Trump’s Abortion-Plan Leak Inflamed His Campaign and Energized Democrats

Late last week, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump privately told his allies he backs a 16-week national abortion ban with some exceptions. Inside the Trump campaign, the news was immediately met with deep annoyance, anger, and a scramble for damage control, two people familiar with the matter tell Rolling Stone.

Prior to the report, the former president and 2024 GOP frontrunner had repeatedly stressed to advisers that he wants to avoid announcing specific abortion policy positions, at least during this stage of the election cycle, sources close to him say. This is, of course, largely because he understands the dismantling of Roe v. Wade — which he engineered — has become a grave political liability for Republicans.

Members of Trump’s senior staff were maddened by the leak to the Times, venting to one another that whoever blabbed to the media about this wasn’t being helpful, the two sources recount. They weren’t the only ones upset by it: The report also served to inflame some of the anti-abortion movement’s most uncompromising figures, who lashed out at Trump for being insufficiently “pro-life.” Some Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill winced at the news too; they, like Trump, hoped to spend the first half of 2024 talking about abortion as little as possible, according to one GOP lawmaker who bemoaned the recent string of conservatives’ election losses that have largely been attributed to “the Dobbs effect.” Democrats, on the other hand, were thrilled.

To Democrats and their allies in the movement for reproductive rights, Trump’s decision to back a national abortion ban is viewed as both an electoral gift and a major political blunder on his part. In recent months, President Joe Biden’s team has determined that campaigning on abortion rights, including by elevating highly personal experiences of specific women willing to tell their stories, has been particularly powerful and effective. According to one Biden campaign official, his team is preparing to prominently wield these attacks against Trump between now and Election Day. Hours after the Times report was published, the Biden campaign called a press conference to highlight the contrast between the candidates.

The Times reported that Trump favors a national ban at 16 weeks in part because it is “a round number.” His campaign counters that Trump hasn’t settled on a specific gestational limit he would support yet. Over the course of the campaign, some of Trump’s most senior aides, including GOP operative Susie Wiles, have strategized that his road to victory includes Trump running as a “moderate” on abortion — despite his comments and record as president, including the appointment of three of the Supreme Court justices responsible for obliterating Roe.

Since the Times piece was published, several Trump advisers and allies speculated to each other, with some talking about it with the ex-president directly, where the leak may have originated — including the prospect that anti-abortion conservatives, frustrated with Trump’s lack of public commitment to a federal ban, might have shared information about internal discussions in the hope of locking Trump into a position they favor before the general election race against Biden begins in earnest.

According to the Times, Trump was persuaded to support a 16-week ban by polling that showed majorities of voters were amenable to that limit. But advocates for reproductive rights say that data is misleading. “When you stop asking voters, ‘At what point are you okay with us taking away your rights?’ and start asking them, ‘Are you ever okay with us taking away your rights?’ you get two different answers, and only one of those answers is an accurate measure of how people will behave when they go to vote,” says Angela Vasquez-Giroux, vice president of communications and research at Reproductive Freedom for All.

Vasquez-Giroux points to polling data that shows that voters, by a two-to-one margin, would rather leave abortion care up to patients and their doctors than enact a 15-week ban. Even among Republicans alone, only a very narrow majority support such a ban — 54 percent, according to the survey. The same pollster found that a majority of voters who cast ballots for Trump in 2020 believe that abortion restrictions enacted since the end of Roe have gone too far.

Deirdre Schifeling, a former Biden administration official who is now the chief political and advocacy officer at the American Civil Liberties Union, points to Virginia, where last November, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) attempted to rally voters behind a 15-week ban.

“There, you had the governor actively running on passing a 15-week ban, and saying: ‘Give me the majorities in the House of Delegates and in the Senate to pass this 15-week ban,’” Schifeling says. “And what happened is voters did quite the opposite: they flipped control to Democrats in both houses.”

She adds, “From our polling and our research, voters think [abortion] is a choice that should be up to the pregnant person and their doctor, not something that politicians should be involved in. I think voters, especially in the wake of Dobbs, are very suspicious of and against abortion bans, period.”

While Democrats and their allies were hastily working to draw attention to the Times report, operatives at the hardline anti-abortion political action group Students for Life — who supported Trump in 2016 — were fuming.

“We absolutely reject the idea that our federal government would give its legal blessing to more than nine in 10 abortions,” Kristi Hamrick, vice president of media and policy at Students for Life Action, tells Rolling Stone of the proposed 16-week ban, pointing to data that shows 95 percent of abortions take place before 16 weeks gestation.

From the group’s perspective, a story like the one that ran in The New York Times on Friday could only depress the anti-abortion vote. “Who would want this story? People who want to tell pro-life voters, you probably can’t vote in this election. Nothing to see here, walk away. That is one reason for such a story: to depress voter turnout,” she says. “If the Trump administration really was going to give its support to more than nine in 10 abortions, that is a problem for most pro-life voters.”

Originally, the Trump campaign called  the Times “fake news” but did not deny or dispute its reporting. On Wednesday, however, Trump’s chief spokesman Steven Cheung was more emphatic with his denial: “The New York Times story is fake and untrue,” he said.

Though it is common for the notoriously mercurial Trump to endorse policies then later adjust or reverse himself, a source with direct knowledge of the situation confirms to Rolling Stone that this month, the ex-president privately expressed enthusiasm for a 16-week federal prohibition, claiming this is a position that most Americans share.

“He said it,” this source bluntly adds. “Sixteen with exceptions.”

In recent weeks, the former president has endorsed a 16-week ban in conversations with a large enough number of allies and confidants that it was inevitable it would leak, this source and another two people briefed on the matter say.

Trump and his team’s irritation at the leak isn’t that surprising, given how much he and his lieutenants have been working to thread a needle that at first glance seems nearly impossible for him — as the self-described “most pro-life president ever” and the man most responsible for destroying the federal right to an abortion.

On one hand, sources close to him say, Trump is petrified at the thought of alienating independents and suburban female voters in the general election. At the same time, his quiet support for some form of national ban has been driven by his desire to keep influential pro-life figures firmly in his corner during a general election, even though they were largely powerless to pressure him to publicly commit to their wish lists in the GOP primary.

“He is a negotiator by trade, and I think he will negotiate a good deal on this issue, and on a whole host of other issues,” says Robert Jeffress, a megachurch pastor who has advised Trump for years. “Just about three weeks ago, I was talking to President Trump about this issue, and he and I agreed that a 6-week ban with no exceptions policy is not going to fly in America today, because the overwhelming majority of Americans are against something that is that ‘extreme.’ But he also said they are against the ‘extreme’ abortion-on-demand. So he’s clearly trying to get to a position that is staunchly pro-life, but also realistic, given where most Americans are.”

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