DAVENPORT, Iowa -- No elected Republican has done more to restrict abortion rights in the U.S. than Donald Trump.
But in the early days of the 2024 presidential contest, no Republican has worked harder to avoid the issue than the former president. Far more than his GOP rivals, Trump is sidestepping the issue just nine months after he and his party celebrated the Supreme Court's decision to strip away women's constitutional right to abortion.
Look no further than Trump’s trip to Iowa last week for evidence of his delicate balancing act.
Moments after he stepped off his plane just outside Davenport, Trump repeatedly refused to say whether he would support a federal law restricting abortion in every state, a move that anti-abortion activists are demanding of the GOP's presidential contenders.
“We’re looking at a lot of different things,” Trump said when asked twice by The Associated Press whether he supports a federal abortion ban.
The former president quickly shifted the conversation to immigration, the economy and “radical-left lunatics.” And in the hours that followed, he didn't mention the word “abortion” even once as he chatted with Iowans in a diner, delivered an hourlong speech and took almost a dozen questions from voters.
Trump enters the opening stretch of the GOP primary in a strong position. But he faces a host of challenges in the coming weeks, especially as legal investigations surrounding the former president intensify. In a social media post this weekend, Trump said he expected to be arrested this week as a New York grand jury investigates hush money payments to women who alleged sexual encounters with the former president. Manhattan prosecutors, however, have not been in direct touch with Trump, leaving the timeline of potential charges unclear.
But the ultra-cautious approach on abortion reflects a new political reality for Republicans this presidential season.
Party leaders concede that the GOP's stunning success in persuading Trump's remade Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade last June ultimately triggered a fierce backlash that boosted Democrats in November's midterms. And while the 2024 political landscape is far from settled, leaders in both parties acknowledge that few issues may be more significant in the election of the next president than abortion.
Meanwhile, abortion access is disappearing across America.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe just nine months ago, 24 states have banned abortion outright or are likely to do so, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Other states with Republican-controlled legislatures, including Florida, are moving toward restrictive laws that would ban abortion as soon as six weeks of pregnancy.
The next step, according to anti-abortion leaders already playing a vocal role in the GOP's 2024 presidential primary, is to adopt a federal law that would force abortion restrictions upon every state.
Majorie Dannenfelser, who leads the socially conservative organization Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, is pushing for a law banning abortions nationwide at 15 weeks of gestation — if not sooner. She said she has spoken privately with most of the GOP's prospective field, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and believes they would all embrace such a federal ban.
And while she's generally pleased by her conversations with the 2024 field so far, she has noticed Trump's lack of public commitment to continued abortion restrictions in recent weeks.
“No one gets a pass,” Dannenfelser said, acknowledging that Roe would have not been overturned without Trump's three Supreme Court appointments. “With Trump, this is his legacy. It’s something that I believe he will get right, but he’s clearly doing some soul searching right now."
Meanwhile, Trump's rivals in the nascent presidential primary field have not shied away from their aggressive abortion plans as they court primary voters.
In Florida, a DeSantis-backed measure to ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy — before many women realize they're pregnant — is moving through the Republican-controlled state legislature. Democrats there admit there's nothing they can do to prevent the bill from becoming law, which DeSantis is using to strengthen his conservative bona bides ahead of a formal presidential announcement expected in the coming months.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, another likely 2024 contender who has long promoted religious conservatism, has been one of the GOP's most aggressive anti-abortion voices since the Supreme Court's ruling. On the campaign trail in recent weeks, he highlighted his commitment to go further.
Last month in New Hampshire, a state long known for protecting abortion rights, Pence openly vowed to support a federal abortion ban if elected.
"If I was in the Congress of the United States or in a job at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and they put a policy in front of me to limit abortions in the country, I’d certainly support it,” Pence said in a radio interview. He added that the issue would likely be decided by each individual state, however.
Nikki Haley, who launched her Republican presidential bid a month ago, also believes the issue will be resolved at the state level, despite her personal wishes.
She discussed the possibility of a 15-week federal ban during a February interview on the “Today” show. In a New Hampshire radio interview earlier this month, she reminded voters that she signed into law a 20-week ban while South Carolina governor.
“I can tell you that if it were up to me, every single state would be pro-life,” Haley said. “But I think the people need to decide that.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, another likely Republican 2024 prospect, celebrated the Supreme Court's Roe reversal last summer with his party. Last fall, he headlined a gala for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which is fighting for a federal ban.
Democrats are closely tracking the Republican White House hopefuls, knowing that aggressive anti-abortion rhetoric and policies will likely alienate key groups of voters — especially swing voters in the suburbs — in the 2024 general election.
“Republicans are not going to be able to hide from their extremist anti-abortion rights agendas in the 2024 presidential election," said Alexandra De Luca of American Bridge, a pro-Democrat super PAC. "American Bridge and the Democratic Party will hammer Republican presidential candidates early and often, making it impossible for whoever emerges to walk back their extremist views during the general election.”
More than his Republican opponents, Trump seems acutely aware of such political risks.
Before the 2022 midterms, he tried to persuade some of his preferred candidates to back off hard-line abortion positions — especially those that opposed exceptions in cases of rape, incest or life of the mother.
In distancing himself from aggressive anti-abortion policies, however, Trump opens himself up to a new set of challenges with religious conservatives.
Already, some evangelical leaders have withheld their endorsement. Trump said such moves are “a sign of disloyalty” in an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. And he accused anti-abortion leaders of failing to do enough to help GOP candidates in the midterms, which hasn't sat well with some evangelicals.
Bob Vander Plaats, the president of Iowa's Family Leader, said that abortion remains “a character-defining issue” that helps voters determine whether they can trust candidates or not.
So far, he said, it's unclear whether evangelicals can trust Trump in 2024.
“While we’re thrilled that he gave us justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, and we’re thrilled he did other things on abortion, frankly I think there's a big question mark out there,” Vander Plaats said. “Where is he on the sanctity of life? Does he really believe what he says he believes? When he’s pivoting and when he doesn’t want to talk about it and when he throws the pro-life community under the bus, those are all indicators that give us more cause for pause.”
Trump's campaign pushed back against such concerns.
Campaign spokesman Steven Cheung listed Trump's “unmatched” record on abortion, highlighting Trump's Supreme Court nominations, his moves to block taxpayer-funded abortion and his decision to reinstate the “Mexico City” policy that required nongovernmental organizations as a condition of funding not to promote abortion as a family planning method in other countries.
“There has been no bigger advocate for the movement than President Trump,” he said.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.