Then U.S. President Donald Trump turns to reporters as he exits the White House to walk toward Marine One on the South Lawn in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 12, 2021.

Then U.S. President Donald Trump turns to reporters as he exits the White House to walk toward Marine One on the South Lawn in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 12, 2021. (Drew Angerer/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump hardened his position on abortion in a speech to evangelical Christian voters, saying there’s “a vital role for the federal government in protecting unborn life.”

His comments to the Faith and Freedom Coalition — on the one-year anniversary of the Dobbs decision that overturned a 50-year constitutional right to abortion — follow weeks in which Trump has declined to say whether he would sign the 15-week federal ban sought by anti-abortion activists.

The former president didn’t offer specifics on what a federal role would look like, though he made clear in Washington Saturday night he wants to see exceptions for abortions including in cases of rape, incest and for the life of the mother.

The Republican front-runner played up the fact that he appointed the three conservative Supreme Court justices who helped overturn a constitutional right to an abortion, calling himself the most pro-life president in the U.S. He promised to again release before Election Day a list of potential nominees for any Supreme Court openings, a move that helped him cement support among the evangelical community in 2016.

Trump’s comments contrast with the speech made by his chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who only touched briefly on the matter in remarks Friday. Republicans have remained divided on abortion, an issue that Democrats seized on to fuel their better-than-expected midterm performance last year.

DeSantis, who is running a distant second to Trump in GOP primary polls, stressed his efforts to defend religious freedom as governor — including by keeping churches open during the COVID-19 pandemic. He promised that if elected president he would wage war on what he called woke influence on schools, government and corporate boardrooms.

While polls indicate Trump maintains a healthy lead in the increasingly crowded GOP field, his support has dipped 3 percentage points since April, according to an Emerson College survey released Thursday. However, he has a 31-point lead over DeSantis nationally in the RealClearPolitics average of early polls — and maintains a grip on primary voters who still view him as more of a movement figure than a politician.

That was evident on Saturday night when he received multiple standing ovations and cheers from the group of evangelical voters.

“Donald Trump is in as formidable and strong a position as any front-runner for the Republican nomination in my career,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “We really have not had a front-runner like this in almost 30 years.”

Trump on Saturday also outlined some of his agenda for a second presidential term including what he called “settling” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine immediately; overhauling the Department of Justice; barring transgender people from serving in the U.S. military; signing an executive order to end the automatic citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants; and re-implementing Title 42 at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The former president spent much of his speech rebutting the 37 federal charges that the Justice Department lodged against him this month, stemming from allegations that he mishandled classified documents after leaving office and obstructed the government from reclaiming them. He argued, incorrectly, that presidents have the right to take any documents with them once they leave office.

Trump cast his two indictments as Democrats trying to weaponize law enforcement to topple him as the Republican front-runner for the 2024 presidential race. Every time they indict me, he said, “I consider it a great badge of courage.”

“I am being indicted for you,” he added. “I’m probably the only person in history in this country that’s been indicted, and my numbers went up,” he said, referring to the boost his campaign saw in national polls following both indictments.

Then, he quickly cast his legal troubles as a larger battle for the future of the country. “In the end, they’re not after me, they’re after you, and I just happen to be standing in their way,” he said.

Throughout the conference, Trump’s influence on the party was evident.

Corey Check, 21, and Zachary Scherer, 20, came from Butler County, Pennsylvania and sat in the back row of the ballroom in red MAGA hats and applauded enthusiastically at any mention of Trump. They said most of the other candidates they heard over the two days weren’t taking the campaign seriously and were just running for cabinet posts or ambassadorships.

“I don’t think a lot of these people are serious,” Check said. “DeSantis, he needs to wait his turn. Not this year.” Traci Brown, a 60-year-old swimming school owner from Pittsburgh who came on a bus with a friend, supports Trump. “I’d like to see him have four more years to finish what he started.” She thinks he’s strongest on foreign policy, and doesn’t get enough credit for the Abraham accords — a U.S.-brokered deal in which Israel established ties with gulf Arab states.

But she acknowledged that Trump’s relationship with evangelical voters is complicated, and he doesn’t speak of his personal faith in the same way as rivals like his former vice president, Mike Pence. “He enjoys being the tough guy. I don’t know that we will ever know how in touch he is with our creator.”

Trump’s speech was the closing act of the two-day Faith and Freedom gathering to drive conservative voter engagement and turnout. The conference doubled as a cattle call for the growing GOP field of 2024 presidential candidates, with no fewer than 11 other contenders making appearances.

With the exception of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who was roundly booed Friday when he gave a speech that directly attacked Trump — the other candidates largely avoided taking on the front-runner directly. But there was no mistaking who Nikki Haley was talking about when she said Saturday that the party needed a “a new generational leader.”

“We’ve got to leave the negativity and the drama and the chaos in the past. We have to make sure that we’re looking forward and we’re looking towards solutions,” said Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations. “Don’t complain about what you get in a general election if you don’t play in this primary.”

Shamim Adam contributed to this report.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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