RICHMOND, Va. - President Donald Trump, Republican lawmakers in Virginia and conservatives across the country attacked Gov. Ralph Northam and other state Democrats on Wednesday after they defended a failed bill that sought to reduce restrictions on late-term abortions.

The furor escalated quickly after Republicans circulated a video of Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, acknowledging that her bill, like current law, would allow abortions up to the point of delivery in cases when the mother's life or health was at serious risk. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, was asked about the issue in a radio interview and gave an answer that was later used by Republicans to suggest he favored killing live babies.

"I'm surprised that he did that. I've met him a number of times," Trump told the Daily Caller when asked about Northam's remarks. He said he had not seen the governor's words but had watched the video of Tran.

"I thought it was terrible," Trump said. "Do you remember when I said Hillary Clinton was willing to rip the baby out of the womb? That's what it is. That's what they're doing. It's terrible."

Northam, whose spokeswoman said his words were being taken out of context by Republicans, called the notion that he would approve of killing infants "disgusting."

"I have devoted my life to caring for children, and any insinuation otherwise is shameful and disgusting," he said.

The president's remarks came after former U.S. senator Jim DeMint called the bill "vile" and said Northam should abandon it or resign. Fox News, Breitbart and other conservative news outlets posted stories suggesting that the Democrats embraced infanticide. Tran, the bill's sponsor, suspended her social media accounts after being besieged with threatening messages.

And Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, made a dramatic floor speech citing Bible verses to vow to fight against abortion.

Republicans, clinging to a slim majority in an election year when the entire General Assembly is on the ballot, sought to exploit the moment as part of a campaign to paint Democrats as radicals out of step with the state. And the uproar played directly into the national partisan divide, fueling outrage at a time when Democrats are launching presidential campaigns on issues far removed from abortion, an intractable issue in American society.

"What my Democratic colleagues are most concerned about is what this moment actually reveals," said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the House majority leader. "It was a moment of unbridled honesty about their agenda and their legislation and what it actually does."

It was a surprising turn for legislation that had been introduced - and had failed - each of the past three years without any drama. A companion bill offered in the state Senate more than a week ago failed without comment.

The frontal political assault was also unusual for a chamber that often congratulates itself on the civil "Virginia way," with GOP leaders joining Northam just last week to tout a bipartisan agreement to clean up coal ash.

In recent weeks, Republicans have sought to focus attention on several Democratic bills that they say would harm the state. Those include bills to enact a $15 minimum wage, move the state away from fossil fuels and provide tax relief to low-income families.

The strategy escalated with the abortion bill, which failed in a subcommittee Monday.

More than half of the bill's 20 Democratic patrons were elected in 2017 during the surge that nearly erased the GOP majority in the House of Delegates. Among them was Tran, one of a record number of women elected that year and also the first Virginia legislator to nurse her infant on the House floor.

Late-term abortions are permitted in Virginia only when the mother's life is at grave risk. Tran's bill would have lifted some restrictions; instead of requiring three doctors to sign off on the procedure, it would have required only one doctor. It also would have removed language requiring that the danger to the mother was "substantial and irremediable."

On WTOP radio's "Asks the Governor" program Wednesday, NBC4's Julie Carey asked Northam whether he supported Tran's bill.

Northam expressed support and spoke broadly about his belief that politicians should leave abortion decisions to women and their doctors.

But his comments about trimester abortions set off critics. The procedures, he said, are "done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that's not viable. So in this particular example, if a mother's in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother."

After which, Twitter erupted.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., retweeted Northam's comment and added, "I never thought I would see the day America had government officials who openly support legal infanticide."

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted that "Dem Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatrician himself, is defending born-alive abortions."

And DeMint, the former senator from South Carolina who is chairman of the Conservative Partnership Institute, tweeted: "VA Gov Northam is no moderate, this is one of the most vile, radical pro-abortion positions ever put forward. This is evil. He should recant or resign."

Ofirah Yheskel, a spokeswoman for Northam, said the Republicans were mischaracterizing the governor.

"No woman seeks a third-trimester abortion except in the case of tragic or difficult circumstances, such as a nonviable pregnancy or in the event of severe fetal abnormalities, and the governor's comments were limited to the actions physicians would take in the event that a woman in those circumstances went into labor," she said.

"Attempts to extrapolate these comments otherwise is in bad faith and underscores exactly why the governor believes physicians and women, not legislators, should make these difficult and deeply personal medical decisions," Yheskel said.

Republicans on Tuesday night had begun circulating video of Tran discussing the bill in subcommittee the day before. By Wednesday morning, the Republican Party of Virginia had sent the clip out in a fundraising email.

The clip shows Tran before the subcommittee as Gilbert - who is off camera - grills her about whether the bill allows an abortion up to the moment a woman is about to give birth.

Tran paused at the question, and Gilbert added, "She's dilating."

With a grimace and another long pause, Tran said, "Mr. Chairman, that would be, you know, a decision that the doctor, the physician and the woman would make a decision at that point."

"I understand that," Gilbert said. "I'm asking if your bill allows that."

"My bill would allow that, yes," Tran replied.

Seeming to catch Democrats off guard, Cox took the extraordinary step Wednesday of leaving the dais to make a speech from the floor - something he said no other speaker has done in his 30 years in the legislature.

Invoking the biblical story of David and verses in the book of Hebrews about God being the builder of all things, Cox said he was horrified last week when the New York state legislature passed a law to make late-term abortions easier to get.

"Governor Northam vowed to enact [the same law] if Democrats take over the House and Senate in 2019," he said.

"I will never stop fighting for the promise of life, as long as I hold a gavel, as long as I can speak in this microphone," Cox said to thunderous applause from Republican delegates.

Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the minority leader, stood to respond, upbraiding Republicans for their treatment of Tran and for what she said was misrepresenting the issue.

"It clearly was part of an orchestrated ambush," she said. The public statements "were made to inflame passions throughout the social media echo chamber. And they succeeded. What was the result? Ongoing harassment, intimidation against the patron, several members of this body, their families and their children."

The Democratic caucus slammed the Republicans for what it called "sensationalism and fearmongering [that] is more representative of Trump-style national politics rather than the Virginia Way" and pointed out that 91 percent of the member of the Republican caucus are men.

"House Republicans would do well to pay Virginia women - and their women colleagues - more respect," Democratic spokeswoman Kathryn Gilley said.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gives his State of the Commonwealth speech in the House chambers at the Capitol in Richmond on January 9. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges.
Salwan Georges
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gives his State of the Commonwealth speech in the House chambers at the Capitol in Richmond on January 9. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges.