Chris Matthews interviews then-candidate Donald Trump on MSNBC's "Hardball" in 2016.

Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. This month, a Trump-weighted Court gave him that ruling. As a candidate, Trump adopted the “pro-life” position favored by many in the Republican Party. He did so without grasping the nature of that position. Unlike others in the GOP, who focus on penalties for the medical personnel performing the abortion, the star of The Apprentice spoke of invoking some “form of punishment” for the woman. He explicitly exempted the male involved in the unwanted pregnancy from any such punishment. 

What’s interesting is how Trump came to this position. Almost nostalgically, he referred back to the days before Roe v. Wade, when a woman seeking to end a pregnancy needed to go to “illegal places.” 

I was interviewing Trump as the host of Hardball with Chris Matthews. The question was raised when a woman asked about reproductive health at a town hall in Wisconsin in March 2016.

TRUMP: Okay, well look, I mean, as you know, I’m pro-life. Right, I think you know that, and I—with exceptions, with the three exceptions. But pretty much, that’s my stance. Is that okay? You understand?

MATTHEWS: What should the law be on abortion?

TRUMP: Well, I have been pro-life.

MATTHEWS: I know, what should the law—I know your principle, that’s a good value. But what should be the law?

TRUMP: Well, you know, they’ve set the law, and frankly the judges—I mean, you’re going to have a very big election coming up for that reason, because you have judges where it’s a real tipping point.

MATTHEWS: I know.

TRUMP: And with the loss of [Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia, who was a very strong conservative—

MATTHEWS: I understand.

TRUMP: This presidential election is going to be very important, because when you say, “what’s the law,” nobody knows what the law’s going to be. It depends on who gets elected, because somebody is going to appoint conservative judges and somebody is going to appoint liberal judges, depending on who wins.

MATTHEWS: Should the woman be punished for having an abortion?

TRUMP: Look—

MATTHEWS: This is not something you can dodge.

TRUMP: Well, people in certain parts of the Republican Party and conservative Republicans would say, yes, they should be punished.

MATTHEWS: How about you?

TRUMP: I would say that it’s a very serious problem. And it’s a problem that we have to decide on. It’s very hard.

MATTHEWS: But you’re for banning it?

TRUMP: I’m going to say—well, wait. Are you going to say, put them in jail? Are you—is that what you’re talking about?

MATTHEWS: Well, no, I’m asking you because you say you want to ban it. What’s that mean?

TRUMP: I would—I am against—I am pro-life, yes.

MATTHEWS: How do you ban abortion? How do you actually do it?

TRUMP: Well, you know, you go back to a position like they had where people will perhaps go to illegal places—

MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?

TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment. 

MATTHEWS: For the woman. 

TRUMP: Yeah, there has to be some form. 

MATTHEWS: Ten years? What?

TRUMP: I don’t know. That I don’t know. That I don’t know.

MATTHEWS: Why not?

TRUMP: I don’t know.

MATTHEWS: You take positions on everything else.

TRUMP: Because I don’t want to—I, frankly, I do take positions on everything else. It’s a very complicated position.

TRUMP: No, no—

MATTHEWS: I’m not.

TRUMP: Chris—Chris.

MATTHEWS: I’m asking you, what should a woman face if she chooses to have an abortion?

TRUMP: I’m not going to do that.

MATTHEWS: Why not?

TRUMP: I’m not going to play that game.

MATTHEWS: Game?

TRUMP: You have—

MATTHEWS: You said you’re pro-life.

TRUMP: I am pro-life.

MATTHEWS: That means banning abortion. 

TRUMP: With exceptions. I am pro-life. I have not determined what the punishment would be.

MATTHEWS: Why not?

TRUMP: Because I haven’t determined it. 

MATTHEWS: When you decide to be pro-life, you should have thought of it before.

TRUMP: It will have to be determined.

MATTHEWS: A fine, imprisonment for a young woman who finds herself pregnant?

TRUMP: It will have to be determined.

Later I asked Trump about the man responsible for the pregnancy.

MATTHEWS: What about the guy that gets her pregnant? Is he responsible under the law for these abortions? Or is he not responsible for an abortion?

TRUMP: Well, it hasn’t—it hasn’t—different feelings, different people. I would say no.

MATTHEWS: Well, they’re usually involved. 

Following the Wisconsin town meeting, Trump’s campaign put out a statement saying that the “pro-life” position believes that the person performing the procedure should be punished.

Notwithstanding that staff-written clarification, the man who campaigned as “pro-life” thought the end of Roe v. Wade would mean “punishment” for the woman. 

With that intention, he committed himself to action. 

In 2017, President Trump named Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He was confirmed in the Senate 54–45, replacing the late Justice Antonin Scalia. (President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Scalia had died in the Senate without a vote.)

In 2018, Trump named Brett Kavanaugh, who was confirmed 50–48, to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy. In 2020, he nominated Amy Coney Barrett. She won approval 52–48, replacing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

A president elected on a misunderstanding of the “pro-life” position delivered it to the American people. Unlike Ronald Reagan and both Bush presidents, Trump chose Supreme Court nominees who never wavered in their determination to repeal Roe, unlike Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, and John Roberts, who disappointed their conservative patrons. A president bent on punishing women, and defending men, was able to remove the constitutional safeguard for women. In this one instance, at least, Trump kept his word.

Chris Matthews

Follow Chris on Twitter @HardballChris. Chris Matthew's long career as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist includes a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police. Simon & Schuster published his memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History, on June 1, now out in paperback. He is also the author of 2013’s “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.