Trump Made Abortion a Campaign Issue. He May Already Be Regretting It

Donald Trump — the man most responsible for triggering the end of a federal right to abortion — announced on Monday that, if he wins the presidential election in November, he does not plan to support further federal restrictions on the practice and would allow it to remain a state issue. 

“My view is now that we have abortion where everybody wanted it from a legal standpoint,” Trump began. (The word ‘everybody’ is being used liberally here: Roughly two-thirds of voters disapprove of the Supreme Court’s decision overruling Roe v. Wade, according to a recent survey.) He went on: “The states will determine by vote or legislation, or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land — in this case, the law of the state.”

It’s not a mystery why Trump made this announcement — abortion is poised to play outsized role in the election, with 83 percent of voters saying it will be either a major (51 percent) or minor (32 percent) factor in their calculus this November — or why he made it now, with the Republican primary functionally over. 

What is also abundantly clear is the fact that this announcement is a farce: Abortion is already a federal issue. The announcement is part of Trump’s broader, laughable campaign strategy, reported by Rolling Stone last fall, to run as a “moderate” on abortion in 2024. 

In his first term in office, Trump packed the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary more broadly with judges who continue to take up causes with national implications for abortion access, like the two cases before the high court this term. One Supreme Court case concerns nationwide access to the abortion pill, while the other represents an effort to eliminate the federal requirement that hospitals provide an emergency abortion if a pregnant person’s life is at risk.

Now that federal protections for abortion no longer exist, a motivated Attorney General could move to enforce the Comstock Act, a Victorian era vice law that bans the mailing of “any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion” — a law that anti-abortion activists have likened to a “de facto national ban on abortion.” 

Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas recently seemed very curious about the possibility of reviving Comstock during oral arguments in the abortion pill case before the court. 

Trump’s lawyer, Jonathan Mitchell has said, “We don’t need a federal ban when we have Comstock on the books… There’s a smorgasbord of options.”

Bringing back the Comstock Act is just one of the many anti-abortion policies that the conservative Heritage Foundation has recommended as part of Project 2025, its 887-page “mandate” for the next Republican administration. No one has to wonder if Trump will be amenable to the group’s suggestions: Back in 2018, one year into his term, Heritage boasted that Trump had already implemented two-thirds of its policy recommendations, the most of any president since the organization’s founding.

Then there’s the fact that a caucus representing the majority of House Republicans recently endorsed a 15-week abortion ban. Whether or not Trump supports a federal ban during the 2024 campaign, such a policy could still wind up on his desk next year.

The clearest sign that Trump’s announcement is functionally meaningless comes from anti-abortion activists, who barely reacted to the news. SBA Pro-Life America, the most powerful anti-abortion advocacy group in the country, put out a short statement saying that while it was “deeply disappointed” by the news, the group would continue to work “tirelessly to defeat President Biden and extreme congressional Democrats.”

Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life, had a similarly muted response. “We clearly have some work to do to educate President Trump in the many ways that abortion has been made federal. But with the mutual goals of supporting families and welcoming young children, I can work with this,” Hawkins said on X. That’s quite a change in tone for Hawkins and Students for Life, which previously blasted Trump for taking insufficiently pro-life positions. 

Students for Life was especially critical of a national 16-week ban on abortion reportedly considered by Trump earlier this year, a policy the group said would allow “9 in 10 abortions” allowed under current law.

In the two months since The New York Times revealed that Trump was privately considering a 16-week federal ban — reportedly because he liked how 16 weeks and four months are round numbers — the presumptive 2024 GOP presidential nominee flinched at the cross-partisan public responses to the idea, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. In recent weeks, Trump has groused behind closed doors that he’d been told by several pro-lifers that 15-week or 16-week limits were “popular.” 

However, the former president has said that in the time since, he’s seen backlash to those floated proposals that suggest embracing a specific federal ban would damage him at this point in the election. One of these sources tells Rolling Stone that since February, Trump had heard from some Fox News personalities he’s known for many years who told him that campaigning against Biden, while tied down to a federal ban for a specific number of weeks, would be a gift to the Democratic Party.

And, indeed, the Biden campaign quickly hosted a press conference, during which campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez called attention to Trump’s comments and his role in appointing three members of the conservative Supreme Court supermajority that overturned Roe. She promised that “if given a Democratic Congress, [President Biden] will restore the protections of Roe in federal law once and for all. These are the stakes in November.”

Some of Trump’s most diehard allies, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), had personally counseled Trump to campaign this year on 15-week federal restrictions, and on Monday expressed disappointment in the ex-president’s announcement.

“I respectfully disagree with President Trump’s statement that abortion is a states’ rights issue,” Graham said, adding: “I will continue to advocate that there should be a national minimum standard limiting abortion at 15 weeks because the child is capable of feeling pain, with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.”

Another factor in Trump’s continued refusal to publicly commit to a nationwide abortion ban involves his revulsion towards being stage-managed by other Republican Party and conservative movement bigwigs. Ever since the Times story published, the two sources and a Trump adviser say, Trump and several of his closest advisers grew convinced that anti-abortion leaders — who wanted the former president to be more vocal and reassuring about their hardline demands for a second Trump administration — had leaked his stated support for a 16-week ban, to try to lock him into a position that he wasn’t prepared to announce yet.

“That pissed him off,” the Trump adviser succinctly notes. “Don’t try to speak for President Trump.”

Indeed, the Trump campaign went into overdrive in February to try to spin the media into believing the Times report was “fake.” (The report was accurate, and Rolling Stone and other news outlets independently corroborated its findings.)

In another sign of how much Trump views the issue as potential electoral kryptonite for him and other Republicans, even as he was avoiding pledging to advance any federal abortion legislation, he spoke of his personal support for exceptions to abortion bans in circumstances involving rape, incest, or a threat to life of the mother. In private, he has repeatedly said that it is important for the rest of the GOP to emphasize exceptions if they want to win elections and avoid scaring off must-win voting blocs, including suburban women. 

According to two sources familiar with the matter and another person briefed on it, since late 2022, Trump and his campaign have held a series of conference calls and meetings with influential players in the anti-abortion movement, in an attempt to corral their support and fend off other 2024 candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

In several of these calls and meetings, when Trump would encourage attendees to frontload “exceptions, exceptions, exceptions” in their messaging, some anti-abortion activists would then directly ask him to clarify what he meant by exceptions. 

Essentially, the Trump campaign is betting that voters won’t pay too much attention to the nuances of what those exceptions should look like, two sources tell Rolling Stone.


“They’ll hear President Trump is for exceptions, and that reads as middle-of-the-road on this issue of abortion,” says one of the sources close to Trump.

The Biden campaign seems ready to take that bet.