Trump's Immigration Pivot: Can He Have It Both Ways?

Trump's Immigration Pivot: Can He Have It Both Ways?
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Donald Trump’s shifting positions on immigration threaten to alienate some of his core supporters at a critical juncture, surprising and confounding many of those who were drawn to the candidate for his seemingly unyielding hard-line stance against undocumented immigrants.

The Republican nominee now must walk a political tightrope on his signature issue as he tries to broaden his appeal among undecided voters while maintaining enthusiasm among his diehard backers. Meanwhile, Trump must answer for apparent contradictions between his fresh outlook and past proposals.

"It's the last fig leaf of a credible campaign he had left,” said Steve Deace, a conservative radio host who supported Sen. Ted Cruz during the GOP primary. “He's not self-funding, he's not expanding the map ... the last refuge he had left was the immigration issue and he has ripped that fig leaf away to reveal this was a con all along … People who bought into his message have all been betrayed."

In a series of public remarks this week, Trump has gradually telegraphed an about-face on immigration, replacing talk of potentially deporting millions of undocumented immigrants with a plan similar to that championed by Jeb Bush during the GOP primary, which Trump dismissed as “weak.” 

Trump’s starkest comments came during a two-part interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who has also reportedly advised Trump in his campaign. 

In the first part, which aired Tuesday, Trump said he could moderate his views.

"There could certainly be a softening because we're not looking to hurt people," Trump said. "We want people — we have some great people in this country." 

He then posed his dilemma to the audience, comprised of many of his supporters: "So you have somebody who's been in the country for 20 years, has done a great job, and everything else. Do we take him and the family and her and him or whatever and send him out?”

But Trump’s “softening” line drew a visceral response. According to a report from the Austin American-Statesman, one person shouted, “You’re reversing yourself!”

“That’s a flip-flop, Donald!” another called out.

A third audience member was more forgiving, according to the American-Statesman’s report: “It’s called evolution!”

It is a severe evolution. During the second portion of the interview, Trump stressed he would recommend “no citizenship” for undocumented immigrants remaining in the United States, but suggested they could “pay back taxes” to remain in the country.

“There’s no amnesty,” Trump said, “but we work with them.”

“Everybody agrees the bad ones go out,” Trump continued. But, of undocumented immigrants in good standing, Trump said he has heard entreaties to not “throw them out” and acknowledged, “It’s a very, very hard thing.”

That plan bears a strong resemblance to Bush’s and also the Senate Gang of Eight immigration reform package, which Marco Rubio helped craft. Trump attacked them both during the Republican primary for their views on immigration.

Trump’s sharp pivot toward Bush and Rubio likely will not sit well with some of the celebrity businessman’s most ardent supporters — such as Ann Coulter, who has been on a book tour to promote her latest release, “In Trump We Trust.” During an interview Tuesday on MSNBC, Coulter said a shift toward softer policy and tone would be “a mistake.”

“It sounds like it’s coming from consultants,” Coulter said. “I’ve thought he’s made other mistakes, and I’ve given him constructive criticism when I think he makes a mistake.”

Still, she expressed doubt that Trump could truly be changing his tune; if he did, it might render the theme of her book tour irrelevant.

“This could be the shortest book tour ever if he’s really softening his position on immigration,” Coulter added. “I don’t think he’s softening.” 

Trump does not appear to be refining his entire immigration worldview. While he has backed away from his support for mass deportation, he has held firm on the less perilous issue of border security. In speeches this week from Akron, Ohio, to Austin, Texas, Trump assured supporters he still plans to build a wall along the southern border, one that “will go up so fast, you’re head is going to spin.”

On Tuesday night, Trump invited to the stage border security agents and mothers who lost their children to crimes by undocumented immigrants to highlight his hard line on border security. He made no mention of deportation at the rally, but he has advocated for a more “humane” approach during interviews. 

Speaking with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on Tuesday, Trump said he would adopt the Obama administration’s policy on deportation, but with more fervor. During the rally in Austin, however, Trump accused Clinton of supporting an open border and “massive amnesty.”

But Trump’s fresh messaging seems to reflect his line of thinking long before he entered the presidential race.

As he tweeted in 2013:

 During the Republican primary, Cruz pointed to this tweet as evidence that Trump would be soft on illegal immigration.

And in 2012, after Mitt Romney’s loss in the presidential election, Trump criticized the Republican nominee for his “self-deportation” proposal and broader tone on immigration, arguing that the “crazy” and “maniacal” policy cost the GOP votes. 

“The Democrats didn’t have a policy for dealing with illegal immigrants, but what they did have going for them is they weren’t mean-spirited about it,” Trump told Newsmax. “They didn’t know what the policy was, but what they were is they were kind.” 

Romney, Trump said at the time, “lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country.”

But when asked last year about those prior remarks, Trump assured Fox News’ Bret Baier that “there will be a deportation” in his administration.

“People will have to go out, they are illegal immigrants, they came in illegally, they have to go out, and they have to come back legally,” Trump said. “There will be a deportation, and hopefully they’ll be able to come back into the country.” 

Trump now seems to acknowledge the logistical and political challenges of his previous mass deportation policy, a shift that might cause some undecided voters to look at his candidacy in a new light. But the change also risks deflating enthusiasm among Trump supporters in key battlegrounds.

Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, predicted Trump’s base would still rally around his immigration policy relative to Clinton’s.

“Mr. Trump’s core supporters understand that Hillary will ‘make it up as we go’ with executive orders that will further erode the people’s trust in government,” Ingoglia said. “Donald Trump understands that we are a nation of laws and those laws must be clear and clearly enforced." 

But Trump will likely fill in key details in the coming weeks that could alter this calculus, telling a CBS affiliate on Wednesday that he plans “to announce something over the next two weeks, but it’s going to be a very firm policy.”

For now, some Republicans who favor strict immigration laws continue to grant him the benefit of the doubt.

“Ted Cruz took a strong position, and also Donald Trump took a strong position. Both of them have pretty much etched in stone that they would be for restoring the respect for the rule of law and enforcing the laws as they are and bringing some new ones along the way," Rep. Steve King told CNN on Wednesday.

But if Trump were to shift this fundamental stance, King added, it "would be a mistake.”

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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