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President Trump Faces Friendly Crowd At March For Life

Jan 24, 2020
Originally published on January 24, 2020 5:35 pm

Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET

As thousands of anti-abortion rights activists prepared to march in Washington, D.C., on Friday, President Trump was there to rally his base.

"They are coming after me, because I am fighting for you," Trump told the crowd, without directly mentioning the impeachment trial underway in the Senate. "And we are fighting for those who have no voice."

"And we will win," Trump added, "because we know how to win."

It was the first time a sitting president delivered an address in person at the March for Life, an annual event organized decades ago in response to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

Trump's appearance before thousands of mostly supportive anti-abortion rights activists comes at a key moment — during the impeachment trial, and just months to go before the 2020 election.

Trump has leaned in to his connection to religious and social conservatives, frequently praising "the evangelicals" who make up a key portion of his base and courting anti-abortion rights groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List.

At the march, that group's president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, made an explicit plea for support for Trump, calling the 2020 election "the most consequential election of our lifetimes for the cause of the unborn."

"We have seen historic gains under this President. You heard what his heart his and what his track record is," Dannefelser said.

She added, "But now it's time to go for the win," calling for the overturning of Roe v. Wade and for passage of federal legislation restricting abortion.

In an interview with NPR ahead of the march, Dannenfelser called Trump's appearance at the march "a moment of celebration for the pro-life movement." She said it's a reminder of how far Trump has come in the minds of some conservatives who were initially skeptical because of his past support for abortion rights.

"Everyone doubted where he was on the abortion issue. He stated what he believed. There were doubts all over — I mean, I was one of them," Dannenfelser said. "So he's actually become the person that he says he is."

Dannenfelser said she is pleased with Trump's appointment of conservative federal judges — most notably to the Supreme Court. Just this week, the Trump administration signed off on federal funding for a family planning program in Texas that excludes groups like Planned Parenthood that provide abortion services.

"No one in that crowd needs persuading, but everyone in that crowd needs reminding what's at stake this coming election," Dannenfelser said. "It won't be a cajoling and a persuasion moment; it will be a momentum moment."

Several marchers told NPR that while they have had some misgivings about Trump, they are pleased with his record on issues including abortion.

"He's a little rough around the edges, but he stands for the things that I believe in, and that's why I voted for him," said Ermida Arocho of Chicago.

June Matson, who runs a crisis pregnancy center in Granby, Colorado where women are counseled against abortion, alluded to Trump's history of once expressing support for abortions rights.

"Whether he was pro-life before or not, it doesn't really matter, because he has continued to prove that he will vote pro-life," Matson said.

Trump's appearance wasn't entirely unprecedented: Two years ago, he spoke live via video feed from the White House Rose Garden, telling that marchers, "you love every child, born and unborn, because you believe that every life is sacred, that every child is a precious gift from God."

Other Republican presidents — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — have addressed the crowd remotely, via phone call or prepared statement. Some observers have speculated that such a move allowed those presidents to court anti-abortion rights voters without subjecting themselves to a photo-op in front of the crowd, out of fear of turning off more moderate voters.

The Trump administration took the occasion to announce an action aimed at appealing to anti-abortion voters; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told California that a law requiring insurance companies to include abortion coverage in all healthcare plans violates federal law, and gave the state 30 days to rescind it.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said on twitter that the president is "sowing division for cheap political gain," and pledged to fight to preserve the law.

Reproductive rights groups are using Trump's appearance at the March for Life to remind their supporters of his opposition to abortion rights. NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue issued a statement calling Trump's decision to appear at the March for Life an "act of desperation."

In an interview with NPR, Planned Parenthood's acting president and CEO, Alexis McGill Johnson, said Trump's appearance at the event is "no surprise" given his policy record.

"This is just confirmation that we have a sitting president of the United States who is determined to do whatever he can to end people's ability to access abortion," McGill Johnson said.

Advocates on both sides of the abortion debate see much at stake in the 2020 election. After Trump's address, activists at the rally will march from the National Mall to the U.S. Supreme Court — where just weeks from now, the court is set to take up its first major abortion case since Trump's two conservatives nominees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, joined the bench.

Those two justices alone have moved the court to the right, setting up the possibility that Roe could be overturned or substantially eroded. And whoever is elected in November may have the opportunity to name at least one more justice to the court.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thousands of anti-abortion rights activists are preparing to march in D.C. today, and President Trump will be there, too. It'll be the first time a sitting president will address the annual March for Life in person, not just by video feed. NPR's Sarah McCammon will be there to cover it, and she is in our studio now.

Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So start off by just placing the March for Life - place it in the culture for us because this is a highly significant event that happens every year, right?

MCCAMMON: Right. It's been happening for decades, almost back to the early '70s when the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide. This march was organized in response to that, and it's been happening ever since. Thousands of anti-abortion rights activists come to D.C. every year. And some hold marches at other dates in their own capitals and cities, but this is the big one. And you know, in the past, other Republican presidents have sent statements or letters or phoned in. President Trump himself two years ago spoke live via video feed from the White House Rose Garden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today, I'm honored and really proud to be the first president to stand with you here at the White House to address the 45th March for Life. That's very, very special.

MCCAMMON: And what's different today is that President Trump will be at the march in person. You know, there was speculation in the past that some of those previous Republican presidents have wanted to court anti-abortion voters without a photo-op in front of the big crowd out of fear of turning off more moderate voters. But President Trump doesn't seem worried about that. He's going to be there today.

MARTIN: Right. Because, I mean, this is his base. And it's hard to ignore the fact that it's 2020, right, Sarah?

MCCAMMON: Right. It's an election year. There's an impeachment trial going on in the Senate. And President Trump has had an interesting trajectory, you may remember, with the abortion issue. A lot of social conservatives, initially, were sort of skeptical of him because of his past support for abortion rights.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: It took a while for them to come around. But by and large, those for whom this is a key voting issue have come around and support him enthusiastically. I talked to Marjorie Dannenfelser of the anti-abortion rights group the Susan B. Anthony List.

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: No one in that crowd needs persuading, but everyone in that crowd needs reminding what's at stake this coming election. It won't be a cajoling and a persuasion moment; it'll be a momentum moment.

MCCAMMON: And she's pleased with President Trump's appointment of lots of conservative federal judges, especially to the U.S. Supreme Court. And of course, as we've said, Trump is making this appearance during an election year. It's a good moment for him to rally his base.

MARTIN: And what does his appearance mean for the other side in this debate - abortion rights advocates?

MCCAMMON: Well, they're reminding their voters of some of these same positions - President Trump's position on abortion, contraception, judges - as a reason they say to vote against him this year. I talked to Planned Parenthood's acting president, Alexis McGill Johnson. She says she's not surprised that Trump is doing this.

ALEXIS MCGILL JOHNSON: I think this is just confirmation - right? - that the sitting president of the United States is determined to do whatever he possibly can to end people's access and ability to access abortion. We've seen this completely under his administration, and we've seen the full-out assault on our health and human rights.

MCCAMMON: And again, she points to things like federal judges and cutting family planning funds to groups like Planned Parenthood as a reason that her voters are going to oppose Trump.

MARTIN: So both sides see an advantage in a way to leverage this particular moment in his presence at this rally. I mean, I guess my next question is, what more are abortion opponents looking for? You talk about the fact that Trump has appointed so many judges, not just to the court but at the federal level who are in line with their values. What more do they want?

MCCAMMON: Well, in short, they want more of the same. They want to preserve what they see as gains over the last few years. And both sides are aware that the next president may very well have another Supreme Court pick to choose.

MARTIN: NPR's Sarah McCammon reporting on this for us. We appreciate it. Thank you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.