Senior Political Reporter
(CNN) — Donald Trump’s suggestion that women who get abortions should face “some form of punishment” if the practice is banned is giving the #NeverTrump movement new urgency.
Faced with the prospect of Trump as the party’s standard bearer, Republicans from across the ideological spectrum quickly condemned Trump’s assertion — but not before Democrats showed the damage Trump’s words could have on the GOP.
And in what was a clear acknowledgment of the stakes, Trump did something he has rarely done in this campaign — back away from his statement within hours.
His comments, which go against the GOP’s anti-abortion stance, brought new potency to the anti-Trump wing of the party, including conservative radio hosts and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, looking to stop Trump in next week’s primary. Trump was already facing a media uproar this week over his comments about Heidi Cruz and over his handling of an incident involving his campaign manager and a female reporter that led to an arrest summons.
Of course, Trump has shown himself to be an unstoppable force who has offended pretty much everyone at this point without much harm to his poll numbers. But for Republicans worried about the damage Trump could do at the top of the ticket with off-the-cuff or controversial quotes, Democrats, including presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, gave a harsh reminder.
“The Republicans all line up together,” Clinton said in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“Now maybe they aren’t quite as open about it as Donald Trump was earlier today, but they all have the same position,” she said, noting anti-abortion positions taken by both John Kasich and Ted Cruz. “If you make abortion a crime — you make it illegal — then you make women and doctors criminals.”
Wednesday’s controversy unfolded less than a week before the April 5 Wisconsin primary, which will serve as a crucial test for the remaining GOP candidates before the race returns east.
A new Marquette University Law School poll shows Cruz topping the field with 40% and Trump at 30%, with Kasich at 21%. The poll was conducted March 24-28 before Trump’s statements about abortion and the arrest of his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, yet happened after Trump targeted Heidi Cruz. Cruz also leads among women, besting Trump 39% to 24%.
In 2012, Democrats linked GOP Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Murdoch to the entire Republican Party — with devastating effect — after they both made controversial remarks about rape and abortion. Liberal groups were quick to do the same with Trump’s.
Emily’s List, a group that backs female candidates who support abortion rights, sent out a press release called The Comstock-Trump Agenda: Criminalizing Abortion Edition. It targeted Rep. Barbara Comstock, who is running for re-election in Virginia, a swing state.
“Donald Trump is leading the GOP charge to prevent women from making their own health care decisions, and Barbara Comstock is standing right beside him,” said Emily’s List press secretary Rachel Thomas.
By suggesting that women who get an abortion should face punishment, Trump managed to unite advocates on both sides of the issue. Abortion opponents have pushed for punishment for doctors who perform abortions, but not women who receive them. That Trump struggled with this issue — a core holding of these advocates — underscored for some that he is new to the conservative fight, an argument that his opponents have been making for some time to little effect.
Asked Wednesday by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews whether a woman who got an abortion illegally should face punishment, the current GOP front-runner said he supported that idea.
“Yes, there has to be some form of punishment,”Trump said, adding that he didn’t know what form of punishment would be acceptable. He also said that men involved in an unwanted pregnancy that led to an abortion would not face any type of punishment.
Cruz, who has aired ads showing Trump in a 1999 interview declaring himself “pro-choice,” said Trump’s comments were “wrong” and that it showed the billionaire isn’t up to the task to lead.
“It’s the latest demonstration of how little Donald has thought about any of the serious issues facing this country,” Cruz said after taping an appearance on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” Wednesday night.
“I am pro-life. Being pro-life means standing and defending the unborn,” Cruz added. “But it also means defending moms. Defending women. And defending the incredible gift women have to bring life into the world. And Donald’s comments, they were unfortunate, they were wrong and I strongly disagree with it.”
The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List framed Trump as a candidate who is new to the issue.
“As a convert to the pro-life movement, Mr. Trump sees the reality of the horror of abortion — the destruction of an innocent human life — which is legal in our country up until the moment of birth,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the group, said in a statement. “But let us be clear: punishment is solely for the abortionist who profits off of the destruction of one life and the grave wounding of another.”
About three hours after he spoke to MSNBC, Trump reversed course, issuing a statement saying that his pro-life “position has not changed.”
“If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman,” the statement said. “The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.”
That didn’t mollify opponents who have seen him as a fake conservative who has been a no-show on the big conservative fights.
“While Trump has since ‘clarified’ this position on punishing women, his statements suggest he should spend more time with pro-life conservatives to gain a better appreciation of what their goals and objectives really are,” said Tony Perkins, Family Research Council Action president and Ted Cruz backer. “The pro-life movement values both mother and child and seeks to uphold the dignity of both by seeking to protect both from the damage of abortion and the predatory abortion industry.”
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