When I first saw this clip after it made the rounds on social media last night, the first thought that came to mind was Donald Trump has been running for president for longer than I remembered. This exchange comes from an interview on Meet the Press with the late Tim Russert in October 1999, nearly sixteen years ago. Russert clearly put this question in the context of what Americans could expect from a President Trump on the key social issues of the last generation — gays in the military, same-sex marriage, and late-term abortion, a ban on which Bill Clinton vetoed. Trump demurred on the first two, claiming he didn’t have enough information, but on the third Trump took the prevailing Democratic line at the time.
However, this isn’t the end of the story, and its emergence now may simply be the emptying of old oppo ammunition to clear the barrels:
RUSSERT: Partial-birth abortion — the eliminating of abortion in the third trimester. Big issue in Washington. Would President Trump ban partial-birth abortion?
TRUMP: Well, look. I’m very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it, I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I hear people debating the subject. But you still — I just believe in choice. And again, it may be a little bit of a New York background, because there is some different attitude in different parts of the country, and I was raised in New York, grew up and worked and everything else in New York City. But I am strongly for choice, and yet I hate the concept of abortion.
RUSSERT: But you would not ban it.
RUSSERT: Or ban partial-birth abortion.
TRUMP: No, I would — I would — I am pro-choice in every respect, as far as it goes. I just hate it.
Sounds bad, yes? Well, it certainly sounds familiar. This came up four years ago during Trump’s previous almost-run, too. Chris Matthews featured it on Hardball in April 2011:
The reason for Matthews to cover this was because Trump had publicly flipped in the twelve years between this interview and the 2011 primary prelims. Trump claimed to have had a pro-life conversion somewhere between 1999 and 2011, which Matthews wanted to paint as entirely cynical. When this emerged four years ago, Allahpundit noted Trump’s claim to conversion, and its parallel to Mitt Romney’s own conversion story. Laura Ingraham grilled Trump on the issue at that time too, but in the end there was little point, as Trump never actually ran for the nomination anyway. The GOP ended up trusting Romney’s commitment to the pro-life cause despite his earlier pro-choice stand in Massachusetts with little evidence that the trust was misplaced — on this issue, anyway. Besides, we like true conversion stories on abortion; the arc of public opinion since Roe v Wade shows that a lot of Americans have made that journey, including the woman at the center of Roe, Norma McCorvey.
This time around, Trump has taken no chances on the abortion issue. As far back as January of this year, Trump conducted interviews with news media to explain his opposition to abortion, a fact noted by LifeNews’ Steven Ertelt in January of this year, which shows Trump’s shrewd calculation about getting in front of what would certainly be a deal-breaker with the GOP. That’s especially true of late-term abortion, to which polls show broad opposition, usually in the 60% range. Support for late-term abortion is the extreme position, even among Democrats.
So what to make of this? It’ll probably get shrugged off in an asked-and-answered manner among Trump-friendly voters, but Trump will continue to emphasize his conversion on life issues, and for good reason. Unlike the 2012 cycle, the GOP has a number of credible contenders, most of whom have had consistent records against abortion, especially late-term abortion. Trump will have to work extra hard to convince Republican primary voters that he’s worth supporting in relation to a broader and more relevant field. If Trump can succeed at making the media’s rehashing of this the issue, then he might score a few points, but some may just decide that they’d prefer to avoid another northeastern Republican conversion story.
Update: Trump was busy in 1999, as it turns out. How many conversion stories can Republican voters buy?
Speaking with CNN host Larry King in 1999 when he was flirting with a run for president on the Reform Party ticket, Trump said he was “quite liberal” when it came to health care. …
Trump added believed in “universal health care.”
“If you can’t take care of your sick in the country, forget it, it’s all over. I mean, it’s no good. So I’m very liberal when it comes to health care,” he said. “I believe in universal health care. I believe in whatever it takes to make people well and better.”
Asked if he thought it was an entitlement, Trump affirmed he did indeed believe it was one from birth.
“I think it is. It’s an entitlement to this country, and too bad the world can’t be, you know, in this country. But the fact is, it’s an entitlement to this country if we’re going to have a great country.”
Romney didn’t go that far in Massachusetts.