(AP) — It was just four years ago that a political committee supporting
one of Donald Trump’s Republican rivals unveiled an ad slamming his
views on abortion, complete with footage from a 1999 interview in which
he declared, “I am pro-choice in every respect.”
Now, as he heads
into the 2020 election, Trump will become the first sitting president to
address the March for Life, taking the stage Friday at the annual
anti-abortion gathering that is one of the movement’s highest profile
and most symbolic events.
It is Trump’s latest nod to the white evangelical voters who have proven to be among his most loyal backers. And it makes clear that, as he tries to stitch together a winning coalition
for reelection, Trump is counting on the support of his base of
conservative activists to help bring him across the finish line.
think it’s a brilliant move,” said Ralph Reed, chair of the Faith and
Freedom Coalition and one of Trump’s most prominent evangelical
supporters. Reed said the president’s appearance would “energize and
remind pro-life voters what a great friend this president and
administration has been.”
It also shows how much times have changed.
presidents who opposed abortion, including Ronald Reagan and George W.
Bush, steered clear of personally attending the march to avoid being too
closely associated with demonstrators eager to outlaw the procedure.
They sent remarks for others to deliver, spoke via telephone hookup or
invited organizers to visit the White House.
Over the last 10
years, however, the Republican Party has undergone a “revolution,”
displaying a new willingness to “embrace the issue as not only being
morally right but politically smart,” said Mallory Quigley, a
spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List and Women Speak Out PAC. The
group is planning to spend $52 million this cycle to help elect
candidates opposed to abortion rights. Its president, Marjorie
Dannenfelser, will serve as national co-chair of a new campaign
coalition, “Pro-life Voices for Trump.”
According to Pew Research
Center polling in 2019, roughly 6 in 10 Americans said abortion should
be legal in all or most cases. Over time, though, both the Republican
and Democratic parties have taken harder-line positions for and against
“There used to be a middle in this country and
candidates would not want to alienate the middle,” said Ari Fleischer,
who served as White House press secretary under President George W.
Bush. “And it just seems that that is over and that both parties play to
their bases to get maximum turnout from their base.”
Flesicher said, Trump is far less tethered to tradition than past
presidents and “happy to go where his predecessors haven’t.”
his first three years in office, Trump has embraced socially
conservative policies, particularly on the issue of abortion. He’s
appointing judges who oppose abortion, cutting taxpayer funding for
abortion services and painting Democrats who support abortion rights as
extreme in their views.
“President Trump has done more for the
pro-life community than any other president, so it is fitting that he
would be the first president in history to attend the March for Life on
the National Mall,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.
is not the first time Trump has given serious consideration to an
appearance. Last year, he wanted to go and came close to attending,
according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on
condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning. But the trip never
came together because of concerns about security so Trump joined the
event via video satellite from the White House Rose Garden instead.
thinking on the matter was simple: If he supported the cause, “why
wouldn’t he show up to their big event?” said Matt Schlapp, chair of the
American Conservative Union and a close ally of the White House. He
said the appearance would be deeply significant for those in
“I’ve had people be moved to tears over the fact that he’s going,” said Schlapp. “It’s a big deal.”
Schlapp said he didn’t think Trump’s decision to attend was driven by
election-year politics, he said it was nonetheless a “smart move
politically” as well as “the right move morally.”
“It will cement even tighter the relationship that he has with conservative activists across the country,” Schlapp said.
his video address last year, Trump sent a clear message to the
thousands of people braving the cold on the National Mall. “As
president, I will always defend the first right in our Declaration of
Independence, the right to life,” he said.
underscored Trump’s dramatic evolution on the issue from his days as a
freewheeling New York deal-maker, when he described himself as “very
pro-choice” in a 1999 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
his 2016 campaign for the Republican nomination, Trump said his views
had changed and that he was now opposed to abortion, but for three
exceptions: In the case of rape, incest and when the life of the mother
is at risk.
Yet Trump’s unfamiliarity with the language of
abortion activism was clear, including when he offered a bungled
response during a televised town hall and was forced to clarify his
position on abortion three times in a single day.
hypothetically, what would happen if abortion were outlawed, Trump said
there would have to “be some form of punishment” for women who have
them, prompting a backlash that managed to unite abortion rights
activists and opponents, including organizers of the March for Life.
to clarify his position, Trump’s campaign initially issued a statement
saying he believed the issue should rest with state governments. He
later issued a second statement that said doctors, not women, should be
punished for illegal abortions.
Since that time, however, Trump has — to the shock of many — become a darling of the anti-abortion movement.
voters who are pro-life love Donald Trump and they will crawl across
broken glass to get him re-elected,” said Reed, who expressed amazement
at the transformation. “Whatever you think of this president, there is
no question that both at a policy level and politically, he has
masterfully capitalized on his pro-life position in a way I think no one
could have envisioned four years ago,”
Critics, for their part, accuse Trump of using the march to try to distract from his impeachment trial in the Senate.
Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, called it “an act of
desperation, plain and simple,” and accused Trump of taking “refuge in
his ability to whip up a radical anti-choice base, spewing falsehoods
when he feels threatened.” Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president of
the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, accused the president of carrying
out “a full-out assault on our health and our rights.”
Trump stands with the small number of Americans who want politicians to
interfere with their personal health decisions, we’ll be standing with
the nearly 80 percent of Americans who support abortion access,” she
Views of abortion have remained relatively stable over two
decades of polling, and it’s a minority of Americans who hold extreme
opinions — that abortion should be legal or illegal in all cases. But
polling does suggest a widening partisan gap on the question of support
for abortion rights in all or most cases, along with some movement on
both sides of the aisle further into their extreme positions.
first march took place on the west steps of the Capitol in January
1974, the year after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, the landmark
ruling that established a woman’s legal right to abortion.
Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report from Washington.
Follow Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj