CLIVE, Iowa — Donald Trump, stinging from a rebuke by the nation’s leading anti-abortion group, used a speech Saturday before influential evangelicals in Iowa to spotlight his actions as president to try to restrict abortion rights.
Chief among the accomplishments Trump listed were his nominations of three conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court. The appointments paved the way for the overturning last year of the landmark Roe. v. Wade ruling, which had affirmed a federal right to abortion.
“Those justices delivered a landmark victory for protecting innocent life. Nobody thought it was going to happen,” Trump said, appearing via video to a gathering of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “They thought it would be another 50 years. Because Republicans had been trying to do it for exactly that period of time, 50 years.”
Trump has often avoided talking about abortion as he campaigns again for the White House, sidestepping the issue less than a year after the court overturned Roe.
But his position that abortion restrictions should be left up to the states, not the federal government, drew a sharp rebuke Thursday from the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group, which called it a “morally indefensible position for a self-proclaimed pro-life presidential candidate.”
Trump didn’t take a stance Saturday on a national ban. Instead, he ticked through a record as president that aimed to satisfy abortion opponents that form the core of evangelical Christians, who hold sway in the GOP primary contest and particularly Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Republican caucuses.
Trump won applause noting he was the first president to attend the annual March for Life abortion opposition rally.
Likewise, the crowd of roughly 1,000 gathered in the suburban Des Moines event hall cheered when Trump noted his relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a symbol many evangelical Christians see as fulfilling biblical prophecy.
“Every promise to you I made as a candidate, I fulfilled as president,” he said.
Trump’s former vice president Mike Pence, who appeared in person before the group, used his speech earlier in the evening to celebrate Trump’s efforts to restrict abortion and take some bit of credit for himself.
Pence, long known for his conservative values, called the appointments the “most important of all” the accomplishments of the Trump administration, drawing loud applause and cheers from the crowd.
“We did that, Iowa,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud to have been a small part of an administration that did just that.”
The Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual spring fundraiser marks the unofficial start of the state’s 2024 caucus campaign. The event featured a slate of Republican candidates and potential contenders, including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is expected to enter the race.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, considered a top rival to Trump, did not attend.
The event gives the presidential prospects the chance to make their pitch to evangelicals in a state where Republicans will kick off the nominating process next year. It’s also a shot at making an impression on activists who may be open to an alternative to Trump at a time when he is mired in legal problems and was recently charged in New York in a hush money scheme involving a porn actor.
The gathering comes as abortion rights have reemerged as a pivotal issue in elections after conservatives last year achieved their long-sought goal of overturning Roe. v. Wade.
The Republican presidential field is trying to get a handle on how far to go in supporting restrictions on the procedure to satisfy the conservative base in the primary but not to further alienate general election voters, most of whom support keeping abortion legal.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America has said it will not support any White House candidate who does not at a minimum back a 15-week federal abortion ban.
Distinguishing himself from Trump, Pence told reporters during a stop in Jefferson, Iowa, earlier Saturday that the Supreme Court’s ruling does not preclude federal restrictions.
“I’ll certainly support efforts to create a threshold of support for the unborn even at the national level,” Pence said, adding he would support “the minimum of a 15-week ban.”
Pence’s advocacy group has pushed for Congress to pass legislation including a national abortion ban beginning around six weeks.
Despite the credit Trump received for his judicial nominations, he was criticized after last year’s elections for saying that Republicans’ underperformance was due to abortion foes’ opposition to exceptions for women who became pregnant by rape or incest or whose life was at risk.
All the Republicans in the race or moving toward running have supported state bans on abortion. Most have been much more cautious about staking a position on a nationwide ban.
Scott has said he would support a federal law to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The senator has issued calls for uniting the nation around Christian faith and spoke Saturday about the religion’s values being embedded in the foundation of America.
“If you believe, like l do, that America should celebrate our founding fathers and not cancel them, let me hear you say ‘Amen,'” Scott shouted at the start of a call-and-response with the audience.
He, along with Pence, has visited regularly with evangelical pastors during his early trips to Iowa, with the aim of building rapport with clergy who can be influential in their churches among politically active social conservatives.
Also appearing Saturday night were Vivek Ramaswamy, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, radio host Larry Elder, former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, former Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Perry Johnson.
In his closing remark, Johnson made reference to the Florida governor’s absence from the event.
“I think DeSantis is making a huge mistake for not being here,” Johnson said. “But to each his own.”
Story by Thomas Beaumont and Michelle L. Price.