Former President Donald J. Trump, whose Supreme Court appointments led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, harshly criticized his top rival in the Republican presidential primary, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, for a six-week abortion ban that he called a “terrible thing.”
Mr. Trump issued his broadside — which could turn off socially conservative Republican primary voters, especially in Iowa, where evangelicals are a crucial voting bloc — during an interview with the new host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kristen Welker, that was broadcast on Sunday morning.
Asked whether Mr. DeSantis went too far by signing a six-week abortion ban, Mr. Trump replied: “I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”
Since announcing his candidacy last November — just a week after Republicans underperformed expectations in midterm elections shaped by a backlash against the overturning of the abortion ruling — there has been no policy issue on which Mr. Trump has appeared more uncomfortable than on abortion.
In interview after interview since the repeal of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Trump has ducked questions about whether he would support a federal ban on most abortions at 15 weeks — the baseline position of many Republicans, including the leading anti-abortion group, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.
With Ms. Welker on Sunday, Mr. Trump again refused to clarify his position.
“What’s going to happen is you’re going to come up with a number of weeks or months,” Mr. Trump said. “You’re going to come up with a number that’s going to make people happy.”
He made a far-fetched promise that as president he would “sit down with both sides” and negotiate a deal on abortion that would result in “peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years.”
In reality, Mr. Trump — who years ago said he supported abortion rights before switching his position in 2011 as he considered a presidential campaign that year — appointed three conservative justices to the Supreme Court, providing a majority to reverse the Roe ruling. Democrats have made clear they plan to make Mr. Trump’s role in Roe’s end a key focus in the 2024 general election if he is the nominee.
What’s more, Iowa’s popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, signed a measure similar to the one Mr. DeSantis made law. A spokesman for Ms. Reynolds did not respond to a request for comment.
“This further confirms to Iowans this is not the same Trump we once knew,” said Steve Deace, a conservative Iowa talk show host who has endorsed Mr. DeSantis. “This Trump only attacks Republicans from the left.”
Mr. Trump’s advisers are mindful that abortion was a political loser for Republicans in the 2022 midterm cycle. Mr. Trump himself, when a draft of the court opinion undoing Roe leaked publicly, told advisers it would hurt his party’s electoral chances.
So as he looks ahead to the general election, Mr. Trump — the front-runner for his party’s nomination by a wide margin in national polls — has tried to avoid taking a clear position in the hopes of not alienating additional voters.
“I’m almost like a mediator in this case,” Mr. Trump told Ms. Welker. Pushed on whether he would support a federal ban, he said: “It could be state or it could be federal. I don’t frankly care.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of S.B.A. Pro-Life America, who had previously described Mr. Trump’s presidency as “the most consequential in American history for the pro-life cause,” indicated she was less than thrilled by Mr. Trump’s attack on Mr. DeSantis’s anti-abortion legislation. Yet she did not directly criticize him for it.
“We’re at a moment where we need a human rights advocate, someone who is dedicated to saving lives of children and serving mothers in need,” Ms. Dannenfelser said on Sunday morning in response to Mr. Trump’s comments on “Meet the Press.” “Every single candidate should be clear on how they plan to do that.”
She added, “It begins with focusing on extremes of the other side, and ambition and common sense on our own. Anything weaker than 15 weeks as a federal minimum standard makes no sense in this context.”
A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis, Andrew Romeo, responded to Mr. Trump’s attack by criticizing the former president for suggesting he could negotiate with Democrats on abortion, adding that the “disastrous results of Donald Trump compromising with Democrats” while he was president included “$7 trillion in new debt” and “an unfinished border wall.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, a strict social conservative who has run to the right of everyone in the Republican presidential field on the abortion issue, cast his former running mate’s comments in stark moral terms.
“Donald Trump continues to walk away from the pro-life legacy of our administration,” Mr. Pence said in a statement Sunday morning. “There’s no negotiating when it comes to the life of the unborn. We will not rest, we will not relent, until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the nation.”