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Trump Says He's Not Asking Justice Candidates About Abortion. Why Bother?


President Trump says he plans to announce his pick for the Supreme Court next Monday. And as he meets with potential nominees, he has vowed not to ask them about their views on Roe v. Wade. That's the 1973 landmark ruling that made abortion legal nationwide. It's a stark contrast from what Trump promised back in 2016 on the campaign trail. Here's a clip from the third debate. Chris Wallace of Fox News asked this question.


CHRIS WALLACE: Do you want to see the court overturn Roe v. Wade?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, if we put another two or perhaps three justices on, that's really what's going to be - that will happen. And that'll happen automatically, in my opinion, because I am putting pro-life justices on the court.

CHANG: So why the disconnect between then and now? To talk about President Trump's strategy in the coming Supreme Court confirmation battle we're joined by NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Hey, Ron.


CHANG: So just to be clear we're not seeing some kind of evolution of President Trump's personal views on abortion, right? We're seeing tactics on how to get a Supreme Court nominee through.

ELVING: That is right. The word evolution would be appropriate here. You remember that when he switched from many years of support for abortion rights to total opposition as a candidate for the Republican nomination...

CHANG: Right.

ELVING: ...President Trump back then said his views had evolved. But that does not appear to be what's happening here. You're right to speak of it his tactics. The strategy that they're serving is to unite all flavors of republicanism and get to at least 50 votes and confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court. Remember, they took away the filibuster option last year...

CHANG: Right.

ELVING: ...For Supreme Court nominees. So 50 would be enough to confirm whomever the president nominates.

CHANG: But everyone knows that President Trump is picking from a list that was compiled by conservative organizations - organizations that very deliberately chose people they think would want to overturn Roe v. Wade. So why is he tiptoeing? Why the delicate theater here?

ELVING: Because there are two senators who are Republicans, who are women in the Senate, who have been supporters of abortion rights in the past and are worried about seeing Roe vs. Wade overturned. Now, that's Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. So they are the audience of two for what the president is doing with this particular kind of tactic, even though, at the same time, the president is counting on support from the rest of the Senate Republicans, the overwhelming number of whom, of course, are opponents of abortion rights.

CHANG: Susan Collins of Maine seemed to give a nod to the precarious politics. I mean, just last weekend, she said that she would not vote for any nominee with a demonstrated hostility to Roe v. Wade. That sounds like she's threading the needle, too, doesn't it?

ELVING: Yes, and perhaps sending a message with respect to a couple of the people on the list. There is one William Pryor, who is currently an appellate court judge for the 11th Circuit, who in the past has called Roe v. Wade the worst abomination in constitutional history. You could interpret that as hostility. So if that particular person were to be nominated by the president, he would be apparently willing to sacrifice the vote of Susan Collins.

CHANG: OK. So there is the politics of the individual senators to consider as we head towards the confirmation battle. But then there's also the politics of voters at large as we head into midterm elections this year. A majority of Americans do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. This is an election where we're seeing a lot of energy among female voters, female candidates. Could a Supreme Court nominee whom conservatives fall in love with backfire in this election?

ELVING: We have seen something like that before. In 1992, a record number of women were elected to the Senate, particularly Democratic women. And that was right after the confirmation of Clarence Thomas and his controversial confirmation hearings, where he was challenged on a - what we would today call #MeToo basis by Anita Hill, a previous colleague. That was a highly controversial moment in the history not only of judicial politics in America but sexual politics in America. We'll have to see if that happens again in the circumstances of 2018 and 2020.

CHANG: That's NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks very much, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for