- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Donald Trump threatened Wednesday to impose criminal punishment against women who seek abortions in violation of the law — then recanted just hours later, as the GOP presidential front-runner continues to try to calibrate his stances with his new political party.

His vow to penalize women who terminate their pregnancies in the event abortion became illegal goes against pro-life orthodoxy, which says the doctors, not the women, are the criminals in cases of illegal abortions.

It marked the second time in as many days that Mr. Trump strayed from core Republican principles, after he said Tuesday that education and health care are two of the most important functions of the federal government.

The latest hiccups come as reporters, spurred by a very public debate among themselves over coverage of the 2016 presidential election, have pressed harder for answers from Mr. Trump and his fellow Republicans candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz of Florida and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

And as the GOP race has turned nastier, all three candidates this week backed away from their pledge to support the person who emerges in July as the party’s presidential nominee.

GOP strategists said they expect the party to overcome those divisions as the general election draws near, but were worried about the message sent by all three candidates going back on their word.

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Mr. Trump’s chances to be the unifying candidate, though, may have been harmed with his stumbles this week, which came as he did extensive interviews in town hall-style settings with MSNBC on Wednesday, and CNN on Tuesday.

MSNBC host Chris Matthews pressed Mr. Trump, a relative newcomer to the pro-life position, on how far he would go to enforce that stance when it came to the women seeking abortions.

“It’s a very serious problem and it’s a problem that we have to decide on,” Mr. Trump said, appearing to try to work through his position on the spot under questioning from Mr. Matthews. “There has to be some form of punishment.”

In a follow-up statement issued hours later, Mr. Trump backed away, saying abortionists would be punished, but not the women.

“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,” he said. “The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb. My position has not changed — like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions.”

That explanation is likely to invite more questions about his initial, contrary answer, and whether he understands the pro-life position he now proclaims.

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Mr. Trump is a relative newcomer to pro-life causes, having previously been what he described as “very pro-choice.” In a 1999 interview he even said he would not ban partial-birth abortion. But as he’s changed his position, he’s facing questions it appears he hadn’t grappled with before.

“Once again Donald Trump has demonstrated that he hasn’t seriously thought through the issues, and he’ll say anything just to get attention,” Mr. Cruz said in a statement. “On the important issue of the sanctity of life, what’s far too often neglected is that being pro-life is not simply about the unborn child; it’s also about the mother — and creating a culture that respects her and embraces life. Of course we shouldn’t be talking about punishing women; we should affirm their dignity and the incredible gift they have to bring life into the world.”

Pro-life organizations such as the March for Life and the Family Research Council also issued statements calling Mr. Trump’s initial words troubling and not what the movement backs.

Mr. Trump has survived other major gaffes during the campaign, though the pace of problems this week could be troublesome. He’s also had to defend his campaign manager, who was charged in Florida on Tuesday with simple battery after an interaction earlier this month with a female reporter from Breitbart News.

And on Tuesday, in his town hall with CNN, Mr. Trump said he would support nuclear proliferation by Japan, Saudi Arabia and other countries who face enemies with nuclear capabilities. He also said the federal government’s top roles included education and health care.

Those items don’t appear in the Constitution, and many conservatives argue the states should take the lead on them. Indeed, Mr. Trump’s own chief policy position on education is to try to reduce federal influence by ditching the Common Core standards that the Department of Education has encouraged.

All three Republican candidates took part in the CNN town hall, and each of them backed away from their pledges last year to support whoever emerges as the GOP’s nominee.

Mr. Trump said he would free Mr. Cruz from any obligation to support him, and said he’s not sure he can support the others, saying the Republican National Committee has treated him unfairly.

Mr. Kasich said taking the pledge may have been a mistake in the first place, while Mr. Cruz, who just a few weeks ago said he would live up to the pledge, refused to commit to that Tuesday.

Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist, said he was surprised by all three candidates’ willingness to break a firm pledge they took. He said that could cost them a key advantage as they prepare to face Mrs. Clinton, whom many voters already view as dishonest.

“We better be prepared to prove to the American people time and time again that we’re better than that, and last night was not the evidence I would have liked to have seen,” Mr. Gerow said.

Republicans are gearing up for a contested convention between Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Kasich, though Mr. Gerow did predict the GOP will unify around whoever emerges.

“It’s the natural ebb and flow, and conventions are designed to promote unity and healing,” he said, adding that the desire to prevent Democrats from claiming a third straight term in the White House will also help. “Every Republican I talk to — activist, semi-interested voter, party regular — says the No. 1 issue has to be to defeat Hillary Clinton.”

Democratic operatives have been watching the increasingly divisive GOP fight with glee, predicting not only a Republican loss at the top, but cascading defeats for House and Senate seats — potentially costing the party control of both houses of Congress.

“Stances that were once on the fringe are now mainstream, and by promising to support Trump if he is the nominee, Republican Senators and candidates have given him a megaphone to amplify how out-of-touch the GOP has become,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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