Trump's Adios to a Softer Immigration Stance
With an impromptu jaunt to Mexico on Wednesday for a high-profile meeting with the country’s president, Donald Trump’s campaign hoped he would appear freshly decisive and presidential.
And the Republican nominee delivered, appearing measured and even diplomatic during a joint press conference after the meeting.
Just a few hours later, however, speaking to a room of spirited supporters in Phoenix, Trump seemed to send a conflicting message. Faced with a final opportunity to reconfigure his immigration stance in the home stretch of the presidential election, Trump opted to stay the course with his hardline positions and fiery rhetoric.
Trump's strategy could energize his core supporters anew, but it also risks alienating undecided voters who have remained wary of Trump’s tone and temperament in the context of the presidency.
During the past week, Trump and his aides hinted he’d adopted a softer tone and stance on immigration reform that might cater to those persuadable voters. The GOP nominee publicly entertained a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants in good standing, while pressing for a “humane” and “compassionate” solution to complex problem.
But on Wednesday, in what was billed as a “major” immigration policy address, Trump abandoned those trial balloons in favor of the approach and policy framework that became his signature during the Republican primary race. He sketched a dark composite of “violent crimes, and total chaos and lawlessness” perpetrated by illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, he once again promised a border wall that Mexico would fund, urged an expansion of and greater authority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and said undocumented immigrants arrested for other crimes should be deported immediately.
“Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” Trump said. “That is what it means to have laws and to have a country.”
Notably, Trump also suggested a steep climb to legalized status for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States who have no criminal records — a question that has enveloped his campaign in recent days as he seemed to weigh a softer position.
"You cannot obtain legal status or become a citizen of the United States by illegally entering our country,” Trump said Wednesday. “They will have one route and one route only: to return home and apply for re-entry.”
Such unforgiving language propelled Trump’s campaign during the Republican primary, but the general electorate holds starkly different views on immigration, with most Americans perceiving undocumented immigrants in a positive light, according to a recent Pew Center survey.
More generally, voters have consistently expressed reservations about Trump’s policy experience, temperament, and qualifications for the presidency.
Trump’s campaign had hoped to allay those concerns and present Trump in a newly presidential glow in arranging a surprise meeting Wednesday with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who had invited Trump and Hillary Clinton to Mexico City.
In a press conference following their private discussion, Trump showed himself as thoughtful and on script, praising Mexico’s president and its people in a surprisingly diplomatic turn. Peña Nieto, for his part, expressed reservations about Trump’s stance on trade generally and NAFTA in particular, but he welcomed their potential collaboration nevertheless. Trump’s symbolic even footing with the Mexican president initially appeared to be a work of deft political stagecraft and calculation.
During a brief question-and-answer session, however, Trump was asked whether the two men had discussed how a border wall would be funded. “We didn’t discuss that,” Trump responded.
A few hours later, Peña Nieto unraveled that assertion with a tweet in Spanish that translates as: "At the start of the conversation with Donald Trump, I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall.”
Al inicio de la conversación con Donald Trump dejé claro que México no pagará por el muro.— Enrique Peña Nieto (@EPN) August 31, 2016
Trump’s campaign did not address the discrepancy in a statement, but Clinton’s campaign did. "It turns out Trump didn't just choke,” said Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. “He got beat in the room and lied about it."
Clinton herself panned Trump’s jet-setting gesture during a speech earlier Wednesday: "It certainly takes more than trying to make up for a year of insults and insinuations by dropping in on our neighbors for a few hours, and then flying home again. That is not how it works.”
At the GOP nominee's rally later in Phoenix, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, two of Trump’s close advisers, donned “Make Mexico Great Again Also” hats in the style of Trump’s signature ball caps. And Trump gave a slight nod to his meeting earlier.
“In the end, we’re all going to win. Both countries,” Trump said. “We’re all going to win.”
But Trump still seemed miffed by the Mexican president’s remarks on trade, veering off script to defend his own trade stance.
“We have the most incompetently worked trade deals,” Trump said, invoking NAFTA in particular. “We’re going to make great trade deals.”
His raw, visceral tone on immigration Wednesday, however, will likely leave a lasting mark on his bid for president. In contrast to his campaign’s recent, toned-down messaging, Trump did not once mention a “humane” approach to dealing with illegal immigrants, and with none of that nuance.
“There is only one core issue in the immigration debate,” Trump said, "and that issue is the well-being of the American people.”
"We take anybody—just come on in. Not anymore,” he added. “Under a Trump administration, it's called America First."
In a statement, the Clinton campaign characterized Trump’s speech as "his darkest” yet, one that “attempted to divide communities by pitting people against each other and demonizing immigrants. … The only immigrants allowed in the future are those that pass Donald Trump's own test of 'desirability.'”
For some of Trump’s hard-core supporters who expressed doubts about his policy vacillations in recent days, however, his message hit the perfect note.
As conservative commentator Ann Coulter tweeted:
I hear Churchill had a nice turn of phrase, but Trump's immigration speech is the most magnificent speech ever given.— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) September 1, 2016