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Trump once again puts Republicans in a bind on abortion

On Tuesday, former president Donald Trumpsignaled in an interview with WABC that he might support a 15-week abortion ban. Trump said that restricting abortion after 15 weeks “seems to be a number that people are agreeing at.”

For the last month, Republicans have scrambled to craft a message to signal that they support IVF after Alabama’s supreme court ruled that frozen embryos are legally protected children. This, of course, could not have come at a worse time, since Republicans are already trying to distance themselves from the Dobbs v Jackson decision that overturned Roe v Wade.

Democrats are hoping to hit Republicans over the head on this subject after they made significant wins in efforts to codify abortion rights in swing states like Michigan. Likewise, Republican states like Ohio and Democrats staved off a cataclysmic midterm election in 2022 on the back of anger about the end of Roe.

But the former president finds himself in a bind now that he is the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Trump has never been fluent in speaking the language of social conservatives as a libertine New Yorker who once graced the cover of Playboy magazine. At the same time, he nominated the three Supreme Court justices who delivered Dobbs.

During the primary, he needled some conservatives when he said that, except in certain right-wing areas of the country, “you can’t — you’re not going to win on this issue” and called Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s six-week abortion ban a mistake. Indeed, his former vice president Mike Pence cited Trump’s beginning to “shy away from a commitment to the sanctity of human life” as a reason he would not endorse Trump again.

As a result, Trump has said he wants to find a magical number cutoff number to restrict abortion that most Americans would find palatable after a series of rough elections for Republicans.

But Senate Republicans bristled when I asked them about the restriction this week.

“I’d have to look at his entire comments,” Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama — who spent much of last year blocking military promotions to protest the Pentagon reimbursing servicemembers and their families who travel to another state where abortion is available — told me. “You guys [the media] tend to take it out of context sometimes and I get in trouble saying something about that.”

But the former Auburn University football coach seemed to sense that this might have been a fumble almost as soon as he said it.

“I've heard that was the direction he was going to go,” he quickly added.

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa spent much of Trump’s presidency turning the Senate Judiciary Committee into a judge confirmation factory and led the confirmations of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. But the nonagenarian Republican who campaigned with Trump in 2021 dodged when asked about it.

“I think I'm going to leave it this way — I'm not going to speculate on some presidential candidate, Trump or Biden, what they might say about abortion. I know what Biden’s going to say,” he told me. “And obviously I don't agree with Biden, but anything else — I think we better wait until that person gets elected and discuss it at that particular time and make a decision at that time.”

Grassley’s fellow Iowan Joni Ernst, who at one point was considered as Trump’s running mate in 2016, also punted when asked about the comments.

“I'm glad we're having that discussion, but we'll need to visit more with President Trump,” she said.

The fact that Republicans from even safely Republican states like Alabama and Iowa did not directly address the question about Trump’s remarks shows how toxic any talk about reproductive restrictions might be. And Republicans from swing states hedged just as much.

Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina told The Independent that the Tar Heel state already passed a 12-week abortion ban, overriding the veto of North Carolina’s Democratic governor.

“I don't think it hurts for [Trump] to say that he would support that being the law of the land,” he told The Independent. But he added that it would be difficult to overcome a filibuster to pass abortion restrictions. “I get caught up in the details of how you would actually get there and I just don't see a path in the Senate.”

Of course, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin tried adopting a 15-week ban in neighboring Virginia in last year’s election and it repelled voters so much that the state legislation broke for the Democrats just two years after the commonwealth voted for him.

Meanwhile, Democrats do not want to overplay their hand on abortion. Earlier this week, Montana’s supreme court overturned the Republican attorney general’s attempts to keep a constitutional amendment defending abortion rights off the ballot.

That could lift Democratic Senator Jon Tester, who faces a tough re-election in a state Trump won by double digits.

“Do I think it's going to have a huge effect on my race? No,” he told me — but said it will be part of a larger theme on his campaign. “Freedom is going to be a big part of my campaign and that'll be a part of the freedom.”