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Republican debate: Donald Trump’s entire immigration performance was a massive flip-flop

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Miami, Florida. Johnny Louis/FilmMagic via Getty

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Miami, Florida. (Johnny Louis/FilmMagic via Getty)

Has Donald Trump even read his own immigration plan?

After the third Republican presidential debate, it was a valid question. CNBC debate moderator Becky Quick asked Trump about calling Marco Rubio "Mark Zuckerberg's personal senator" — a slam on both Zuckerberg and Rubio for supporting more visas for high-skilled immigrant workers. Trump was adamant: "I never said that. I never said that. ... Everybody is really doing some very bad fact(-checking)."

After the commercial break, Quick came back with a citation: She'd found the line on Trump's own campaign website.

"Mark Zuckerberg's personal Senator, Marco Rubio, has a bill to triple H-1Bs that would decimate women and minorities." (DonaldJTrump.com)

It was an embarrassment. And to Mark Krikorian — the head of the Center for Immigration Studies, and arguably the most influential immigration hawk in Washington — it was damning.

The Zuckerberg gaffe was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Trump's debate performance on immigration: It was a flip-flop that was visible even to people who knew nothing about what Trump's been saying about immigration throughout his campaign. But to people who've been following the issue, Trump's entire debate performance last night was like that. It looked for all the world like Trump was sanding down everything that distinguished him from other Republicans on the signature issue of his campaign.

Trump is suddenly talking up increased legal immigration

The most shocking thing about Trump's comments on Mark Zuckerberg last night wasn't his denial of the words on his campaign site. It was what he said when he was caught:

"I’m in favor of people coming into this country legally. And you know what? They can have it anyway you want. You can call it visas, you can call it work permits, you can call it anything you want [...] As far as Mark is concerned, as far as the visas are concerned, if we need people, they have — it’s fine."

That sounds like perfectly normal Republican rhetoric. In other words, it sounds entirely unlike the stance Trump has taken on legal immigration during the campaign.

Many Republicans — even those, like Ted Cruz, who are steadfastly opposed to "amnesty" for unauthorized immigrants — want to allow more legal immigrants to come into the country. Especially beloved of Republicans is the H-1B visa for high-skilled guest workers — the program that tech giants (including Zuckerberg) have been lobbying to expand.

But the H-1B program isn't terribly popular with the populist Republican base, who see it as a way for Big Business to import low-wage labor from abroad instead of helping American workers. That's exactly the vibe Trump's campaign has tapped into, on trade and economic competition as well as immigration. The segment of the Republican base Trump speaks to is concerned about America losing its edge to other countries, and also about America changing: about letting in too many immigrants who don't respect American values and don't share American culture. They're less concerned with how immigrants are coming than about who is immigrating.

Immigration
More immigrants or fewer? (Gallup)

So it made sense when in August, Trump announced that Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) — the biggest critic in Congress of legal immigration in general, and the H-1B program in particular — was helping him craft an immigration platform. And it made sense when that platform was unveiled a few days later and had a section, titled "Putting American Workers First," all about curtailing legal immigration (particularly H-1Bs).

Trump wanted to require all companies to hire American workers first. He wanted to raise the "prevailing wage" that companies had to pay H-1B workers, which the platform claimed would encourage companies to hire ethnic minorities and women instead. And he wanted to put a "pause" on all green cards for foreign workers while employers hired "from the domestic pool of unemployed immigrant and native workers."

As conservative pundit Byron York wrote back in August (in a column that turned out to be prescient), the written plan was "somewhat different from the one Trump has described in various TV appearances." (Trump has said on a couple of occasions, as he said last night, that he wanted to make it easier for immigrants to stay in the US after graduating from college here — despite the fact that his plan would make that nearly or entirely impossible.)

But it was there on the site. And Trump continued to make a big deal out of his alliance with Sessions, even bringing him up to the stage at an event in Alabama at the end of August. Meanwhile, by October, Trump had turned his platform's attack on another group of legal immigrants — refugees — into a standard line in his stump speech. After initially agreeing the US should take refugees fleeing civil war in Syria, he said the US should stop letting in any refugees from the country entirely: "If I win, they're going back," he told a New Hampshire rally.

Donald Trump dallas rally Tom Pennington/Getty

(Tom Pennington/Getty)

Now, suddenly, Trump wasn't just kowtowing to Zuckerberg on H-1Bs. He was so eager to embrace legal immigration that he seemed indiscriminate about it. "They can have it anyway you want. You can call it visas, you can call it work permits. ..." It wasn't explicitly a call for more legal immigration. But if anyone other than Donald Trump had said it, many people would have interpreted it that way.

Trump didn't attack "illegals" at all

Trump's difference from his Republican rivals on immigration policy has only been part of his appeal. It's plausible that these distinctions matter mostly to politicians like Sessions and wonks like Krikorian, while the thousands of people coming to Trump rallies are mostly attracted to the take-no-prisoners bombast of Trump's rhetoric on the issue. Since the very beginning of his campaign, when a tossed-off line in his announcement speech about "rapists and murderers" became the thesis of his candidacy, Trump's campaign has been about the danger of unauthorized immigrants — and the deviousness of the Mexican government in "forcing" immigrants into the US as a deliberate plot to undermine America.

Trump (Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

(Keith Bedford/the Boston Globe via Getty)

You could still see the shadows of this argument in what Trump said last night: "I love the Mexican people, I respect the Mexican leaders — but the leaders are much sharper, smarter, and more cunning than our leaders." But he didn't explain the thought, instead filibustering about how he'd make Mexico pay.

It's worth contrasting this with the first debate, when Trump used a very similar line — but finished the thought:

The Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning. And they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them. They don’t want to take care of them.

Why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them? And that’s what is happening whether you like it or not.

There was no mention of "the bad ones" in last night's debate. Trump mentioned the wall — though he emphasized that he wanted a "big, beautiful door" for legal immigration a little more forcefully than he has in the past, and he acknowledged (as he has once or twice on the campaign trail) that you can't actually wall off the entire southern border due to "natural terrain." But he didn't say anything about whom the wall was supposed to keep out.

Is Trump trying to broaden his appeal because he's more serious about his candidacy?

It is incontrovertibly true that Trump blatantly contradicted his own campaign platform on immigration. That might have been bound to happen sooner or later, given Trump's tendency to give stump speeches off the cuff — but it's clearly a problem, and one that the campaign can't explain away by blaming it on an intern. It's a little harder to pin down Trump on downplaying the rhetoric that drew thousands to his events all summer. It's tempting to chalk it up to the questions the moderators asked or the short time candidates were given to respond.

Personally, I don't buy that. Donald Trump has made it eminently clear in debates that he will discuss what he wants to, not what the moderators want him to. And besides, he set the rules for this debate to begin with.

It's also not the first time over the last few weeks that Trump has sounded like, well, any other Republican presidential candidate. His interview with Breitbart's Milo Yiannopoulos on technology issues earlier this week, for example, was remarkably boring. Vox's Tim Lee concluded that Trump "carefully avoided saying anything controversial." In Trumpland as we've come to understand it over the past five months, that would be a death-penalty-eligible offense.

If you haven't considered this possibility lately, you should do it now: Donald Trump might be getting really, truly serious about running for the Republican nomination and the presidency. He might be trying to make himself less terrifying to the Republican establishment, in the hopes they'll aim their fire at Ben Carson instead. He might be trying to lay the groundwork to appeal to Americans beyond the base that generated so much enthusiasm for him.

Ironically, that's exactly why the anti-immigration base congenitally distrusts Republican politicians: They assume politicians will pander to them during the primary, and then embrace immigrants — legal and possibly unauthorized as well — after the nomination is sewn up. They cast away their distrust for Trump. And it's possible that he's the one to betray them.