WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump doesn't want to talk about abortion.
After years of saying he would appoint "pro-life" judges and bragging that the landmark Roe v. Wade decision would be overturned "automatically" if he won, Trump is now tiptoeing around the issue as he tries to get another justice confirmed to the Supreme Court before the Nov. 3 election.
"You don't know what's on the ballot," Trump interjected during this week's first presidential debate when Democrat Joe Biden said the ruling giving women the right to an abortion was at stake.
"Why is it on the ballot? Why is it on the ballot?" Trump demanded. "It's not on the ballot. … There's nothing happening there."
That reticence stands in stark contrast to his past statements and underscores the risks Trump and Republicans are facing as they rush to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett before the election.
With polls showing Trump trailing Biden nationally and in some battleground states, Trump is trying to deliver for his conservative base while avoiding making abortion a central focus of the election. His campaign worries it could turn off voters who support abortion rights and drive on-the-fence or undecided voters — especially women — to turn out for Biden en masse.
"He knows at the end of the day that opposing access to safe, legal abortion is a losing strategy," said Kelley Robinson, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
While Trump insisted during the debate that Barrett's views on Roe v. Wade are unknown, there is little doubt she opposes abortion personally. She belonged to the University of Notre Dame's "Faculty for Life" group. She signed a 2015 letter to Catholic bishops affirming the "value of human life from conception to natural death." In 2006, she signed onto a newspaper ad sponsored by an anti-abortion group in which she said she opposed "abortion on demand."
The second page of the ad, which was unsigned, read, "It's time to put an end to the barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade and restore laws that protect the lives of unborn children."
Barrett insisted in a 2017 White House questionnaire that her personal views on abortion and other issues would "have no bearing on the discharge of my duties as a judge." But in a 2013 Texas Law Review article, Barrett didn't include Roe v. Wade on a list of 10 cases she said are widely considered "super-precedents," ones no justice would dare reverse even if they believed they were wrongly decided.
During a 2013 lecture at Notre Dame on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Barrett said she thought it was "very unlikely at this point that the court is going to overturn" the landmark ruling. But she said in 2016 that even if "the right to abortion" doesn't change, "I think some of the restrictions would change. … The question is how much freedom the court is willing to let states have in regulating abortion."
Barrett also has voted at least twice on abortion issues as an appellate judge, both times joining dissenting opinions to decisions in favor of abortion rights.
"Oh, I think her record's awfully clear," said Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill. "She meets my standard of having evidence in the record, out there in public, on the record, that indicates that she understands that Roe was really an act of judicial imperialism that was wrongly decided. And I think her record of all the people being considered, the president considered, I think her record was by far the clearest on that."
Abortion rights activists agreed. "Amy Coney Barrett's record could not be more clear," said Kristin Ford, a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice America. "Trump made perfectly clear on the campaign trail in 2016 that he was going to appoint judges who were hostile to Roe v. Wade. … We're taking him at his word."
Trump, however, insisted during the debate that Barrett's views on the topic were unknown and said he'd never discussed it with her, claiming that would be inappropriate.
"The president has been clear that he would never ask a judge to prejudge a case," said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. She stressed that Barrett had said on multiple occasions that "it is never appropriate for a judge to impose that judge's personal convictions, whether they derive from faith or anywhere else, on the law."
That approach stands in sharp contrast to Trump's past comments, including during a debate in 2016. It was then that Trump proudly declared, "The justices that I am going to appoint will be pro-life." He went as far as to say that overturning Roe v. Wade "will happen, automatically, in my opinion" if he was elected president, "because I am putting pro-life justices on the court."
It was a similar case during a Senate debate in Iowa this week, when Republican Sen. Joni Ernst criticized her opponent's support for abortion rights, while also saying she believes the chance of the court overturning Roe v. Wade is "very minimal. I don't see that happening."
The desire to gloss over the subject reflects an acknowledgment that the issue is a potentially potent motivator for the Democratic base. Recent polls show that a majority of voters oppose overturning Roe.
As they move toward Barrett's confirmation hearings, White House officials have expressed concern about what will happen if Democrats are able to successfully use the battle to highlight the potential impact on abortion rights as well as the future of the Affordable Care Act.
If Democrats are able to energize their base and win over enough swing voters, some Trump allies fear Trump could win the confirmation fight and, in the process, lose the election.
They're hoping that Democrats will go too far in attacking Barrett's faith and her family, energizing conservatives and turning off those in the middle. Trump's allies accuse Democrats of fear-mongering, arguing that they have been spreading anxiety about the court overturning Roe v. Wade for decades.
But advocates of abortion rights say the alarm bells are justified, with 17 cases currently in the legal pipeline. And even if Roe v. Wade is not overturned outright, Barrett's addition to the court could lead to the further erosion of abortion rights, with more and more restrictions.
Ford, from NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Trump and other Republicans "know that they are quite out of step with the mainstream" and are trying to have it both ways — putting Barrett on the court "while also trying to dance around their agenda."
But Mallory Quigley, of the Susan B. Anthony List, which seeks to elect candidates who oppose abortion rights, brushed off the suggestion that Trump was trying to hide anything.
"President Trump has governed as the most pro-life president in our nation's history and never misses an opportunity to bring up his pro-life policy victories on the campaign trail," she said. "Americans agree overwhelmingly with President Trump and pro-life senators that want to pass reasonable limits on abortion -– and see abortion policy set by the legislature, not courts."