April 18, 2024

Former President Donald J. Trump has told advisers and allies that he likes the idea of a 16-week national abortion ban with three exceptions, in cases of rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother, according to two people with direct knowledge of Mr. Trump’s deliberations.

Mr. Trump has studiously avoided taking a clear position on restrictions to abortion since Roe v. Wade was overturned in the middle of 2022, galvanizing Democrats ahead of the midterm elections that year. He has said in private that he wants to wait until the Republican presidential primary contest is over to publicly discuss his views, because he doesn’t want to risk alienating social conservatives before he has secured the nomination, the two people said.

Mr. Trump has approached abortion transactionally since becoming a candidate in 2015, and his current private discussions reflect that same approach.

One thing Mr. Trump likes about a 16-week federal ban on abortions is that it’s a round number. “Know what I like about 16?” Mr. Trump told one of these people, who was given anonymity to describe a private conversation. “It’s even. It’s four months.”

When discussing prospective vice-presidential candidates, Mr. Trump often asks whether they are “OK on abortion.” He is instantly dismissive when he hears that a Republican doesn’t support “the three exceptions.” He tells advisers that Republicans will keep losing elections with that position.

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, Mr. Trump told advisers that he believed the decision was going to be harmful to Republicans. Since then, he has formed the view that the abortion issue is overwhelmingly responsible for a string of Republican losses in congressional races.

And he is acutely aware of his own vulnerability: He appointed the three justices who enabled that decision, a fact he has publicly claimed credit for in several settings. Those statements have already been included in ads, and Democrats plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to remind voters of that fact.

In backing a 16-week ban, Mr. Trump would be trying to satisfy both social conservatives who want to further restrict access to abortions and Republican and independent voters who want more modest limits on the procedure.

Abortion is currently banned before 16 weeks in 20 states, including Mr. Trump’s home state of Florida. The type of ban that Mr. Trump has discussed privately would restrict abortion rights in the remaining 30 states where it is legal beyond that point. And the question of exceptions limited to the life of the mother is also controversial. In Texas, state courts have ruled that women did not qualify for the limited exceptions for “life-threatening conditions” related to pregnancy, even in cases where their fetus faced a severe diagnosis and the woman’s future fertility and health were jeopardized.

In a statement, Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, did not address his private remarks.

“As President Trump has stated, he would sit down with both sides and negotiate a deal that everyone will be happy with,” Ms. Leavitt said, adding that he “appointed strong Constitutionalist federal judges and Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade and sent the decision back to the states, which others have tried to do for over 50 years.” She attacked President Biden and congressional Democrats as overly permissive of abortions.

Mr. Trump, who described himself as supportive of abortion rights for most of his adult life, announced in early 2011 as he considered running for president in the Republican primary that he now was anti-abortion.

Yet Mr. Trump never appeared comfortable discussing it. In early 2016, in an interview with the television host Chris Matthews, Mr. Trump said there needed to be “some form of punishment” for women who had illegal abortions, a comment his campaign quickly walked back.

At the time, Mr. Trump had to convince skeptical social conservatives that he would implement anti-abortion policies and pick socially conservative justices, and he selected a deeply conservative vice president in Mike Pence to help with the persuasion effort.

Since then, Mr. Trump has delivered on that and has formed a powerful connection of his own with evangelical voters, so he has felt less of a need to pander to them. After Roe was overturned, Republicans have struggled to find ways to talk about abortion now that they can no longer simply say they oppose it. The concept of a national ban of some sort has become a focus, with a 15-week federal abortion ban emerging as the baseline many anti-abortion activists have set for Republican candidates.

A 16-week ban would not end many abortions: nearly 94 percent of abortions happen before 13 weeks in pregnancy, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control. Nor is such a ban grounded in medical research. Even 15 weeks falls before the point when significant screens take place in a pregnancy to examine the fetus for rare — but potentially fatal — conditions. Instead, it has become a position that some Republicans, based on polling, believe will be the most politically palatable to voters.

An AP/NORC poll released in July 2023, a year after Roe was overturned, showed a slim majority approve of a ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy. In the survey, Democrats mostly supported such a measure and Republicans mostly opposed it. A six-week ban polled poorly among a majority of Americans, including Republicans, while a majority of Americans didn’t support allowing abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, according to the survey.

One of Mr. Trump’s allies, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, introduced legislation in 2022 calling for a 15-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother after that window closes.

Mr. Trump never backed the bill, which other prominent Republicans distanced themselves from, and he said as recently as last fall that the decision should be left up to states to decide. A leading anti-abortion group criticized him for that statement, but its leader was appeased after meeting with Mr. Trump and Mr. Graham.

There are signs that embracing any sort of national ban is unpopular with broad swaths of independent voters, and potentially risky for Mr. Trump. For instance, in Virginia, efforts by Gov. Glenn Youngkin to rally voters around what his campaign called a “15 week limit” last November failed and Democrats surpassed expectations in the state’s legislative elections.

So far in this Republican nominating contest, in which primary voters generally reward candidates for opposing abortion rights, Mr. Trump has avoided answering the question of whether he’d support a national ban. Instead, he talks about abortion as if it’s a real-estate transaction. He has taken credit for giving “great negotiating power” to anti-abortion activists.

“What’s going to happen is you’re going to come up with a number of weeks or months,” Mr. Trump said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in September. “You’re going to come up with a number that’s going to make people happy.”

In a Fox News town-hall event in January, a week before the Iowa caucuses, a socially conservative voter asked Mr. Trump to “reassure me” that he would protect “every person’s right to life, without compromise.”

Mr. Trump declined to reassure her. “I love where you are coming from,” he told the voter. “But we still have to win elections. And they have used this — you know, we have some great Republicans and they are great on the issue, and you would love them on the issue. And a lot of them have just been decimated in the election.”

Mr. Trump went so far as to criticize the six-week abortion ban signed by his former Republican rival Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida as “terrible.”

Mr. DeSantis tried to capitalize on the comment in socially conservative Iowa. “I don’t know how you can even make the claim that you’re pro-life if you’re criticizing states for enacting protections for babies that have heartbeats,” he told Radio Iowa soon after Mr. Trump made the comments in September. “I think if he’s going into this saying he’s going to make the Democrats happy with respect to right to life, I think all pro-lifers should know that he’s preparing to sell you out.”

But conservative voters gave Mr. Trump a pass and, ultimately, a record-margin victory in Iowa.

Mr. Trump has been encouraged by the lack of blowback and has privately gone even further in blaming more hard-line Republicans for the party’s election losses. He has repeatedly criticized two losing 2022 candidates for governor — Tudor Dixon in Michigan and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania — for squandering winnable races by being too “hard-right” on abortion and not allowing for sufficient exceptions.

Mr. Trump has told advisers and allies that he wants to try to turn the issue of abortion into a positive by talking about what he characterizes as the “radical Democrat” position of supporting late-term abortions, which are rare, but unpalatable to a significant number of Americans.

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