Donald Trump Now Takes a Hands-Off Approach on Abortion Policy

Eight years ago, the final Saturday before the Iowa caucuses brought forward all of the contradictions and chaos of then-reality star Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency. We stood in a chilly airplane hangar in Dubuque as the score from Air Force One blared in the cavernous building while Trump’s private 757 did a flyby. After an outdoor series of attacks against Sen. Ted Cruz—his chief rival at the time—and a 90-minute drive south, we were settling into the red-velvet theater seats of the Adler Theater in Davenport for a friendly Q&A session between Trump and his most unlikely of allies, then-Liberty University President Jerry Fallwell, Jr. In a nod to just how surreal the whole campaign had become, vendors had buckets of popcorn available, as if the first leg of the Republican presidential primary were on the level with a circus or county fair.

That January day, we all thought we were watching a sideshow and not the main event. And when the thrice-married New York playboy who had years earlier proclaimed himself pro-choice was now promising to nominate judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade, there were plenty of people who didn’t believe him.

Trump spent the next four years proving those doubters wrong. As President, he pushed Congress to pass a 20-week abortion ban and appointed scores of anti-abortion judges, including three justices to the Supreme Court who made the end of Roe possible. For years now, many have assumed Trump supports finishing what he started, and restricting abortion access across the country.

But that’s not where Trump’s position lies anymore.

Flash forward to this month for the latest chapter of our collective struggle in understanding Trump and Trumpism, thanks to an exclusive interview between Trump and TIME’s Eric Cortallessa. The whole interview—and exchange—is worth the considered read, but one part cannot help but stand out. It’s an argument that seems to come from a different person than the man speaking on stage during that frigid weekend in western Iowa, but it’s what the undisputed leader of the Republican Party now says he believes: on abortion, Trump is now a nihilist.

Put simply: The current patchwork system in which every state’s abortion policy is different is exactly how things should remain in Trump’s mind. That state of affairs is bound to leave both supporters of reproductive rights unsatisfied as well as those who view terminating a pregnancy at any stage as tantamount to murder. In Trump 2.0’s America, red states gonna red state; blue states gonna blue.

TIME: The Life at Conception Act would grant full legal rights to embryos, included in their 2025 budget proposal. Is that your position?

Trump: I’m leaving everything up to the states. The states are going to be different. Some will say yes. Some will say no. Texas is different than Ohio.

TIME: Would you veto that bill?

Trump: I don’t have to do anything about vetoes, because we now have it back in the states.

Later in the interview, Eric pressed Trump on red states taking even more restrictive measures to prevent abortion access, like tracking pregnancies. Trump’s response was militantly laissez faire: “I think they might do that.” What about states prosecuting pregnant persons who defy an abortion ban? Trump said, “It’s irrelevant whether I’m comfortable or not. It’s totally irrelevant, because the states are going to make those decisions.”

Trump’s latest position is not all that dissimilar to how states have limits on gun rights or require car insurance. Trump and his advisers have decided that deep-red states should be free to enact a total ban on abortions if that is what they want, while allowing true-blue states to provide the procedure to their own whims. Basically, it’s a choose-your-own-future landscape that is defined by geography more than circumstance.

One area where Trump can’t completely cede taking a position to states is abortion medication, which is regulated on the federal level and accounts for roughly two-thirds of terminated pregnancies. Trump initially punted on the issue, promising Eric an answer in 14 days. More than two weeks later, Eric asked Trump again about that in a phone call, and he punted again.

Perhaps Trump has always been this indifferent to this most hot-button of issues and only in pursuit of the drama. He seldom seemed to believe even his harshest rhetoric on reproductive rights. ​​As a candidate, he at one point supported punishing pregnant individuals who defy abortion bans, and then immediately backtracked, saying only going after the healthcare professionals who provide the procedure. Now, he’s suggesting that, under his watch, the federal government would get out of the abortion regime altogether. Yet Trump’s allies, many of whom belong to groups preparing to help staff his administration, are not on board with Trump’s new position, and are likely to push for an approach like Trump’s first term—nominating anti-abortion judges and instituting regulations that reduced access to the procedure. Notably, Eric couldn’t exactly pin down Trump on what he would do if a federal abortion ban reached his Oval Office desk.

TIME: So just to be clear, then: You won’t commit to vetoing the bill if there’s federal restrictions—federal abortion restrictions?

Trump: I won’t have to commit to it because it’ll never—number one, it’ll never happen. Number two, it’s about states’ rights. You don’t want to go back into the federal government. This was all about getting out of the federal government.

Eric’s whole interview is worth the read because it gives a tangible, in-Trump’s-own-words playbook of what a second term would mean for America and the world. But the sections about abortion rights in particular is illuminating because it shows just how little culpability Trump is willing to take for the new abortion patchwork his justices created, or how little he seems interested in either going back to an era when abortion rights were protected, or moving to implement a national ban.

Against that by-definition-uneven playing field, Trump is now seemingly content to lean back in his armchair and watch states divvy up which of them will be providers of abortion and which will be a desert for the procedure. It’s a remarkably passive posture for someone who fancies himself the center of every circus tent.

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