Indicted four times on a total of 91 criminal charges, former President Donald Trump has not yet gone to trial. And so, at present, Trump is, in more ways than one, a man with no convictions — other than those that serve his own personal and political interests.
Abortion is the most recent example, but by no means the only one. In 1999, Trump declared that he was “very pro-choice.” By 2011, as he contemplated running for president, Trump referred to himself as “pro-life.” In 2016, he said women who get abortions should receive “some form of punishment.” The next day, he claimed doctors “should be held legally responsible, not the women.”
With considerable justification, Trump takes credit for the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, voted for by three justices he appointed: “I got the job done. I got it done.” In 2022, however, Trump insisted the post-Roe abortion issue was responsible for the GOP’s disappointing performance in the midterm elections. More recently, Trump denounced the six-week abortion ban signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” Asked whether he supports anti-abortion legislation by each state or the federal government, he replied, “Frankly, I don’t care.”
Trump has declined to say whether he would sign a 15-week federal abortion ban. Without exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother, he now emphasizes, Republicans “would probably lose the majorities in 2024 … and perhaps the presidency itself.” Mindful, no doubt, that anti-abortion activists insist “it’s never ‘a terrible thing’ to protect innocent life,” Trump has also tried to square the circle he has drawn: “but you have to follow your heart — can’t do it just for the election … same time we have to win elections.”
President-elect Trump promised in 2016 to make America’s decaying infrastructure “second to none” and put millions of people to work rebuilding it. But the Democrats turned down his offer to work with them if they stopped investigating him. Trump never submitted a bill to Congress, and his administration’s recurring announcements of “Infrastructure Week” became a running joke. In 2021, Trump warned Republicans in the Senate to oppose a bipartisan infrastructure bill because it would be “a big and beautiful win” for Biden, which “will be heavily used in the 2022 election.”
In 2012, when Barack Obama was president, Trump pressed Republicans to “use the debt ceiling as leverage to make a great deal.” They “once again hold all the cards with the debt ceiling. They can get everything they want,” he tweeted. In 2019, President Trump declared, “I can’t imagine anybody ever even thinking of using the debt ceiling as a negotiating wedge.”
In 2021, he urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to “use the debt ceiling” to “kill” President Biden’s economic agenda. “If they don’t give you massive cuts” in the national debt — $7.8 trillion of which piled up on his watch — Trump told Republicans, “you’re going to have to do a default.” Asked why he no longer opposed using the debt ceiling as political leverage, Trump said, “Because now I’m not president.” In September, Trump identified another reason: Shutting down the government is the “last chance to defund those political prosecutions against me and other Patriots.”
When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Trump praised Vladimir Putin and predicted “the rest of Ukraine will fall … fairly quickly.” In 2019, President Trump threatened to withhold $400 million in military aid until Volodymyr Zelensky announced a corruption investigation of Hunter Biden and the Biden family’s business dealings. In May 2023, the former president refused to say whether Russia or Ukraine should prevail or whether he’d send more military assistance to Ukraine.
In July, he declared that as president he would end the war “in one day. One day.” He would “tell Zelensky, no more. You got to make a deal. I would tell Putin, if you don’t make a deal, we’re going to give him a lot.” Less than two weeks later, Trump advised congressional Republicans to “refuse to authorize a single additional shipment of our depleted stockpiles … to Ukraine until the FBI, DOJ, and IRS hand over every scrap of evidence they have on the Biden Crime Family’s corrupt business dealings.”
People often have two reasons for their actions: a good reason (aimed at others) and the real reason. Trump’s “good reason” is his promise to millions of people who feel marginalized to make them and America “Great Again.” His real reason, however, is staying out of jail, returning to power and exacting revenge against everyone who has criticized, opposed, wronged or betrayed him. Trump claims he has no choice, because American politics has become “cheap and dirty,” and “they’re doing it to us.”
But Americans do have a choice. Casting our votes wisely and well requires determining whether a candidate’s claims are principled or self-serving.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”
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