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Former President Trump is giving interviews to Pa. media, even if his message isn’t always clear

Former President Donald Trump speaks.
Michael M. Santiago/AP
Pool Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks following the day's proceedings in his trial Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

Let’s start by giving Donald Trump credit: For all his talk about the “fake news media,” he’s remarkably willing to talk to reporters — even if it’s not always easy to figure out what he’s saying.

There he was on KDKA-TV this week, speaking with veteran political reporter Jon Delano moments before hearing another day of testimony in his New York City hush-money trial. The two spent 10 minutes talking, which is a lot — certainly more than anyone around here has gotten from Joe Biden.

That’s not an isolated incident. The trial has kept Trump pinned down in New York: He has yet to appear in Western Pennsylvania this year. But taking questions from a local interviewer is a quick way to show up without going anywhere, and Trump has given two other interviews on Pennsylvania TV stations during the past few weeks.

The risk is that reporters ask questions, and what a candidate says in Pittsburgh doesn’t always stay here.

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Delano isn’t a “gotcha” reporter, and the question that created a national media firestorm couldn’t have been put more simply. It came after a brief discussion of abortion, when Trump said that “everybody wanted” Roe v. Wade to be overturned so states could make up their own rules, “It’s … really calmed [the controversy] down.”

Do you support any restrictions on a person's right to contraception?” Delano asked.

“We're looking at that, and I'm going to have a policy on that very shortly. And I think it's something that you'll find interesting,” Trump said. “I think it's a smart decision, but we'll be releasing it very soon.” Pressed on the matter, he said “some states are going to have different policies than others.”

That hedge led a slew of national reporters to conclude that Trump is open to restrictions. And Democrats said the response “left the door open for enforcing restrictions on birth control if given the chance.”

In a social media post that used lots of capital letters — so you know it’s official — Trump soon after insisted, “I DO NOT SUPPORT A BAN ON BIRTH CONTROL, AND NEITHER WILL THE REPUBLICAN PARTY!”

This prompted another round of coverage asserting that Trump “walked back” or “backtracked” on his position.

Now to my practiced ear, Trump’s answer was the kind of thing you say when you haven’t done the homework. Another possible read: Like many politicians, he’d rather not answer a question that could put him at odds either with the general public or his political base, which includes a broad swath of social conservatives.

In such cases, Trump is particularly fond of promising to unveil a policy at some point in the future, one that everyone will love. We’re still waiting for the Obamacare alternative he promised in 2016, for example. And just last month, he was asked whether women should be able to obtain mifepristone, the drug used in most abortions whose availability is being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump told Time magazine that he’d release his position on that “probably over the next week,” a timetable he amended moments later to “the next 14 days.”

“I actually think it’s a very important issue,” he said. That was a month ago.

But whether or not Trump has a defined agenda here, others in his party do. Some state-level officials have proposed limits on various forms of birth control, and there are calls in Trump-adjacent circles to begin enforcing the 150-year-old Comstock Act, which could be used to criminalize mifepristone nationwide.

And you certainly didn’t hear him pledge to protect birth control. (Or abortion, either. When he’s been asked about whether his “leave-it-to-the-states” position would lead him to veto a federal abortion ban, he’s answered that such a ban would be unlikely to land on his desk.)

Other moments in his KDKA interview showed Trump is capable of being consistent when he wants to be. He believes strongly in tariffs on all imports, and he’s staunch in his hatred of wind power, which he said “kills all the birds [and] looks like hell.”

And he remains steadfast in his false claim to have won the election in 2020, and in his desire to cast aspersions on mail-in voting in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

“Any time you have mail-ins and … the kind of things that they have in Pennsylvania — it’s not just concerns. I mean, we just have to stop it,” he told Delano. “We should go to all paper ballots, we should have one-day voting, one-day election and just do it properly.”

Some of these positions are arguably self-defeating. GOP leaders from the national level down to Allegheny County itself have been fighting their own nominee on the issue, urging voters to make use of mail-in ballots because Democrats enjoy a big advantage there. Media accounts have in fact recently been crediting Trump with a “stunning flip-flop" — or at least a “changed stance” or “changed tone” — on mail-in voting. Maybe not!

On the bright side for his party, Trump’s tone will likely change back, as it has many times before. In a February visit to Harrisburg, for example, he got a hero’s welcome by bragging to National Rifle Association members that he’d “done nothing” on guns during his previous term as president. That was the same term during which he mocked then-U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey as too “afraid of the NRA” to pass meaningful gun reforms.

As The New York Times recently put it, among the voters with whom Biden is struggling most are “moderate and conservative Democratic-leaning voters who nonetheless think that the system needs major changes or to be torn down altogether.” And Trump’s message, whatever it is, may be perfect for voters who want radical change — without thinking much about what it will bring.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.