In televised town hall appearance, Trump takes credit for Dobbs, avoids abortion policy specifics

A supporter of Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump stood with an American flag beside protesters gathered outside the venue where Trump took part in a CNN campaign town hall event in Manchester, N.H., May 10, 2023. Trump addressed Roe and other topics at the first major town hall appearance of his 2024 campaign May 10. (OSV News Photo by Brian Snyder, Reuters)

By Kate Scanlon

Former President Donald Trump took questions from New Hampshire Republican and undeclared voters at St. Anselm College during a CNN town hall moderated by Kaitlan Collins May 10 in which he repeated unfounded claims about the 2020 election and took credit for bringing about the end of Roe v. Wade.

The town hall event took place in New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, a key contest for any candidate on the road to the White House. The live audience consisted of Republican primary voters and Republican-leaning undeclared voters. The event was chaotic at times, with Collins and Trump speaking over one another and some of Trump’s Republican supporters in the audience cheering his comments.

CNN faced criticism for hosting the ex-president, who has made claims, without providing evidence, that the 2020 election was “rigged” against him. But the network defended its decision, as well as Collins’ moderation of the event, arguing in a statement that Collins “asked tough, fair and revealing questions.” The event took place the day after a federal jury in New York found him liable for the sexual abuse and defamation of writer E. Jean Carroll. Trump denied involvement and also claimed that verdict was “rigged.”

Trump repeated claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and claimed that then-Vice President Mike Pence was not in “any danger” during the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot, despite protesters chanting, “Hang Mike Pence,” and documentation showing rioters got within 40 feet of Pence during the attack. Pence was ultimately taken to a secure location in the Capitol complex.

Robert Schmuhl, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, who critically observes the modern American presidency, said that the town hall’s “major lesson is that mainstream media outlets need to be careful in giving Donald Trump a platform.”

“Despite being challenged on point-after-point, he delivered so many falsehoods that a network trying to be unbiased came off as being a conduit of over an hour of misinformation, amplifying the former president’s conspiracies and lies,” Schmuhl said.

Schmuhl said Collins “valiantly tried to correct the falsehoods about the 2020 election and Jan. 6, but the former president persisted in reiterating his unfounded beliefs, ones that seriously damage American democracy.”

“His views haven’t changed from Election Day in 2020, and I doubt they ever will,” he said.

Elsewhere during the event, Trump called the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in June that overturned prior rulings by the high court making abortion access a constitutional right, including Roe, “a great victory.”

“But for 50 years, this has been going on,” Trump said of abortion under Roe v. Wade, a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in all 50 states. “I was able to do it, and I was very honored to do it. But by doing it, things are happening that are very, very positive.”

He noted the he believes “in the exceptions, the life of the mother, rape, incest, like Ronald Reagan believed in the exceptions.”

Asked several times by Collins if he would sign a federal abortion ban into law in a second term, Trump avoided specifics, arguing he would “negotiate so that people are happy.”

Trump said that others have offered “ideas” about gestational limits, at one point saying, “Lindsey Graham’s a good man,” in an apparent reference to a 15-week limit the South Carolina Republican introduced in the Senate last year, while also saying “some people are at six weeks; some people are at three weeks, two weeks,” without elaborating on which, if any, he would support.

Asked whether they were satisfied by Trump’s comments on abortion at the town hall event, pro-life activists were similarly vague on whether they would support Trump, but offered specifics on the types of policies they are looking for a Republican nominee to embrace.

E.V. Osment, vice president of communications at SBA Pro-Life America, cited a meeting the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, recently had with Trump, and said the group looks forward to “continued conversations” with him.

“At SBA we’ve been very clear on our terms of endorsement for the next Republican presidential candidate,” Osment said.

SBA has said it is seeking to endorse a candidate for president who will embrace a 15-week federal minimum standard on abortion restrictions, a call Osment reiterated.

“We’re looking for a leader on life,” Osment said. “Someone who will commit to being a national defender of life, and as part of that commitment they need to support (at least) a 15-week national standard (at the time when science proves a baby in the womb can feel pain). A standard 72% of Americans support.”

Trump met with Dannenfelser after the prominent anti-abortion group criticized him for a campaign statement arguing abortion restrictions are a matter for states to decide. The Trump campaign said in a statement that he was “honored to have the support of leading pro-life groups like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America in 2016 and 2020.”

But other groups have called for earlier gestational limits. Kristi Hamrick, vice president of media and policy for Students for Life Action, said the group was “pleased” to see Trump “talked about heartbeat legislation, in noting that some are looking at limits around six weeks after a heartbeat is detected.”

“We will be asking all presidential candidates to support heartbeat (legislation) or better, as in every other medical setting we rush to help people with a heartbeat, rather than ending their lives,” Hamrick said. “We want to see a bold defense of mothers and their children, born and preborn, and we will also have an important candidate survey out, later in the cycle, as more candidates enter the race.”

St. Anselm College is a private Benedictine liberal arts college and the third oldest Catholic college in New England, according to its website. It is also home to the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, which has provided a nonpartisan forum for presidential candidates visiting the state since 2001.

St. Anselm College faced some criticism for hosting the event from members of the community opposed to Trump’s policies or rhetoric. College President Joseph Favazza wrote an open letter May 1 defending the decision to host Trump prior to the event.

“Of course, politics, and politicians, can be divisive, so why would we offer a forum for such activity?” the letter said. “It is simple: We believe that honest and informed interchange of ideas and perspectives is the bedrock of an informed electorate, which is why we have enthusiastically and impartially hosted political events since the 1950s.”

President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign responded to the event on Twitter, writing, “It’s simple, folks. Do you want four more years of that?”

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