‘We’re Getting Killed on Abortion’: Inside Trump’s Secret Meetings With the Religious Right
Since late last year, Donald Trump has been holding private meetings with religious-right figures in an effort to remind them about his anti-abortion record and ensure their support. But instead of thanking Trump for his role in repealing Roe v. Wade, the leaders are pressing for hardcore commitments that go far beyond what he is comfortable with — and what he thinks voters will allow him to get away with.
According to two participants and another source close to Trump, the ex-president has warned leaders in off-the-record conversations that Republicans risk “losing big” — in Trump’s words — unless they follow his lead. He has warned the leaders to shift their own messaging, telling them to emphasize “exceptions” to abortion bans, including in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the life of the mother. In these frank talks, Trump has stressed this is his 2024 plan, saying it’s necessary to prevent Democrats from painting him as an “extremist.”
Privately, Trump is conceding those big losses have already begun. Trump has for several weeks vented to confidants that the GOP is “getting killed on abortion” or on “the abortion issue,” according to three people who’ve heard him use this phrasing on different occasions.
During his meetings, when pressed on what specifically he’d support in a second term, Trump has instead focused on his record as the “most pro-life” president in U.S. history. Among the anti-abortion leaders, religious conservatives, and politically active pastors gathered, Trump’s retroactive focus has left some unsatisfied, including anti-abortion advocates who previously endorsed him. Indeed, during one of these conference calls held around early March, one of the participants gently told Trump that his 2024 policy commitments were vague, requesting clarity and specifics. Trump responded by boasting about his past accomplishments, according to two of the sources.
One recent participant wondered to Rolling Stone: Is Trump “going to try to make us swallow getting next to nothing in return for our support?”
Trump spokesman Steven Cheung dismissed criticism of the president. “President Trump’s unmatched record speaks for itself — nominating pro-life federal judges and Supreme Court justices that overturned Roe v. Wade, ending taxpayer-funded abortions, reinstating the Mexico City policy that protects the life of the unborn abroad, and many other actions that championed the life of the unborn. There has been no bigger advocate for the movement than President Trump,” he said in a statement.
Trump isn’t the only Republican candidate caught between hardcore supporters demanding new curbs on legal abortion and a majority of voters who continue to reject an anti-abortion agenda at every available opportunity. Rolling Stone also spoke to half a dozen longtime GOP strategists working on races for next year, almost all of whom say they are advising their candidates to talk as little as possible about GOP abortion proposals at this time. And party operatives are hoping anti-abortion voters won’t notice or won’t care. According to a Republican operative working on 2024 Senate races and another source who’s pored over the private data, recent GOP internal polling in multiple states has shown that abortion doesn’t even rank as a top-five issue right now among those Republican primary voters.
While the intra-party debate rages, the losses are piling up. In a heavily contested Wisconsin Supreme Court race last week, a Democrat staunchly supportive of reproductive rights beat an anti-abortion Republican by 11 points in a race that was expected to be close — and in a swing state Trump won in 2016 and barely lost in 2020. The Wisconsin wipeout followed a dismal showing for the GOP in the midterms, where they failed to capture the Senate and underperformed in the House. (During his private gatherings, Trump has, according to two of the sources, specifically cited the case of far-right, anti-abortion Republican candidate Doug Mastriano, who in the swing state of Pennsylvania lost the 2022 governor’s race by 14 percentage points.)
Amid the repeated losses, Trump has also pitched his tone-it-down-on-abortion messaging recommendations to some closely aligned GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this year, according to one source with direct knowledge of the situation and another person briefed on the topic.
In recent weeks, numerous emergency meetings — focused on abortion-related messaging and the potential for compromises — have been held by conservatives in nonprofit organizations, on Capitol Hill, and in elite Republican and evangelical circles, multiple sources familiar with the situation attest. “The ‘Dobbs effect’ is real and maybe devastating,” says one Republican member of Congress, referencing the Dobbs v. Jackson case the Supreme Court used to overturn Roe v. Wade, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “And there isn’t a solution that everyone can rally around yet.”
Silence is not an option for Trump. The former president is tied to the issue in a way no other candidate could be: It was his Supreme Court picks who were critical to overturning Roe and striking down federal protections for abortion access. His likely primary rival, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, is putting the issue front and center, as he rallies Republicans in his state to ban abortion after just six weeks of pregnancy. Meanwhile, the party still has a vocal anti-abortion contingent who are promising to punish candidates who aren’t vocal supporters of their cause — with their criticism aimed at Trump, specifically.
“If you’re ignoring abortion [as a 2024 Republican candidate], you do so at your own peril,” says Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. Lila Rose, the founder of the like-minded group Live Action, argues: “What the GOP needs to be doing is doubling down on what makes them even have any kind of competitive advantage over the opposing party: that they defend families, they defend the vulnerable. They’re going to fight for the most basic human rights — and ‘life’ is the first of them.… That needs to be the focus of the GOP, not fighting their own base — many of which are pro-lifers — and continuing to make space for Trumpian politics.”
From Rose’s perspective, the GOP’s national policy should be a total ban with no exceptions. As for the man most responsible for the historic overturning of Roe? “I do think the biggest drag in the GOP right now is Trump,” she says, adding that Trump blaming abortion rhetoric for the Republican Party’s recent string of losses is, in her opinion, “just cynical politicking. And it’s, quite frankly, disgusting.”
Of course, not all abortion foes are tiptoeing away from Team Trump just yet. Pastor Mark Burns, who previously counseled Trump as a campaign-trail faith adviser, says that he and “other faith-based leaders still support President Trump’s 2024 campaign due to the fact that President Trump has taken unprecedented action on behalf of unborn children,” adding that Trump “has done more than we could have anticipated,” and “it is abundantly evident why we need President Trump back in the White House.”
Amid the schism, some have suggested a compromise, but a consensus has proven elusive and even attempts at one prove controversial, as those offering suggestions have found out the hard way.
After the Wisconsin Supreme Court election loss, Jon Schweppe decided it was time for some blunt talk. Schweppe — the policy director at the American Principles Project, a PAC that bills itself as “The NRA for the Family” — suggested the GOP all get on the same page.
“Republicans need to figure out the abortion issue ASAP. We are getting killed by indie voters who think we support full bans with no exceptions,” he tweeted, calling for “everyone to suck it up and unify” behind the 15-week national ban on abortion Sen. Lindsey Graham floated last year.
The alternative, Schweppe warned, would be suicide for the pro-life movement: “We are months away from that happening…. Ego checks need to happen now. It’s do or die time.”
The response, from all corners, was swift: Schweppe’s tweet became an equal-opportunity dunk-fest, ratioed and roasted by blue-check liberals and members of Students for Life alike.
But Schweppe stands by his assessment, and he predicts a reckoning for Republicans if they don’t find a consensus position stat. “There’s a big divide within the pro-life movement about what the right strategy going forward is,” he tells Rolling Stone, drawing a distinction between groups that “cannot compromise” and those that are “a little bit more practical, politically.” The more practical groups, he posits, are the ones actually spending money on elections (like American Principles, which Schweppe says spent $10 million last cycle and plans to up its spending in 2024) while anti-abortion advocacy groups that are less sensitive to electoral outcomes push an extreme agenda clearly unpopular with a majority of voters.
If Republicans don’t figure out a way forward quickly, Schweppe says, “it’s going to be hard for us to be effective with our other issues.… We want to make sure that we’re charting out a path that voters find palatable. I think we can do it, but people have got to have a come-to-Jesus moment.” He still believes that can happen — pointing to mainstream polling compiled by anti-abortion PAC Susan B. Anthony List indicating majorities of voters oppose, for example, tax-payer funding of abortion clinics.
“There are multiple ways to do this, but you have to do it in a way that is actually popular, where if you poll it, at least half the country is fine with it,” Schweppe says. “If you’re doing something where only 15 percent of the country is good with it, then you’re gonna lose some elections.”
The internal GOP politics of abortion are complicated enough that some Republican candidates are struggling to agree even with themselves. On Wednesday, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott — who’s almost certainly running for president — was asked on CBS News whether he would advocate for federal limits on abortion. He responded by saying he was “100 percent pro-life.”
Asked if that meant he would support a federal abortion limit, Scott argued: “That’s not what I said.”
On Thursday, Scott gave an interview with a New Hampshire radio station WMUR9 in which he initially said abortion should be left to the states. He added, however, that if as president Congress sent him a nationwide ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, he would sign it: “20-week ban; definitely.”
Roger Severino, vice president at the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank says the hand wringing about election results is all for naught. “The last election, you could consider it the high-water mark for the side in favor of abortion because they were angry, and anger is a big motivator,” Severino says. “It doesn’t get better for them. They can’t keep up the anger forever.”
The Heritage Foundation is advocating for a national ban on abortions after roughly six weeks.
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