Donald Trump just blew off pro-life leaders exactly one week after he angered the movement by calling for “punishment” for abortion.
Trump was reportedly expected to address Priests for Life and the 115 Forum conference during a conference call on Wednesday. But he bailed. Leslie Palma, a spokesperson for Priests for Life, told The Daily Beast that Trump did not dial-in.
A conservative operative with knowledge of the call told The Daily Beast that pro-life leaders involved were disappointed Trump decided not to speak with them.
Fr. Frank Pavone, who heads Priests for Life, chose not to directly criticize Trump.
"Our organization reaches out to candidates regularly. Many of these conversations are off the record. But in fairness, let me make clear that Mr. Trump did not break any commitments to speak to me or any gathering I organize. On the contrary, I have had very friendly and fruitful interactions with him and members of his team and look forward to continuing that dynamic," he said in a statement.
Earlier, Pavone told The Daily Beast of Trump, "I far prefer the kind of mistake he made recently, and then corrected, regarding who should be punished, than the ongoing deliberate mistake of Clinton and Sanders who cannot seem to find an abortion they don’t like.”
Trump’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Last night, Ted Cruz handily defeated the mogul in the Wisconsin primary—thanks in part to support from conservative Christians, a very pro-life constituency.
Ted Cruz ally and prominent anti-abortion activist Troy Newman pounced on Trump’s blowoff.
“To me, that’s just typical Donald Trump,” said Newman, president of Operation Rescue and a board member of the Center for Medical Progress, whose director was indicted over videos it distributed about Planned Parenthood. “We just don’t know exactly what he believes or who he is.”
Newman wasn’t on the conference call but works closely with many anti-abortion groups, including Priests for Life. The group brings together anti-abortion Catholic priests and also works with lay people, deacons, and seminarians around the world who oppose abortion. Catholics are an integral part of the pro-life movement, so you’d think Trump would benefit from having a conversation with the group, but it didn’t happen.
Trump’s disconnect with pro-life leaders became painfully obvious after he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews last week that he believed there should be “punishment” for women who get abortions. (Trump has since backtracked.) Virtually all mainstream anti-abortion groups reject this rhetoric, instead holding that women who get abortions are victims of the procedure.
They quickly repudiated Trump.
“We have never advocated, in any context, for the punishment of women who undergo abortion,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads SBA List, in a statement. “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. 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.”
And rival Ted Cruz’s team immediately pounced on Trump’s call for women to be punished.
“Don’t overthink it: Trump doesn’t understand the pro-life position because he’s not pro-life,” tweeted Cruz spokesman Brian Phillips shortly after Trump made the comment.
Concerned Women for America issued a statement joining the chorus.
“Mr. Trump is out of touch with the pro-life movement and its goals to help those who have been deceived by the culture and this industry,” said Penny Nance, who heads the organization. “As suffragist Alice Paul said, ‘Abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women,’ and we agree. No one is advocating for the imprisonment of women seeking abortions.”
Pro-life leaders have long criticized Trump for what they see as an inconsistent record on their issue. Susan B. Anthony List, a group that boosts pro-life women candidates, held a press conference with pro-life women leaders at Bob Jones University in the lead-up to the South Carolina primary urging pro-lifers to oppose Trump.
And Trump’s past support for federal funding for Planned Parenthood has long concerned pro-life advocates. And Trump’s defense of late-term abortion in a 1999 Meet the Press interview has haunted his campaign.
“I am very pro-choice,” he said at the time—almost as if he was actually trying to write an attack ad against himself.
The scheduled call gave Trump an opportunity to start building trust with Catholic pro-lifers, but he blew it and left them disappointed. It would have been an easy way to simultaneously court two powerful constituencies, Catholic conservatives and pro-life leaders. Instead, he’s managed to alienate them — again.