During meetings with some political advisers at his Mar-a-Lago estate this year, former president Donald Trump regularly posed a question: “What’s a tougher issue, abortion or guns?”
Trump publicly praises Roe’s repeal — but privately frets about impact
In a two-day span this week, a Supreme Court whose makeup was dramatically shifted to the right during Trump’s presidency gave his supporters significant wins on two seismic issues. Most dramatically, there was the overturning of Roe v. Wade, culminating a 49-year crusade from the GOP to discard the decision protecting the right to abortions, but also the knockdown of a gun control law in New York.
The abortion decision was 6-3 and the guns decision was 6-3, with the three justices appointed by Trump casting the decisive votes.
Both gun control and abortion are issues that are likely to reshape and inject vigor into the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race — and give Trump signature victories to reanimate his supporters, while driving out his biggest foes in droves. So far, the 2022 cycle is expected to be a good one for Republicans, analysts in both parties say, but the election has been largely about issues other than guns and abortion. Trump has shown little interest in either.
Publicly, Trump crowed about the Supreme Court rulings Friday in a triumphant statement released through his super PAC, blasting his usual suspects, including Democrats and the news media.
“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. It was my great honor to do so!” he said. He issued another brief statement on the New York gun bill.
“This brings everything back to the states where it has always belonged,” Trump said to Fox News. He told Fox that “God made the decision.”
He was more publicly muted, however, than a range of other Republicans who are seeking the presidency in 2024. Trump is expected to speak at a rally Saturday night in Illinois.
Some Republicans were faster to call for the laws to go even further. A raft of his contemporaries issued statements more quickly and at far greater length than Trump.
“Having been given this second chance for life, we must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the land,” former vice president Mike Pence said in an interview with Breitbart.
Trump has largely stayed away from the looming Roe decision in recent weeks, only decrying the leak of a draft opinion in the case from the Supreme Court and avoiding opportunities to talk about it publicly. He has complained privately that the overturning of Roe could hurt Republicans politically in independent and suburban districts, two advisers said, and has told allies they should emphasize that states can set their own laws. Trump has also told some of his advisers he thinks a better position would be to limit but not ban abortion, two of these people said, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal discussions.
“He is convinced it won’t help him in the future,” one adviser said of Roe being overturned, and would prefer the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election be primarily about other topics, such as inflation, immigration and Biden’s messy pullout in Afghanistan, four people who have spoken with him said.
Before speaking to the National Rifle Association convention last month after a mass shooting in Uvalde, Tex., Trump wondered if he should support some moderate limits on guns and said he was horrified by the shooting, according to two advisers. But as aides have done in the past, they talked him out of including such sentiments in his speech, according to a person with knowledge of the events. In recent days, he has been largely silent as Congress has debated and passed a bill that contains some measures to try to curb school shootings.
During the conversation with his advisers at Mar-a-Lago, he said privately that he believed guns was the tougher issue.
Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich on Friday disputed any misgivings by the former president on abortion or guns.
“The decisions being handed down this week represent some of the biggest victories for conservative Constitutionalists in the history of the Supreme Court, further proving that Donald Trump has been one of the most consequential Presidents in American history — a fact that won’t be changed by the Washington Post’s anonymous and dishonest sources,” Budowich said in a statement.
Trump once was a Manhattan billionaire who was stridently in favor of abortion rights, but he vowed during the 2016 campaign that he would appoint conservative judges who would overturn Roe. On guns, he has told his supporters that he is the bulwark keeping Democrats from taking their Second Amendment rights away — but privately, he has questioned why people need such powerful guns and why people enjoy hunting, according to people who worked for him in the White House.
“These were not things that were ever firmly in his wheelhouse, and I think Trump in his pre-presidential days was pro-gun safety and pro-choice,” said Tim O’Brien, a longtime Trump biographer. “But it made sense for the coalition he was trying to build in right-wing politics that he changed. You have all these court rulings that are engraving it into stone, and he doesn’t really seem to care. It wasn’t ever a place he resided authentically and intellectually.”
Multiple White House advisers said guns and abortion were always bedeviling for the former president because he knew what his political base supported, but also had differing instincts at times.
Trump regularly expressed ambivalence about Roe in the White House. “It’s a tough issue,” he said to a staffer on Air Force One in 2019, after seeing a segment about the March for Life on the airplane’s television, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. Trump told the aide that he would prefer Pence go to the March for Life, this person said. But he was later convinced partially by the prospect of a large crowd, the adviser said, and said even more people would come knowing he was going to be there. “Tough issue,” he said.
In the White House, a range of advisers, particularly former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, talked Trump out of seeking to pass some gun control bills, people familiar with the matter said. He would periodically muse, according to five former White House officials, about how they needed to take action after mass shootings.
Nonetheless, the court’s decisions this week could re-energize Trump’s supporters — and some of his most steadfast opponents. Large demonstrations were planned in Washington for the weekend.
“Guns and abortion were already positioned to be prime motivators, but now the back-to-back Supreme Court decisions now make it even more so,” said Kellyanne Conway, a longtime Trump adviser. “Both pro-lifers and pro-choicers will be super motivated to vote in the fall election. Gun owners and gun-grabbing activists will be super motivated to vote in the fall election. The difference may lie in the number of would-be Democrat voters who would be apathetic, and they will turn that apathy into anger and action, given the two Supreme Court cases.”
Several advisers said they wanted Trump to talk about the abortion issue more because they believed it would be a political winner for him in 2024 with Republican voters and cement part of his legacy. Conway said, “Trump-Pence was the most pro-life presidency in decades.”
“If Trump wants to talk about the past, this is a good one,” one close adviser said, referring to the abortion decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. “He should be crowing and gloating about the Dobbs decision.”
The Republican Party’s top donors were expected to be in Chicago this weekend to hear from a slate of potential presidential candidates and from congressional leadership. At the party’s most recent donor retreat, Conway argued that while most voters were in favor of abortion rights, most voters agreed with some limitations on abortion — and Republicans should latch on to that.
The jubilation many Republicans felt vindicated their willingness to back Trump and take a risky bet on a nominee they were not sure would deliver conservative results.
Carrie Severino, who leads the Judicial Crisis Network, a group with deep pockets that works closely with Federalist Society attorney Leonard Leo and others to confirm conservative judges, said she was skeptical of Trump’s presidency at first — but soon saw him as the best president in her lifetime on the issue.
She said that Trump’s White House went on the “offense” on judges and that “we want bold nominees” who believe in strict originalism — and was willing to consider judges that other presidents would be too squeamish to consider.
“Trump has hands down has the strongest record on the court in recent history, which surprised a lot of people. You’ve got a lot of never-Trumpers who even praise him on that issue,” she said.
Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff and a former director of legislative affairs in the White House, said many advisers were willing to work for Trump because they believed he could make such big changes when it came to the Supreme Court. “We had a president — we weren’t at all sure at that point — who would maybe nominate the right kind of people,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a recent interview.