Why Trump Will Keep Flip-Flopping on Abortion in 2024

Former President Donald Trump during a trial at New York State Supreme Court on Nov. 6, 2023. Credit - David Dee Delgado—Getty Images/Bloomberg

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Just after 10 a.m. a little more than 500 days ago, the Supreme Court upended a half-century of abortion rights in the United States. The first Associated Press alert on the topic made its way to the platform then known as Twitter at 10:13 a.m. By 1:15 p.m., former President Donald Trump had blasted a statement to his email list taking total credit for a generational moment that for tens of millions of Americans felt on par with 9/11, the moon landing, or Pearl Harbor.

“Today’s decision, which is the biggest WIN for LIFE in a generation, along with other decisions that have been announced recently, were only made possible because I delivered everything as promised, including nominating and getting three highly respected and strong Constitutionalists confirmed to the United States Supreme Court,” said Trump, who, as always, wanted to be part of the story.

Here’s the thing: he wasn’t wrong. Three of the six justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade were Trump’s picks. In just one term, he had remade the judiciary and fulfilled a campaign promise that endeared him to the conservative and religious right.

But as the political ramifications of the fall of Roe have become clearer, so have Trump’s efforts to act as if his fingerprints aren’t all over the loss of a federal right to abortion access. The GOP base may love the new America evidenced by the 21 states that have moved to limit or end abortion, but that’s not a true reading of the national mood or the electoral map that picks the President.

Democrats have been casting their opponents as unbendable enemies of reproductive rights, and voters seem to agree. In races where abortion was on the ballot directly or not then and since, proponents of abortion rights—which now are dictated by the physical location of the patient and service provider—came out on top. In fact, in direct ballot measures about abortion, Democrats’ winning streak is unbeaten.

Trump’s ego demands he distance himself from the electorally disappointing consequences of his own actions. At first, he walked back his wholesale embrace of his role in the ruling formally known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Now he’s offering a kind of double-talk that’s intended to focus voters on how his abortion position may be less extreme than others in his party, rather than his crucial role in bringing our current reality about.

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While Trump continues to say the right things in private rooms with those who are thrilled with Dobbs, he’s speaking a different tune in public. When a New Hampshire voter back in May asked Trump about how to address those anxious about the ramifications of Dobbs, he responded vaguely, “Deals are going to be made." Six days later, he again promised that “we’re in a position to make a really great deal, and a deal that people want.”

But to his base, Trump continued to offer just enough red meat to keep it satiated, comments that sure sound like Trump is pleased that abortion is now banned in most cases in more than a dozen states. On May 17, he posted on his social media platform Truth Social: “Without me the pro Life movement would have just kept losing. Thank you President TRUMP!!!” A month later, he took a jab at leaders of the anti-abortion rights movement during a turn at a conference for faith-based voters: “They've been fighting—good people, strong people, smart people—have been fighting for 50 years, and it never even came close to getting done.”

More recently on NBC’s Meet The Press, Trump was more circumspect on the topic, dinging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for passing a six-week limit on abortion access. “I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” Trump said of his closest rival. “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 added, replying that he does not care if the rules are set at the state or federal level.

You could almost see Trump’s thinking manifesting: Sure, let DeSantis take the heat for being to my right, but he can never out-Trump me.

For anyone who has spent more than a passing glance toward the Trump Show, his strategy here is not all that surprising. If there’s one consistency with Trump, it’s that he believes he should be credited only when things are seen as positive developments and any negative consequences are other people’s faults. As Covid-19 began to rage, Trump categorically rejected any link to his leadership in perhaps the most accidentally honest statement he’s ever made: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Back in 1999, Trump flatly said “I am very pro-choice.” Around 2016, he had become a stark opponent of the medical procedure. Asking “What does Trump believe now?” is the wrong question for a man with no ideological core beyond being liked by those in the room he is in.

What Trump and his team are wisely doing is positioning him in preparation for a year from now, when the people showing up in the voting centers are by and large opposed to the Dobbs decision that Trump made possible. And, for the next year, Trump will definitely be trying to have it both ways to animate the die-hard base and to appease the suburban women who have defected in huge numbers since 2016.

This is why abortion opponents have privately been skeptical that Trump would be with them should he win a second term. And why Democrats will need to work harder if they want voters to remember how we ended up with the current abortion landscape. Trump’s indifference to an issue so central for so many voters is easy to identify as a character flaw. It also could represent a sophisticated—if cynical— understanding of what he needs to do to return to power.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.