The end of the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling was the culmination of decades of work by Republicans and social conservatives — one that came to pass only after a thrice-married former Democrat from New York who had once supported abortion rights helped muscle through three Supreme Court justices.
Publicly, former President Donald Trump heralded the Supreme Court’s ruling Friday ending federal abortion protections as a victory. Yet, as he faces possible prosecution over his efforts to subvert the 2020 election and prepares for a likely 2024 presidential campaign, Trump has privately told friends and advisers the ruling will be “bad for Republicans.”
When a draft copy of the decision leaked in May, Trump began telling friends and advisers that it would anger suburban women, a group who helped tilt the 2020 race to President Joe Biden, and would lead to a backlash against Republicans in the November midterm elections.
In other conversations, Trump has told people that measures like the Texas state law banning most abortions after six weeks and allowing citizens to file lawsuits against people who enable abortions are “so stupid,” according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussions. The Supreme Court let the measure stand in December 2021.
For the first hours after the decision was made public Friday, Trump was muted in response, a striking contrast to the conservatives who worked in his administration, including former Vice President Mike Pence. Pence issued a statement saying, “Life won,” as he called for abortion opponents to keep fighting “in every state in the land.”
For weeks in advance of the ruling, Trump had been just as muted. In an interview with The New York Times in May, Trump uttered an eyebrow-raising demurral in response to a question about the central role he had played in paving the way for the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
“I never like to take credit for anything,” said Trump, who has spent his career affixing his name to almost anything he could.
Pressed to describe his feelings about having helped assemble a court that was on the verge of erasing the 1973 ruling, Trump refused to engage the question and instead focused on the leak of the draft opinion.
“I don’t know what the decision is,” he said. “We’ve been reading about something that was drawn months ago. Nobody knows what that decision is. A draft is a draft.”
By early afternoon Friday, Trump put out a statement taking a victory lap, including applauding himself for sticking by his choice of nominees. All three of Trump’s appointees to the court — whom he pushed through with help from Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader — were in the majority in the 6-to-3 ruling. He left unspoken the fact that he repeatedly attacked the court for not interceding on his behalf after he lost the 2020 election.
“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,” Trump said.
The former president also told Fox News, in an interview published after the decision Friday, that the court was “following the Constitution, and giving rights back when they should have been given long ago.” He added, “I think, in the end, this is something that will work out for everybody.”
Republicans are bracing for a fight: A memo in May from the National Republican Senate Committee, first reported by Axios, suggested that GOP candidates deal with criticism from Democrats by highlighting “extreme and radical views” in support of late-term abortions and government funding for abortions, and suggesting that their own views are based “in compassion and reason.”
While Trump had stayed quiet on the issue in recent weeks, people close to him anticipate he will become more vocal as he watches how clearly his right-wing base responds and how easily he can point to it as something that he made happen. His advisers believe he can highlight the issue as he faces potential Republican challengers and sees signs that his own political base has moved further to the right on vaccines and other issues.
Other potential candidates have been far more vocal. Pence has spent months talking about his desire to see Roe v. Wade end and visiting pregnancy centers. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another evangelical Christian considering a presidential campaign, wrote on Twitter after the draft opinion emerged: “I pray for the reversal of Roe v. Wade. Every human being, born and unborn, has a fundamental right to life, and it is our calling to guard and secure it.”
Most significantly from Trump’s perspective, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, the Republican whom a number of Trump’s former supporters have expressed interest in seeing as a 2024 candidate, signed a bill this spring banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, a socially conservative political group based in Iowa, praised Trump before the ruling came down. “What he did as president is, he followed through on what he said he was going to do and appoint Supreme Court justices that were faithful to the Constitution,” Vander Plaats said.
Asked about Trump’s private remarks that the ruling would hurt Republicans, Vander Plaats responded, “I would just vehemently disagree with that.”
Indeed, while Republicans in competitive states and congressional districts have expressed some anxiousness about the sort of blowback Trump has told people he fears, many pollsters say it is too soon to tell how the issue will play out in the midterm elections.
A Gallup survey this month found that the share of Americans identifying as “pro-choice” had jumped to 55% after hovering between 45% and 50% for a decade. That sentiment was “the highest Gallup has measured since 1995,” while the 39% who identified as “pro-life” was “the lowest since 1996,” the polling firm said.
A May survey conducted for CNN found that 66% of the people questioned said they believed Roe v. Wade should not be overturned.
But anti-abortion activists who supported Trump as president insist the ruling will be a political boon to Republicans, and maintained that surveys in which voters are asked specific questions about the measure indicate that.
“When pro-life Republicans go on offense to expose the abortion extremism of their opponents, life is a proven winning issue for the GOP,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion candidates.
Voluble as he is, Trump has long seemed to have a special difficulty in grappling with the subject of abortion, which he supported for years as a right but said he personally abhorred. In 2011, as he considered a presidential campaign as a Republican, he announced he did not support abortion rights, but struggled to discuss the issue as a candidate four years later.
“I know you’re opposed to abortion,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said to him in a June 2015 interview.
“Right,” Trump replied. “I’m pro-choice.”
Tapper furrowed a brow. “You’re pro-choice or pro-life?”
“I’m pro-life,” Trump quickly corrected himself. “I’m sorry.”
In March 2016, Trump said in an MSNBC town hall event that if the nation outlawed abortion — a change he supported — there would have to be “some form of punishment” for a woman seeking abortion. The remark set off a firestorm, which Trump tried to quell by issuing two statements that only added to the confusion.
Two days later, on CBS, Trump said that he wished abortion were left up to the states, but that the federal laws were “set, and I think we have to leave it that way.”
Officials with the Susan B. Anthony List said at the time that Trump had disqualified himself for the presidency. His campaign again issued a cleanup statement, saying he only meant that the laws must remain in place “until he is president.”
Yet in his third and final debate against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election, Trump laid out his belief that he would have two and as many as three Supreme Court seats to fill. And he explicitly promised, in a way other candidates never had, that when he chose jurists who shared his stated beliefs, Roe v. Wade would be overturned.
As president, however, Trump often wanted little to do with the issue.
Trump seemed to swing between fascination with and repulsion from the subject, remarking upon the thorniness of it and how divided the country was on abortion, and wringing his hands when it came time to make decisions.
And he often preferred to defer to Pence, even at one point expressing hope that Pence would cancel a trip to Rome, including an audience with the pope, and instead represent the administration at the March for Life in Washington.
One of Trump’s supporters, Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor, recalled having discussions with the former president about the “political complexities” of the issue, describing Trump as an opponent of abortion but also a “realist.”
“I’ve heard him point out in the Oval Office that 60-plus percent of Americans are against a repeal of Roe, and that makes this a politically complex issue,” Jeffress said.