at the political risks of a hard-line abortion stance now, but a win in November could change the calculus. The circle of former officials who would be likely to join a second Trump administration and run point on the agencies responsible for federal policy on the issue share near universal anti-abortion views.

Even if Trump moved only to rescind President Joe Biden’s wave of executive actions on abortion access and reimplement his own first-term actions, the effect would likely be far greater in the absence of federal protections for the procedure.

Among Trump allies, there’s no expectation he’d follow a different path from the one trod during his first four years.

“He’s a pro-life president,” former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News days after Trump released his statement on Truth Social. “I believe he’ll be a pro-life president in the future also.”

Many senior Trump administration alumni and allies are now mapping out and drafting policy options for a second Trump term.

Most are not affiliated with the campaign, which has sharply pushed back against the constellation of powerful outside groups created to develop policy and personnel options for a second term.

But those groups are expected to hold significant influence should Trump win in November.

One of them, Project 2025, which is housed in the conservative Heritage Foundation, has drafted a nearly 1,000-page policy book for the next Republican administration.

The view on abortion policy is clear: “The Dobbs decision is just the beginning.”

That statement, which is echoed by powerful and well-funded anti-abortion advocacy groups, cuts to just how much Trump’s current stance leaves unanswered.

Trump has yet to address how his administration would interpret the Comstock Act, an 1873 anti-vice law that many in the anti-abortion movement see as a way to potentially ban the procedure in all 50 states.

Biden’s Justice Department issued a 2022 legal memo stating that the law did not bar mail delivery of abortion medication unless sent with intent for illegal use.

“There’s a huge difference between saying ‘This is a states’ rights issue’ and ‘This 1873 law is a backdoor ban on illegal abortion-related items that can be enforced in blue states against doctors, drug companies and patients on Day One,’” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, who supports abortion rights and closely tracks the legal and policy history of the issue. “That’s a night-and-day difference in terms of what he thinks policy should be.”

The Comstock Act is just one in an arsenal of tools the anti-abortion movement would like to see a second Trump administration employ to restrict, if not totally ban, abortion nationwide, without going through Congress.

Initial actions

Roger Severino, a former top Trump Health and Human Services official who drafted the chapter on the department for the Project 2025 policy book, told CNN that a second Trump administration would set out to rescind all of Biden’s abortion access actions and restore and expand all of Trump’s first-term policies.

The Project 2025 plan details steps Trump could take immediately to limit access to abortion within the first days of being back in office through executive action and by personnel changes in key agencies such as HHS, the Food and Drug Administration and the DOJ.

Among the abortion actions that Trump has vowed to reimplement and reenforce is reviving the so-called Mexico City policy. The Reagan-era rule restricts foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive assistance from the US from providing abortion services or information. Under an expansion of the policy under Trump, groups were barred from providing any abortion care, even with non-US funds, lest they risk losing American support altogether.

It was one of several key anti-abortion actions the Trump administration executed on the global stage.

Biden rescinded the policy in his first days in office.

A second Trump term would also put back in place and expand restrictions on Title X grants – federal funds for public and nonprofit groups that provide family planning.

While that funding is already barred from being used to pay for abortion clinics, the Trump administration’s restrictions sharply curtailed the number of providers who utilized the program – by more than 25%, per some estimates provided by abortion rights groups. “His first term was disastrous for reproductive rights and freedoms — including devastating changes to Title X which left far too many people without access to essential sexual and reproductive health care,” Julie Lewis, the director of public policy at Planned Parenthood Votes, told CNN. “A second term would be catastrophic for freedom and liberty.”

The Trump administration also took several actions to undermine the Affordable Care Act, which provides coverage for preventative services and birth control for millions of women, and it slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program at the HHS.

Resurrecting these actions in a second Trump would almost entirely be up to the discretion of whomever he appoints to lead the relevant federal agencies.

Pushing harder than before

Having loaded the federal courts with more than 200 conservative judges and three Supreme Court justices, there would be fewer — and lower — roadblocks for Trump to get abortion restrictions on the books.

“The courts would be unlikely to obstruct, or less likely to obstruct anti-abortion policy coming out of the Trump administration,” said Ziegler of UC Davis.

With Roe v. Wade’s protections erased, anti-abortion activists would like a second Trump administration to push harder than it did before – especially in restricting access to mifepristone. The medication is used in roughly two-thirds of abortions nationwide and was at the center of the Texas case the Supreme Court decided this week. Even though the Court rejected a lawsuit challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s approach to regulating the abortion pill, the decision left the door open for a future Trump administration to limit access unilaterally.

Trump could direct the FDA to reverse its approval of the drug, and he could revive his administration’s mandate that women seeking an abortion receive the pill from providers directly, not through the mail. But the single greatest threat to mifepristone would come not from new policies Trump could enact but from the 19th-century law his administration could choose to enforce.

“The biggest concern is not that he’ll repeat anything he did the first time,” Drexel University law professor David S. Cohen told CNN. “But it’s that he will put people in place this time who will have a very strict interpretation of the Comstock Act.”

The law held no weight in the 50 years that Roe held sway, but now it’s up to the White House and the Justice Department to decide whether to enforce it, and to what extent. An anti-abortion administration could choose to prosecute anyone who sends or receives mifepristone by mail, or they could go so far as to restrict the mailing of any of the supplies used in surgical abortions – an effective total ban on the procedure, even in states that have enacted protections.

“A few years ago, most people would not have believed the threat of the Comstock Act was at all legitimate,” said Skye Perryman, the president of Democracy Forward, which brought many challenges to anti-abortion policies during Trump’s first term. “But the threat of politicization of the Department of Justice and lack of regard for people’s rights and the law is real and we must be prepared to confront it.”

Mark Lee Dickson is the founder of the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn initiative, which has lobbied local governments to effectively outlaw all forms of abortion through enforcing the Comstock Act. He told CNN the law represented the best path for anti-abortion activists to totally end abortion in America and he would like to see its enforcement at a federal level.

“Perhaps President Donald J. Trump will be the president that brings an end to abortion in America as we know it,” Dickson said. “He’s already made much more progress than any president in the United States on this issue so far.”

Dickson has worked closely with former Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell to draft and defend his local ordinances.

Mitchell is best known as the legal mind behind SB 8 – the restrictive abortion ban in Texas he helped enact before Roe v. Wade was even overturned.

More recently, the conservative lawyer and anti-abortion activist has taken on a new client: Trump.

Mitchell was Trump’s principal attorney in his battle to stay on the primary ballot in Colorado, defending the former president before the Supreme Court this past February. Abortion rights advocates worry he could play an outsize role shaping abortion restrictions in a potential second Trump administration.

When pressed in April on whether a future Trump administration would seek to regulate mifepristone, Trump told Time magazine he had “pretty strong views” on the issue and would be making an announcement “probably over the next week.” That announcement hasn’t come as yet.

People familiar with the matter say that there was never any intention of releasing a statement and that Trump was simply going back to his oft-used way of avoiding a question.

But if Trump’s position on a national abortion ban is any indication, it’s unlikely he will come down firmly on the side of anti-abortion advocates during the presidential campaign. As he said in his video announcement in April, one thing matters above all else.

“We must win,” Trump said. “We have to win.”

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