Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
the national interest

How Donald Trump Suckered Ron DeSantis on Abortion

Trump took the pro-lifers seriously, not literally.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

This week, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group, met with Donald Trump at his Florida home/crime scene, and came away praising the former president. This may be the most brutal development for Governor Ron DeSantis in the election cycle yet.

Consider the following sequence of events.

On January 1, Trump posted a social-media message blaming the pro-life movement for the party’s disappointing midterm performance:

It wasn’t my fault that the Republicans didn’t live up to expectations in the MidTerms. I was 233-20! It was the “abortion issue,” poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother, that lost large numbers of Voters. Also, the people that pushed so hard, for decades, against abortion, got their wish from the U.S. Supreme Court, & just plain disappeared, not to be seen again.

DeSantis, by contrast, positioned himself as the movement’s unwavering ally. On April 13, DeSantis signed a law banning abortion after six weeks. The measure is deeply unpopular, drawing opposition from three-quarters of his state’s residents and even most Republicans. DeSantis, clearly aware of the risks he took on, signed the measure in a closed ceremony late at night and has declined to bring it up since, not even at a speech the next day at theocratic Liberty University. But DeSantis needed the pro-life movement in his corner, and this, he believed, was the cost of admission.

On April 20, Dannenfelser announced that her organization “will oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful late-term abortions while allowing states to enact further protections.” She called Trump’s position, leaving the issue to the states, “morally indefensible.”

On April 28, Trump gave an almost comically noncommittal explanation of his position. “We’ll get something done where everyone is going to be very satisfied,” he said. Trump said his campaign was “looking at a lot of different options” and that “I think we’ll get it done on some level, it could be on different levels, but we’re gonna get it done. I know the issue very well. I think I know the issue better than most and we will get that taken care of.”

Trump was not promising to support any particular policy, merely that “something” would be done, possibly (but not necessarily) by him. The term “some level” seemed to indicate his belief that different levels of government, such as the states, could enact some kind of abortion restriction. But his statement contained no promise of any kind that he could be called to account for.

And now here is Dannenfelser after her visit to Mar-a-Lago. In the meeting, according to her statement, Trump committed himself only to two positions: attacking Democrats for their support of late-term abortion, and “reiterat[ing] that any federal legislation protecting these children would need to include the exceptions for life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest.” Notably, the latter position did not commit Trump to supporting any federal legislation. Instead, it merely ruled out signing any legislation lacking certain exceptions. Nonetheless, she described the meeting as “terrific.”

DeSantis is considerably more intelligent than Trump and has also shown himself to be a more competent executive. But watching the two candidates maneuver on abortion, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Trump possesses a far keener sense of how to navigate a complex issue. Trump understood that, even though the pro-life movement may be powerful, its policy demands are a bluff that he can call. He took their demands seriously but not literally. DeSantis, by contrast, comes off looking like a fool.

How Donald Trump Suckered Ron DeSantis on Abortion