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Liar’s Poker

Did Trump’s abortion statement change anything?

Donald Trump speaks at the March For Life rally on the National Mall in 2019 in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In a country as polarized as ours, the smart bet on any new and seemingly important political development is always “lol nothing matters.”

That’s especially true during a presidential campaign, when partisan passions run hotter than normal. And it’s especially especially true when the campaign features two universally known candidates about whom practically everyone already has a strong, unshakeable opinion.

If you love or hate Donald Trump, you may love or hate him a bit less than you did before he declared abortion policy a matter for the states. But you almost certainly won’t reconsider your vote because of it. And so, despite the supernova of media coverage, the savvy reaction to his position is … lol nothing matters.

That’s what my colleague Sarah Isgur told Politico when asked about the news. “Trump’s latest statement is peak Trump in that it actually said nothing, left more questions as to his position than it answered, angered everyone—and yet almost certainly will make no difference at all,” she said. “Trump’s pro-life supporters aren’t going to vote for Biden, and Biden’s pro-choice supporters aren’t suddenly going to consider Trump.”

As if to prove her point, both sides of the abortion debate have begun to converge on the belief that Trump is simply lying about his true intentions. (A safe assumption with respect to most things that come out of his mouth, it must be said.) If his stated “states’ rights” view of abortion doesn’t represent his actual view then—lol—Monday’s statement truly doesn’t matter at all.

Democrats believe that Trump is lying is a matter of political necessity. Abortion is the nuclear missile in their electoral arsenal, the closest thing they have to a potential wonder-weapon in November. They’re not going to stand by and let him disarm it by reassuring swing voters that he’s a newly minted federalist moderate on the issue. It’s “bombs away” for the next six and a half months:

“No one trusts Donald Trump,” Joe Biden said of his opponent’s new abortion position at a fundraiser Monday. If congressional Republicans put a federal abortion ban on Trump’s desk, the president warned, rest assured that he’ll sign it. At last check on Tuesday morning, Biden’s campaign team was berating reporters on a conference call for treating Trump’s statement as in any way sincere or meaningful. (And ended up getting results!)

Some liberals accused Trump of lying not just by commission but by omission, pointing out how little of substance he actually said in stating his new position. He never promised not to sign new federal restrictions into law; he never pledged to maintain regulatory approval for abortifacients like mifepristone; he never shared his view on whether the six-week ban in his home state of Florida should be overturned in a November ballot referendum; he never said whether he’d impose new abortion-related litmus tests on future judicial nominees.

He didn’t say much of anything, really, except that he’d prefer to let the states take the lead on abortion. Lol nothing matters.

Meanwhile on the right, despite a burst of outrage among some committed pro-lifers over Trump’s retreat on the issue, there were precious few threats to boycott the election in protest. On the contrary, a ray of sunshine poked through the clouds courtesy of Tony Perkins, head of the socially conservative Family Research Council. Perkins told the Washington Post that he believed Trump would sign federal abortion restrictions as president notwithstanding any suggestion to the contrary in Monday’s statement. “I take the president’s statement with a comma, not a period,” he said, memorably.

Perhaps he meant that he believed Trump was sincere about not wanting to enact federal limits but could be talked out of it. Or perhaps he suspects that Trump, being Trump, was lying about his intentions for the sake of electability and quietly plans to support national abortion curbs once he’s back in office. Either way: Lol nothing matters.

With left and right in rare alignment on this subject, I find myself in the strange position of thinking that Trump actually is sincere about not wanting to tinker with abortion policy in a second term. And that, yes, it matters.

Donald Trump is not a heartfelt pro-life warrior. We can, and I think do, all agree on that.

He came through for his base by appointing three justices to the Supreme Court who helped undo the Roe regime on abortion but fell short on the other three pro-life promises he made to them in 2016. Left to his own political devices, no one would expect him to champion a 15-week federal ban or, lord knows, anything stricter. If he does end up supporting something like that in a second term, it’ll only be because congressional Republicans clamored for action on the subject and ended up pressuring him into signing something.

That, at least, is the upshot of the arguments that he was “lying” in his abortion statement on Monday. He might prefer a federalist approach to abortion but eventually the serious pro-lifers in Washington will get to him. Supposedly.

I don’t buy it. Tell ‘em, Kari:

Senate Republicans have a lot of differences on policy nowadays but the coalition that believes the states, not the feds, should set abortion policy is surprisingly diverse. Its members include institutionalists like Mitch McConnell, Never Trumpers like Mitt Romney, conservatives like John Barrasso, nationalists like Josh Hawley, garden-variety red-staters like Pete Ricketts, and—if she’s elected this fall—MAGA bomb-throwers like Kari Lake.

Lake isn’t the only Republican Senate candidate who’s tacked toward the center on abortion either. Sam Brown of Nevada, Mike Rogers of Michigan, and Dave McCormick of Pennsylvania all concurred with Trump’s federalist abortion stance Monday. In Wisconsin, Eric Hovde has gone a step further by stating that women “early on in a pregnancy should have a right to make a choice.” As I was writing this newsletter, Lake came out against her own state’s ban on abortion, one she had supported as recently as 2022.

The repeated beatings pro-choicers have delivered in state abortion referendums since the end of Roe have struck fear in the hearts of ambitious Republicans running for statewide office everywhere. Many congressional GOPers, while nominally pro-life, want this issue out of their hair electorally and dumped into the laps of state legislatures as badly as Trump himself does. Trump’s federalist statement on abortion gave them political cover to take that position unabashedly, without needing to worry that they’d be considered sellouts by the pro-life movement for doing so.

You have an obligation as a Republican to “fight” for your base’s causes—unless Donald Trump gives you permission not to. Which he’s now done with respect to abortion.

That being so, why the heck would these senators and candidates want to pass federal abortion restrictions next year and then browbeat newly inaugurated President Trump into signing them? If they’re afraid of the issue now, they should be twice as fearful of how it might play once they’ve nationalized the issue by imposing a ban of some sort that’s destined to be unpopular—and which, almost certainly, would also require them to eliminate the Senate filibuster. Their leader has built them a bomb shelter in hopes of withstanding the blast from the Democrats’ nuclear weapon; they’d be fools not to enter it.

“Yes, but some Republicans are so ardently pro-life that they’ll be willing to risk their seats for the sake of passing national restrictions,” you might reply, which is true—but the number is almost certainly much smaller than we think. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about this party’s political class in the past nine years, it’s that the share willing to risk their jobs by taking an unpopular stand on principle is trivially small. If they’re forced to choose between serving their pro-life conscience and making their base happy by serving Donald Trump, I have a good guess as to which choice they’ll make.

Trump’s rhetorical pummeling of Lindsey Graham over the last 24 hours illustrates the point. After Graham released a statement on Monday politely disagreeing with Trump and reiterating his own support for a 15-week federal ban, the former president took to lambasting him repeatedly on Truth Social. There was strategy in doing so, I think: Trump feared that if he didn’t attack dissident Republicans early and aggressively, a nascent backlash to his federalist approach might get traction. By making an example of Graham, he tacitly warned other serious pro-lifers in Congress not to step out of line or else.

And none have, as of this writing.

Committed grassroots pro-lifers might eventually try to pressure Senate Republicans to defy Trump and pass federal restrictions anyway, daring him to veto the bill, but the strength of that cohort is also overrated. Major right-wing media will push whatever line Trump wants them to for the sake of tempering grassroots opinion, as Laura Ingraham reminded us on Monday night. And there are plenty of post-liberal MAGA “influencers” whose cultural priorities lie elsewhere who’ll volunteer to counterprogram pro-life agitation online.

A cult of personality aims to condition adherents to submit to their leader’s will instead of asserting their own. If Trump has now decided that federal abortion restrictions are an electoral liability, which is not an unreasonable assumption, most of his very well-conditioned supporters will accommodate him.

They’ve already begun to do so, in fact. “I live in the real world. I don’t have this magic wand that will give me 60 votes in the Senate,” Penny Nance told Politico. “And as much as I would hope that that would happen in the next election, that’s a pretty high hill to climb.” Nance is CEO of Concerned Women for America, a group that names the sanctity of life as one of its “core issues.” Trump hasn’t even been reelected yet and already a top pro-life lobbyist like her is making excuses for why he can’t be expected to do anything nationally on abortion. Why, the sacred Senate filibuster simply won’t allow him to.

So much for the long-term implications of Trump’s position. What about the short-term ones, though, like the November election? That’s what Sarah was referring to when she said Trump’s new federalist take on abortion “will make no difference at all.” Is it true that no minds will be changed by what he said?

I don’t buy that either. It won’t make a huge difference in an election where most public opinion about the two nominees is set in concrete. But there’ll be millions of “double haters” in November who really, really don’t want to reelect a wizened, diminished Joe Biden yet find themselves blanching at the thought of supporting a four-times-indicted coup-plotter. Any Trump policy shift that weakens their gag reflex about him might be the thing that tips them over into reluctantly supporting him.

They’re looking for ways to give themselves “permission” to vote for him—especially, perhaps, young adults who have been trending right out of antipathy to Biden but will need some convincing to back Trump. Now they have one. Maybe that’s worth only 1 percent of the vote in swing states, but given how tight the election is apt to be, that 1 percent might be decisive.

All in all, then, I think Trump’s new-ish abortion position does matter. But if you’re inclined to believe that, lol, nothing does, there are some reasons to think you’re right.

On Tuesday the Washington Post published a behind-the-scenes look at Trump’s abortion deliberations. Try to look surprised as you discover that he didn’t feel strongly either way.

“Until the end, Trump had waffled, according to people who spoke with him. That left many guessing until the last minute about where he would land,” the Post reported. “‘He goes back and forth between states’ rights and 15 weeks,’ one person in touch with Trump said ahead of his announcement.”

That’s not the sound of a man who’s strongly committed to his position (or who cares the slightest bit about the political logic in favor of a federalist system). Reading it, you can understand why Tony Perkins believes Trump might have a change of heart once he’s back in office.

As a matter of armchair psychology, everything points toward him doing so.

His administration will be a mix of transactional pragmatists and hard-nosed ideologues. Some of those ideologues will come from the pro-life movement. They’ll lobby him privately to reconsider federal restrictions; trapped in the information bubble they’ve created for him and lacking a firm opinion on this issue, Trump may be persuadable.

If Sidney Powell could talk him into believing there was a giant international vote-rigging conspiracy afoot in 2020, Tony Perkins can probably talk him into believing that a 15-week federal ban is reasonable.

Some grassroots pro-lifers might also start loudly questioning his “strength” in refusing to fight for national abortion limits, which would wound Trump in a way that few criticisms do. In 2018, in order to avert a government shutdown, he reluctantly signed a $1.3 trillion funding bill that caused a short but sharp backlash among parts of his base. Trump was singed badly enough by their accusations of weakness that he announced publicly he’d never sign a bill like that again.

He eventually did, of course, but the episode reminds us of how sensitive he can be to looking soft in the eyes of his fans. As another example, remember how quickly he reversed himself after his infamous endorsement of gun control at a White House summit following the mass shooting in El Paso in 2019. Being a New Yorker who speaks “conservative” as a second language, he doesn’t innately feel his base’s passion for certain culture-war issues and therefore is prone to offend them occasionally by following his own instincts—but when he does, he’s quick to scramble back onside.

If his “states’ rights” view of abortion draws enough grassroots flak, he might conclude that this is another such occasion and start scrambling again.

The fact that a second Trump presidency would be term-limited (I think?) might also influence his boldness in pursuing unpopular policies. That’s true of any term-limited president, but Trump by nature seems capable of anything if he knows he won’t pay a price for it. If his base demands bold executive action to limit abortion and polling shows a ferocious backlash brewing, he may not be deterred. His party might get wiped out in the 2026 midterms because of what he’s done but he’ll never be a candidate for office again himself. So why would he care?

Speaking of which, there’s one more reason why his new “states’ rights” approach to abortion might not matter much. The biggest flashpoint of his second term on the issue is likely to involve the Comstock Act, a federal statute. Neither he nor his party will be able to hide behind federalism on that one.

I wrote about the Comstock Act a few weeks ago. Congress passed it 100 years before Roe was decided; it prohibits shipping anything “intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion” through the mail or via common carriers like UPS. Comstock was effectively defunct during the Roe era, but now that Roe is gone, many pro-lifers—including 145 Republicans in Congress—believe that Comstock is good law once again. That means the federal government already has the power to block interstate transfers of abortifacients. All the Trump administration has to do is use it.

Will it?

Upon Trump’s reelection, liberals will agitate furiously for Congress to either repeal Comstock or amend it to create an exception for abortion medication. (Why they’re not doing this already, with Chuck Schumer in the lead, is unclear to me.) That will create a sticky political dilemma for the new president and his party. While the polling is mixed with respect to 15-week federal bans, Americans strongly favor making abortifacients publicly available. And while a federal 15-week ban would affect few abortions, since nearly all occur during the first trimester, enforcing the Comstock Act would potentially affect a majority of terminations in the U.S.

The resulting backlash could add many megatons of power to the Democrats’ electoral nuclear weapon. So if Trump is worried about the political fallout from a 15-week ban, he’s probably petrified of how radioactive reviving Comstock might be.

Yet, given the political dynamics, he may feel he has no choice.

After all, Comstock is already on the books. There’s no 60-vote threshold in the Senate providing a convenient excuse as to why his administration can’t implement it, as there is with the 15-week ban. There’s no “states’ rights” pretext to fall back on either, as interstate commerce in abortifacients is plainly a federal concern. Unless President Donald Trump orders his Justice Department to start prosecuting people, providers in blue states will continue to traffic aggressively in medication like mifepristone.

How would he convince pro-lifers that declining to save fetal lives by using a power that’s already available to him is proper legally and morally?

Congress could take that power away from him by repealing or amending Comstock. But doing that would require Republican votes in the Senate, where the GOP is likely to control the chamber. How would Trump and his party justify actively conspiring with pro-choice Democrats to disarm the pro-life cause of its strongest legal weapon to reduce abortions?

That’s the ironic “lol nothing matters” conclusion to the current uproar over Trump’s federalist statement on abortion. Punting this issue to the states in hopes of freeing the party from having to wrestle with it at the national level ultimately won’t work because the Comstock debate is going to force it on them anyway. Nothing much matters except that.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.