DONALD TRUMP: Are you Catholic?
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Yes, I think ...
TRUMP: And how do you feel about the Catholic Church's position?
MATTHEWS: Well, I accept the teaching authority of my church on moral issues.
TRUMP: I know, but do you know their position on abortion?
MATTHEWS: Yes, I do.
TRUMP: And do you concur with the position?
MATTHEWS: I concur with their moral position but legally, I get to the question — here's my problem with it ...
TRUMP: No, no, but let me ask you: But what do you say about your church?
MATTHEWS: It's not funny.
TRUMP: Yes, it's really not funny. What do you say about your church? They're very, very strong.
MATTHEWS: They're allowed to — but the churches make their moral judgments, but you running for president of the United States will be chief executive of the United States. Do you believe ...
TRUMP: No, but ...
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: Yes, there has to be some form.
I am always uncomfortable when the subject of abortion is brought into the political arena.
That is mostly because I have always considered myself totally neutral on the issue. It's like Mark Twain said about heaven and hell. He said he had friends in both places, and I have friends on both sides. What's more, whenever my friends explain their positions, I find it hard to dispute what any of them say.
I agree that it is terrible that people end the lives of unborn children before they have begun. Children are the most innocent of creatures, and it is hard to justify denying them the opportunity to live and to love, to experience all the things, good and bad, that there are to experience in this world.
But I have known a few women who had abortions — I may know others as well, but those are the three who I know for sure have had abortions — and it was a painful experience for them. I'm not talking about physical pain — although I'm sure there was some of that as well. I'm talking about emotional pain, inner turmoil.
Without exception they experienced fear — of what, I couldn't tell you. Society? The legal system? God? All three? All three and more? I don't think even they knew for sure. But they were afraid, and they lived with that fear long after the abortion.
They were sad, too — again, not well defined, but it would be safe to say that they felt sadness over having to do what they did — and that, too, can be for many reasons. Obviously, I could never know what maternal instincts feel like, but my best guess would be that a significant part of that sadness was because the act of abortion is totally contradictory to one's protective maternal instincts. It's a law of nature, really, and I am certain that there is an emotional price to be paid by those who believe they have violated natural law.
They were confused, swept along by a series of events over which they had no control.
If the subject is going to be punishment, I think those women — and most of the others who have had abortions since the Supreme Court's decision 43 years ago — endured plenty of punishment, mostly self–inflicted. It was a mandatory byproduct of the procedure.
I'm sure that isn't the kind of punishment Trump meant when he spoke with Chris Matthews at a town hall meeting that was televised on MSNBC earlier this week ahead of next week's primary in Wisconsin. And there may well be some people in this country who agreed with Trump when he said there had to be a form of punishment for women who had abortions if abortion was made illegal. There probably are some people who agreed with him, but it would have to be a tiny sliver of a minority.
In fact, of all the pro–life people I know and have known — and bear in mind that I live in what is arguably the most conservative part of the country — I can't think of one who would support the idea of punishing the woman. The doctor who performed the abortion and profited by it is another matter entirely, but I cannot imagine any of my pro–life friends saying that the woman should be punished.
They would probably advocate counseling of some kind, but I'm quite sure they would be sympathetic with the woman and see her as more of a victim than a perp.
Trump backtracked shortly after making the statement — presumably when his aides pointed out to him that he had enough problems with women without saying they should be punished for having an abortion — but the damage had been done. Trump's negatives took a hit, not just with women but with young voters, independents, the list of groups keeps on growing. I'm sure his answer didn't help him with Hispanics, most of whom were already angry at him over his immigration remarks.
(Perhaps my favorite line about Trump's standing with women came in a column written by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan for the Wall Street Journal. "Already his numbers in next week's Wisconsin primary have fallen," Noonan wrote, "and as for women — well, with women nationally Mr. Trump is currently more popular than cholera — but not by much.")
I haven't really been surprised by the backlash. I've always thought Trump was something of a loose cannon; I'm just surprised it took so long to become clear to everyone else. Like most people, I guess I figured he would fizzle out long before his campaign reached the point where trying to stop him from winning the nomination appeared as hopeless as trying to stop a runaway train.
But now he may have handed his opponents the ammunition they need to bring him down. My take on this, though, is that it's not just the interview that is responsible. I truly believe it is the cumulative effect of several months of Trumpisms that leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those who hear them. Some — not all but some — of the Trump supporters I know are mortified by the things he has been saying. Texas' Republican primary was held on March 1 so the Trump supporters around here who are suffering from buyer's remorse have few options, but it isn't too late for people who vote in primaries this month and in May and early June.
I've heard the Wisconsin primary described as the Republicans' Alamo — their very last opportunity to stop Trump. Based on the polls I have been reading, Trump may well lose in Wisconsin, a state in which he was leading not long ago — and victories have a way of ending one candidate's momentum and giving it to someone else. We will see if that is what happens this time.
Nor am I really surprised that Matthews pressed Trump into delivering one of his shoot–from–the–hip responses. Matthews long ago made clear which side he favored in political contests, and he was doing his usual job as the lackey journalist. Mission accomplished. He drew Trump out into a minefield of his own making.
It's part of the give–and–take of politics. There hasn't been a president in my lifetime who hasn't felt mistreated by the press. If you aspire to be president, you have to be prepared for that. You have to be nimble, light on your feet in your answers, not lead–footed.
Trump gives the impression that he speaks without having given much, if any, thought to the subject. I have been critical for months of his failure to provide any solutions for the problems facing this country except to repeatedly tell us that the United States is "going to win again" when he becomes president. That sounds like Charlie Sheen (who also has problems with women).
It is simply inexcusable for a Republican not to anticipate questions about abortion. The public is going to assume, rightly or wrongly, that a Republican is going to be pro–life, and that is probably what Matthews assumed. Now, it's OK to be pro–life if you're going to give thoughtful reasons for your position — but it isn't OK, even with most other pro–lifers, to be Draconian about it.
Trump wasn't the only one who needed instruction in how to conduct himself, though. Matthews, too, could have used some pointers.
I have taught many journalism students, and I would chastise any of them for allowing an interviewee to become the interviewer, as Matthews allowed Trump to do. In this case, it ended up working out for Matthews, but that can so easily backfire on a journalist.
A journalist has no control over how the subject of an interview responds to questions. I understand that. Each situation is different and must be handled differently, but, in this case, I would have advised Matthews to say this when Trump started to interview him: "This is not about what I think. I am not a candidate for president. You are a candidate for president, and it is in that capacity that I am asking you what you think."
(By the way, that is essentially the same question I would ask of Hillary Clinton on the subject of her emails — in the context of her Nixonian assertion that her predecessors at State did the same things she did: "This is not about what they did. This is about what you did.")
When I was studying journalism in college, one of my professors delivered the lecture that every journalism student has heard at one time or another. "You should be like a fly on the wall" when you report on an event, the professor said. "The reader shouldn't even know you're there." If there was one thing that was driven home repeatedly in my journalism classes, it was the idea that a journalist should never be part of the story.
The readers — or, in this case, the viewers — knew Matthews was there, that he was part of the story. He managed to turn the tables on Trump and goad him into giving what could be, in hindsight, the remarks that proved to be the tipping point for his campaign. Perhaps, in Matthews' mind, all's well that ends well.
But he ran a huge risk of being the elephant in the room rather than a fly on the wall.