Trump Says Abortion Will Be Left to the States. Don’t Believe Him.

When Donald Trump was asked about the recent Florida Supreme Court decision upholding his adopted state’s abortion ban, he promised that he would announce where he stands this week, a sign of how tricky the politics of reproductive rights have become for the man who did more than any other to roll them back. Sure enough, on Monday, he unveiled his latest position in a video statement that attempted to thread the needle between his anti-abortion base and the majority of Americans who want abortion to be legal.

Trump’s address was, naturally, full of lies, including the absurd claim that “all legal scholars, both sides,” wanted Roe v. Wade overturned, and the obscene calumny that Democrats support “execution after birth.” But the most misleading part of his spiel was the way he implied that in a second Trump administration, abortion law will be left entirely up to the states. “The states will determine by vote or legislation or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land, in this case the law of the state,” said Trump.

Trump probably won’t be able to dodge the substance of abortion policy for the entirety of a presidential campaign; eventually, he’s going to have to say whether he’d sign a federal abortion ban if it crossed his desk and what he thinks of the sweeping abortion prohibitions in many Republican states. But let’s leave that aside for the moment, because when it comes to a second Trump administration, the most salient questions are about personnel, not legislation.

Before Monday, Trump had reportedly considered endorsing a 16-week national abortion ban, but the fact that he didn’t should be of little comfort to voters who want to protect what’s left of abortion rights in America. Should Trump return to power, he plans to surround himself with die-hard MAGA activists, not the establishment types he blames for undermining him during his first term. And many of these activists have plans to restrict abortion nationally without passing any new laws at all.

Key to these plans is the Comstock Act, the 19th-century anti-vice law named for the crusading bluenose Anthony Comstock, who persecuted Margaret Sanger, arrested thousands, and boasted of driving 15 of his targets to suicide. Passed in 1873, the Comstock Act banned the mailing of every “obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy or vile article,” including “every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine or thing” intended for “producing abortion.” Until quite recently, the Comstock Act was thought to be moot, made irrelevant by a series of Supreme Court decisions on the First Amendment, contraception and abortion. But it was never actually repealed, and now that Trump’s justices have scrapped Roe, his allies believe they can use Comstock to go after abortion nationwide.

“We don’t need a federal ban when we have Comstock on the books,” Jonathan F. Mitchell, Texas’ former solicitor general and the legal mind behind the state’s abortion bounty law, told The New York Times in February. Mitchell is very much a MAGA insider; he represented Trump in the Supreme Court case arising from Colorado’s attempt to boot the ex-president off the ballot as an insurrectionist. As The Times has reported, Mitchell is on a list of lawyers vetted by America First Legal, a nonprofit led by the Trump consigliere Stephen Miller, as having the “spine” to serve in a second Trump administration.

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