President Trump's series of tweets over the weekend about abortion were aimed at telling the conservative and anti-abortion movement to tone it down and unite around more mainstream positions, after the highly restrictive Alabama law and others like it have stoked the abortion debate, senior administration officials and White House advisers say.
Senior administration officials see a danger in recent abortion legislation in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri galvanizing women voters and particularly suburban women to view such legislation as attempts to erase access to abortion and to criminalize procedures thought to be constitutionally untouchable — such as abortions in the case of incest, rape, or when it's necessary to save the life of the mother.
The law passed in Alabama allows no exceptions for rape and incest after six weeks, a measure that even some like longtime televangelist Pat Roberts have labeled too "extreme." A senior White House official said recent abortion legislation has come up only briefly in conversations at the White House, but the president's tweets reflect his long-held personal views.
"What prompted him? It's private conversation, but also I think it's a personal thing that this is the best way to be pro life … which is that you have these exceptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother," the senior White House official said.
Over the weekend, Mr. Trump tweeted, "As most people know, and for those who would like to know, I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions - Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother - the same position taken by Ronald Reagan. ... We must stick together and Win ... for Life in 2020. If we are foolish and do not stay UNITED as one, all of our hard fought gains for Life can, and will, rapidly disappear!"
White House political advisers suggest polling data shows the public is open to tighter abortion restrictions than currently exist. A Marist poll published in January and commissioned by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic group, found that many Americans want more restrictions on abortion — 75% of Americans support restricting abortions to the first three months of pregnancy, for instance.
But restrictions are not outright bans, and the president's tweets were designed to quell the intensity of the positions held by those who oppose abortion rights absolutely. The most ardent opponents would nullify exemptions like rape, incest and the life of the mother, and this view is not held by others in the GOP. Nor is this opinion shared by Mr. Trump.
The White House is keen to showcase controversial remarks made by Democrats on abortion, among them, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam eyebrow-raising comments about handling a late-term abortion that many conservatives interpreted as "infanticide." Democrats fought that notion, claiming conservatives were mischaracterizing the comments. However, the recent legislative restrictions in Alabama, Georgia and Missouri, White House advisers fear, has flipped the script and is now in danger of making GOP legislators appear extreme.
The senior White House official said the president is the one with the "common sense solutions in railing against the extreme on the left and in not running all the way to Alabama on the right." The official said that the president wouldn't sign the Alabama law if he were the governor of Alabama. But he's not, and he respects the rights of states to enact their own laws.
"I think it's fair to say he would not have signed that law if he were governor of Alabama, but let me finish that sentence — he's not the governor of Alabama. And that's important, too," the senior White House official said. "He respects the right of states to make their own laws in accordance to what their electorate wants. And I know there's a lot of loud-mouthing, but it's, this is who Alabama elected. … I think the president was smart to lay down a marker and remind everybody what his position is, that he's pro-life with these exceptions."
Republicans, the official said, need to stay focused on highlighting Democrats' views on abortion, which the White House believes are extreme.
"When he says, 'Let's win for 2020,'" the official said of the president, "he is talking about the consensus issues on abortion."
"I still think that if the conversation remains on the extreme positions on abortion, the pro-lifers will win because the case that will get to the Supreme Court will probably not be the Alabama case," the senior White House official said. "It will be either one of the heartbeat cases or maybe one of the 20-week abortion cases — those are probably more likely."
Heartbeat laws are those that restrict abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — often about six or seven weeks after conception and sometimes before a woman is aware she is pregnant.
"The president knows that the conversation should stay on the rights of a baby past a certain point of gestation, a certain gestational age," the senior White House official said.
"He'll remain consistent in railing against their extremes," the official said, referencing Democrats, "but also in his long-held position that there should be these three exceptions."