President Biden rarely mentions his predecessor by name. But as he spoke to a nation processing a seismic shift in the rights of women, he couldn’t ignore Donald Trump’s legacy.
“It was three justices named by one president — Donald Trump — who were the core of today’s decision to upend the scales of justice and eliminate a fundamental right for women in this country,” Biden said Friday after the Supreme Court’s conservative majority voted to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark ruling from 1973 that provided constitutional protections for women seeking abortions.
The abortion decision marked the apex in a week that reinforced the former president’s ongoing impact in Washington more than a year and a half after he exited the White House.
A court that includes three Trump-appointed conservatives also decided to weaken restrictions on gun ownership. And across the street at the Capitol, which was ravaged by a mob of Trump supporters in the final days of his presidency in 2021, new details surfaced of his gross violations of democratic norms. The House’s Jan. 6 committee used a public hearing last week to spotlight the intense pressure that Trump put on top Justice Department officials to overturn the 2020 election, along with discussions of blanket pardons for cooperative members of Congress.
The developments were a reminder of the awkward political bargain social conservatives embraced to achieve their grandest ambitions. In refusing to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee during the final year of his presidency, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ensured that the next president would be able to make his mark on the court. As Trump pledged to transform the Supreme Court’s ideological leanings — even providing a list of the judges he would choose from — reluctant conservative Republicans and evangelical Christians rallied behind Trump, a thrice-married man who had previously described himself as “very pro-choice.”
“When he ran in 2016, he promised that he would appoint conservative and pro-life judges to the federal courts starting with the U.S. Supreme Court. And he kept his word,” said Ralph Reed, an evangelical leader and chair of the the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who was criticized in some corners for his embrace of Trump. “Those in the faith community that felt it was worth taking a chance on Donald Trump in 2016 have been vindicated.”
The GOP is now at something of a turning point in its relationship with a man who has fundamentally transformed the party with his populist, “Make America Great Again” agenda and his fight against the establishment Republicans who used to control the party. There’s a growing debate within the party about whether Trump’s resonance is beginning to fade as lays the groundwork for a third presidential run in 2024.
Other leading Republicans, including former Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump’s former secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo, are taking increasingly bold steps toward White House bids of their own. And many of Trump’s own supporters are eagerly embracing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as Trump’s natural successor as they look to the future.
Pence, Pompeo and DeSantis are among those who have made clear that a Trump candidacy would not influence their own decisions about whether to run. If they do run, they will all be competing for support from the same conservatives who fueled Trump’s rise.
Trump himself seems somewhat uncertain about how to navigate the political fallout from the past week, particularly the abortion ruling. He has privately expressed concern to aides that the decision could energize Democrats going into the November elections, the New York Times first reported.
Indeed, in a Fox News interview after the abortion opinion was released, Trump said that, “in the end, this is something that will work out for everybody.”
Asked about his own role in the eventual decision, Trump responded that, “God made the decision.”
Trump grew more emboldened as Friday unfolded, raising money off the court ruling and issuing a statement in which he took full credit for what he called “the biggest WIN for LIFE in a generation.”
He said that it and “other decisions that have been announced recently, were only made possible because I delivered everything as promised, including nominating and getting three highly respected and strong Constitutionalists confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. It was my great honor to do so!”
At a Saturday night rally, Trump took another victory lap to cheers from the crowd.
“Yesterday the court handed down a victory for the Constitution, a victory for the rule of law, and above all, a victory for life,” he told supporters, who broke into a chant of “Thank you Trump!.”
While Democrats are hoping the decision will galvanize its voters heading into November’s midterm elections, Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign and White House advisor, argued the decision would be beneficial to Trump’s future political prospects, helping to cement his standing with conservative voters if he runs again.
“President Trump has been accepting his share of the credit for the Trump Court’s decision, as he should,” Caputo said. “This is yet another confirmation of his transformational presidency. Suburban Republican angst is a progressive myth; real suburban Republicans know their handwringing is performative: This decision simply moves the abortion issue to the states where it has always belonged.”
Meanwhile, the Jan. 6 committee and related investigations, including a special grand jury in Fulton County, Ga., looking at whether Trump and others illegally meddled in the 2020 election, continue to loom.
As the committee has held a series of public hearings, few Republicans have surfaced to defend Trump’s actions, which increasingly drew comparisons to President Nixon’s actions during the Watergate scandal 50 years ago.
The committee last week showed how a defeated Trump tried to use the Justice Department for his own political ends, much the way Nixon fired his top ranks in the “Saturday Night Massacre” before his resignation.
John Dean, who served as White House counsel to Nixon and famously testified against Nixon in hearings about the scandal, said that watching the three Trump-era Justice Department officials recount how Trump pressured them to investigate baseless allegations and threaten mass resignations brought him back to conversations he had had with Nixon.
“I did fall back and was reminiscent of my March 21 ‘Cancer on the presidency’ conversation with Nixon where I kept pushing and escalating the problems. And he clearly had made up his mind,” he recounted. “Nothing I could say seemed to get through.”
Dean said he hoped the Jan. 6 hearings would help the public “understand the seriousness of what Trump tried to do, that he is a threat to democracy and those who support him are a threat to democracy. Authoritarianism and democracy just don’t work together.”