Biden world fears Trump may muddy the waters on abortion

Date: 2023-09-18 17:40:36


Former President Donald Trump waves to the crowd after speaking at a Concerned Women for America Summit at the Capitol Hilton on Sept. 15, 2023, in Washington. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

When NBC published excerpts last week of the “Meet The Press” interview with former President Donald Trump, one portion in particular piqued the interest of the Joe Biden campaign’s rapid response operation.

In the interview, Trump called Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ six-week abortion ban “terrible” and claimed to seek “peace” on the issue. “I’m going to come together with all groups, and we’re going to have something that’s acceptable,” he told MTP moderator Kristen Welker.

For Biden world, this was a flashing red light. The former president — who has called himself the “most pro-life” president in history and whose appointment of three conservative justices paved the way for Roe v. Wade to be overturned last summer — was attempting, in their minds, to weasel himself into a more moderate position on an issue proven to be a vulnerability for the Republican Party.

Aides and allies of the president quickly moved to try and shape the media’s coverage of the comments. Mainly, they admonished stories that didn’t — in their estimation — note that Trump was, in the words of spokesperson Ammar Mousa, “the reason states across the country are able to ban abortion.”

The aggressive pushback underscored two major elements of the current political landscape: The general election has basically begun and Democrats continue to see abortion as the key to keeping the White House. It also conveyed a small bit of anxiety that Trump’s attempt to frame his record on the issue might work.

“The media still has work to do to figure out how to cover him,” Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, told West Wing Playbook. “It’s better than it was in 2016, but it’s still a problem and I think that’s why you saw so many people jump out after [Trump’s abortion comments] — he was essentially getting away with it.”

After the full interview aired on Sunday, the campaign sent reporters a response from campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez citing Trump’s own boasts about his ability “to kill” Roe. They also sent along a fact sheet and enlisted key surrogates, advocacy groups and elected officials to join a coordinated response, pushing back not just at Trump but at the press.

“Hello! Hoping to get your help calling out this extremely irresponsible coverage of Trump’s abortion comments to Welker,” said an email to those surrogates, which was obtained by West Wing Playbook. “Trump is trying to hedge on abortion, and reporters are letting him off the hook. It’s critically important we not let that happen and call it out.”

The campaign’s army of allies responded with alacrity.

“This is dangerous — we can’t let Trump off the hook for his record,” wrote Mini Timmaraju, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a post on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.

Much of the pushback happened on social media, where a number of top surrogates blasted the media over its coverage of Trump’s interview.

Kate Bedingfield, the former White House communications director and now a CNN political analyst, called out a Washington Post story on Trump’s abortion comments after a tweet by an editor that offered them without additional context.

“Headlining this piece ‘Trump calls six-week abortion bans ‘terrible’ with no other context is a prime example of how traditional coverage of Trump fails,” Bedingfield wrote in a threaded post on X shared by other Biden allies, including former chief of staff Ron Klain.

Jim Messina, an Obama strategist working closely with Biden’s 2024 campaign, also echoed Bedingfield’s comments, blasting the media’s “both sides” treatment of Trump and posting a clip of a 2016 interview where Trump suggested there should be “some punishment” for women who get abortions. Trump retracted his 2016 comments shortly after he made them.

“The political press corps have a responsibility to stop treating Donald Trump as if his entire presidency wasn’t defined by lies, misleading statements, and a Ph.D. in gaslighting the public,” said TJ Ducklo, a senior Biden campaign communications adviser. “He appointed three justices who called Roe settled law then voted to overturn 50 years of precedent, which he gloats about constantly. He’s said he’d sign a national abortion ban. Coverage of his extreme, clear, and manipulative posture on abortion must include this context.”

One element of pushback that the campaign did not do, however, was to have Biden himself engage. The president, who is in New York City this week for the U.N. gathering, was invited to appear on “Meet the Press.” But Welker said that the White House did not accept her invitation.

Still, Finney argued that putting Biden out there more won’t solve the fundamental issues at hand.

“It shouldn’t have to be President Biden’s job to fact check Trump in an interview. The media organization that does that interview and the people who cover it have a responsibility for accurate coverage,” she said.

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