Former President Donald Trump, who paved the way for the undoing of federal abortion rights protections, said that some Republicans “speak very inarticulately” about the issue and have pursued “terrible” state-level restrictions that could alienate much of the country.
While avoiding taking specific positions himself, Trump said in an NBC interview that if he is reelected he will try to broker compromises on how long into pregnancies abortion should be legal and whether those restrictions should be imposed on the federal or the state level.
“I would sit down with both sides and I’d negotiate something and we’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years,” he said.
The former president targeted GOP primary rival Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in his criticism of how the Republican party has handled the issue, calling Florida’s six-week ban “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”
DeSantis’ camp hit back on Sunday, taking aim at the former president for saying he’d be willing to work with both parties on abortion.
“We’ve already seen the disastrous results of Donald Trump compromising with Democrats: over $7 trillion in new debt, an unfinished border wall, and the jailbreak First Step Act letting violent criminals back on to the streets. Republicans across the country know that Ron DeSantis will never back down,” tweeted spokesperson Andrew Romeo.
Trump also warned Republicans that the party would lose voters by advancing abortion restrictions without exceptions for cases of rape, incest or risks to the mother’s life.
“Other than certain parts of the country, you can’t – you’re not going to win on this issue,” he said.
Trump’s comments made plain the challenge for 2024 Republican presidential primary contenders: trying to balance the priorities of their conservative base, for whom the Supreme Court’s June 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade was a victory decades in the making, and those of the general electorate, which has consistently supported abortion rights – most recently in the 2022 midterms and the Wisconsin Supreme Court race this spring.
Abortion could also be a pivotal issue this fall in Virginia’s state legislative elections, which are widely viewed as a barometer of the electorate’s mood in the lead-up to next year’s presidential election.
Trump’s appointment of three conservative Supreme Court justices paved the way to the reversal of the 1973 decision that guaranteed abortion rights across the United States through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.
That reversal left abortion rights up to the states, which has led to a patchwork of laws – including bans on abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy in Florida and Iowa, the first state to vote in the GOP presidential nominating process.
Defining campaign issue
Abortion rights have been a major fault line in the 2024 Republican primary. Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, has advocated a federal abortion ban after 15 weeks. DeSantis, Trump’s top-polling rival, has touted the six-week ban he signed into law. However, other contenders, including Nikki Haley, have taken more moderate approaches, warning of the political backlash Republicans could face among the broader electorate by pursuing strict abortion restrictions.
Trump would not commit to a specific policy preference in the interview. He deflected questions about whether he would support a federal ban – and if so, after how many weeks – or would rather the issue be left to statehouses.
“What’s going to happen is you’re going to come up with a number of weeks or months, you’re going to come up with a number that’s going to make people happy,” Trump said.
Trump said he believed it was “probably better” to leave abortion restrictions up to the states instead of trying to pass federal legislation on the issue.
“From a pure standpoint, from a legal standpoint, I think it’s probably better. But I can live with it either way,” Trump said. “It could be state or could it federal, I don’t frankly care.”
The intra-GOP debate over abortion took center stage at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition gathering, attended by many of the state’s leading conservative evangelical activists.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, one of the most vocal Trump critics among the GOP contenders, told reporters Saturday in Iowa that Trump has “taken evangelical voters for granted” and is “waffling on important issues.”
“I think he is looking at the abortion question as not whether it’s going to win evangelical support, but what that’s going to look like down the road, and as he said he wants everybody to like him,” Hutchinson said.
Asked about federal legislation on abortion, DeSantis continued not to engage on the topic of a national ban, instead pointing to new restrictions in states such as Iowa and Florida.
“I’ve been a pro-life governor. I’ll be a pro-life president,” DeSantis said. “Clearly, a state like Iowa has been able to move the ball with pro-life protections. Florida has been able to move the ball.”
Pence reiterated his support for a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy as a minimum, saying, “It’s an idea whose time has come.” He said Trump and other GOP candidates want to relegate the abortion issue to the states, “but I won’t have it.”
‘Personal for every woman and every man’
However, other contenders more focused on the general electorate, including Haley – the former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations – have sought to thread the same needle as Trump.
Haley on Saturday told attendees at the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Iowa that her beliefs are the “hard truth.” She said pursuing a federal 15-week abortion ban would have “everybody running from us.”
While Haley opposes abortion, she has emphasized she believes Republicans and Democrats need find a consensus on abortion issues, such as banning later abortions and agreeing not to jail women who get them.
“This issue is personal for every woman and every man. And we need to treat it that way. I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice any more than I want them to judge me for being pro-life,” she said.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on CNN last week that he would be open to signing a federal abortion ban “if it represented consensus,” while admitting the current setbacks to reaching that consensus within the US Senate and across states.
“I want all of the 50 states to be able to weigh in if they want to, and what their state laws should be, and then let’s see if it’s a consensus,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, are eyeing abortion as one of the most important issues in the 2024 presidential election.
CNN previously reported that President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign earlier this month made a digital advertising buy highlighting the positions of Trump and other GOP 2024 contenders on the issue.
“As Donald Trump visits states where women are suffering the consequences of his extreme, anti-abortion agenda, this ad reminds voters in states that have passed some of the most extreme abortion bans of Trump’s key role in appointing conservative justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, said in a statement to CNN.
This story has been updated with additional information Sunday.
CNN’s Kate Sullivan, Veronica Stracqualursi, Ebony Davis, Kit Maher and Alison Main contributed to this report.