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What the hell is going on with Trump and immigration, explained

He was supposed to spend the week hammering his strongest issue. Instead, he’s spent the week hinting he might flip-flop on it.

Republican Presidential Candidates Address 2015 Family Leadership Summit
Never ever ever ever has this picture been more apt.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

This is not how things were supposed to go.

Here is what was supposed to happen: Donald Trump, fresh off a staff shakeup, was going to reboot his flailing campaign by spending a week talking about immigration — the issue that made him the Republican nominee.

First, he’d hold a quiet, off-the-record meeting with his Hispanic advisory group at Trump Tower. He would do a town hall (broadcast over two nights on Tuesday and Wednesday) with Sean Hannity — the biggest Trump booster on television — and a friendly, Texan Fox News audience. Then, on Thursday, he would give a policy speech in Colorado that would lay out his proposed immigration policy in substance and detail.

Here is what actually happened: The off-the-record meeting didn’t stay off the record for long. Attendees told reporters that Trump had promised to support — or at least consider — legalizing unauthorized immigrants. On Sunday, Trump’s campaign chair refused to say whether Trump’s promised deportation force was still a campaign policy: She said it was TBD. The Thursday speech got canceled because the campaign was still working on what it would say.

Then, there was Trump himself. At every turn — whether talking to interviewers or speaking at the Hannity town hall — he appeared to reject policies he’d already embraced, acting as if he’d never heard them before. He criticized President Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback,” which he’d praised in a primary debate. He told the town hall audience it would be “very hard” to deport people who’d been here for decades. At one point, he literally polled the town hall audience on deportations — openly asking them what they thought his immigration position ought to be.

Immigration is the issue that made Trump great again. He had genuine rapport with a segment of the Republican base and a segment of previously disaffected voters. It was the issue that gave him a clear contrast with both his opponents in the Republican primary and with Hillary Clinton in the general election.

It gave him a theory of victory — albeit a tenuous one — in November: Voters who felt downwardly mobile and anxious about the future of their country would come out of the woodwork to support a candidate who was strong about protecting them from foreign threats.

And in case of defeat, it gave him a possible second act: serving as a movement leader, continuing to collect attention through rallies and TV appearances.

Donald Trump dallas rally Tom Pennington/Getty

Now, all of a sudden, he appears to be poised on the verge of the biggest flip-flop in recent memory.

He could still find a way out — he hasn’t yet said anything coherent enough that he can’t wriggle out of it later. But he appears to be learning the lesson the rest of the Republican Party already learned: It’s devilishly hard to play to populist anxieties about immigration while staying within the bounds of policy reality.

If Trump doesn’t pull it off, he’ll be falling into the exact same bind that candidates like Scott Walker did before him — the bind that Trump himself managed to exploit by persuading his followers that only he was daring enough to state the truth about immigration’s dangers. If he does pull it off, he will be a political genius.

Immigration was the star property of the Trump campaign. They’ve taken a wrecking ball to it.

As we near the end of Trump’s “immigration week,” here is where Donald Trump currently stands on immigration, as far as I can tell: build a wall (and make Mexico pay for it); “extreme vetting” for people who come into the US; unauthorized immigrants who commit crimes should be deported.

When it comes to what to do with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US, in other words, Donald Trump is about as vague as he is on other policy issues to which he hasn’t given much thought.

But before this week, immigration was exactly the issue he could be trusted to sound like he’d given some thought to.

Immigration has been the signature issue of Trump’s campaign from Day One. His ability to distinguish himself from other Republican candidates by stating, unequivocally, that unauthorized immigrants were a problem that made America less safe was key to his appeal to a core group of supporters who launched him to the top of the polls.

Trump’s attitude toward policy, in general, has been dilatory at best. But immigration has been the exception. Trump’s inner circle includes one of Congress’s most senior opponents of immigration; the “issues” section of Trump’s website includes only seven issues, but two of them are immigration-related, and they’re both pretty detailed.

Screencap of Trump's site Donald J. Trump

After this week, it’s no longer clear whether Trump’s immigration positions as stated on his campaign website are still Trump’s immigration positions. He’s said that he’s going to come out with a new position “very soon,” probably in the next two weeks.

In the meantime, Trump and his campaign have acted for all the world like they never had a set immigration position at all and are only now really grappling with the hard choices policymaking requires.

They haven’t yet pivoted — that would require a new proposal. But in terms Trump would understand, they’ve put a wrecking ball to the building that was on the site and reduced it to rubble. That usually doesn’t happen unless you’re planning to put a completely different building there.

Trump appears to be softening on mass deportation

If you’ve been following Trump’s campaign, you probably think of him as having two signature immigration policies: Mexico will pay for the wall, and unauthorized immigrants will be deported from the US.

The first is still a Trump campaign position. The second one … not so much. In fact, it’s possible that the Trump campaign never really saw it as a core position at all.

Over the course of the Trump campaign, it’s become clear that “Donald Trump’s policies” and “what Donald Trump says in interviews his policies are” aren’t exactly synonymous. And it’s become especially clear that when he’s trying to appeal to conservative activists, he tries to guess what they believe so he can agree with it — and often, he far overshoots the mark.

In retrospect, it looks like this is what might have happened with Trump’s mass deportation promises.

"His first reaction was 'Illegal aliens gotta go!' in a kind of barstool opinionating sense, like your Uncle George at the Thanksgiving dinner table," Mark Krikorian — head of the Center for Immigration Studies, the leading immigration-restrictionist think tank — told NBC News’ Benjy Sarlin this week.

But a lot of people were turned off by that language — not just immigrants themselves or Latino voters, but suburban white voters who the GOP might otherwise have reached out to. Promising to tear millions of families out of the communities where they’ve lived for years sounds cruel. It’s also very obviously impractical.

And so the campaign, in its current iteration — trying to save the Republican Party from a landslide defeat in November — is trying to distance itself from the idea.

"The Silent Majority Stands With Trump." Keith Bedford / The Boston Globe via Getty

One aide told the Huffington Post’s Elise Foley this week that Trump had never supported mass deportation at all (which, unless you think that “mass deportation” is just a collection of words that don’t mean anything, is false). Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, when asked on Meet the Press Sunday if Trump still supported the idea of a “deportation force” said it was “TBD.” Trump himself told Sean Hannity during the town hall that it was “very, very hard” to reconcile himself to the idea of deporting someone who’d been in the US for 15 or 20 years.

Policy-wise, ruling out aggressive mass deportation still gives Trump a lot of room to maneuver. Immigration policy circa 2007, for example, was still aggressive toward unauthorized immigrants — with high-profile raids, and no equivalent to President Obama’s “deferred action” program providing protection from deportation — but it wasn’t mass deportation.

On National Review’s website Monday, Krikorian wrote that Trump could also embrace a self-deportation policy: instituting tough border enforcement; requiring all employers to check the legal statuses of their employees; and then, after a certain number of years, consider legalizing any immigrants who haven’t packed up and left.

But there’s also the possibility that Trump isn’t just softening his position, but outright flip-flopping — adopting the policies that he mocked, to great effect, when they were being pushed by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in the primaries. There’s a possibility that he’s going to come out of all this supporting legal status for immigrants already in the US.

Trump hasn’t yet called for legalizing immigrants — but a lot of people think he has

A lot of people, in fact, think that during his town hall with Hannity Trump did just that. But they’re getting ahead of themselves.

At one point, Trump promised Hannity that unauthorized immigrants wouldn’t be eligible for citizenship and that they’d have to pay back taxes:

That sounds awfully familiar to some of the ways immigration reformers like Jeb Bush have described their proposals to legalize unauthorized immigrants. (To get legal status, immigrants would have to pay back taxes, prove they’ve learned English, etc.) So when people heard Trump promising that immigrants would have to pay taxes, they assumed he was referring to a Bushian policy — in return for paying taxes they’d be legalized.

He hasn’t actually done that yet. Trump never said anything to Hannity about legalizing immigrants. (He said he’d have to “work with” them, which is too vague to read anything into.)

Furthermore, to assume that Donald Trump is deliberately referring to a policy proposal because he echoed a phrase associated with it requires, frankly, a higher estimation of Donald Trump’s care with language than this campaign has shown so far. The entire reason we’re in this mess to begin with is that Donald Trump has no idea how to talk about policy. He hasn’t gotten remarkably more sophisticated in the last three days.

The real reason people are seeing a total flip-flop and an embrace of legalization in Trump’s words is that a lot of people assume it’s inevitably going to happen. It suits a lot of narratives people already believe about the Trump campaign.

Donald Trump is running the most disorganized presidential campaign in modern American history — of course he would end up flip-flopping on his core issue. Donald Trump is a rich man who has ignited a mass movement of people who feel downwardly mobile — of course he was playing them for fools the whole time.

That may very well be how this shakes out! But it hasn’t yet. Right now, the people seeing what they want to see in Trump aren’t his supporters — they’re the pundits who are reading so much into a throwaway reference to making immigrants pay taxes.

This goes beyond the Trump campaign’s typical incompetence and incoherence

It makes sense that Trump’s campaign is flailing — that the aide told Elise Foley Trump had never supported mass deportation when he had, or that the hapless Katrina Pierson was reduced to arguing on CNN that her boss “hasn’t changed his position on immigration, he’s changed the words that he is saying.”

At this point, incompetence is to be expected from the Trump campaign.

But what makes the inconsistency on immigration really disconcerting is what it’s revealing about Trump himself.

The key moment of the Sean Hannity town hall — and of Trump’s whole “immigration week” — wasn’t anything Trump said. It was the moment when he literally polled the audience of Trump supporters, to see how they felt about deporting people who had been in the US a long time and hadn’t committed crimes.

This is something Trump does when he’s wrestling with something. During his search for a vice presidential nominee, he asked rally attendees for input, shouting “Who do you like?” and cupping his ear to hear their responses. He was doing the same with donors: According to the New York Times, Trump spent two major fundraising events wasting “valuable hours with potential contributors by asking them to go around the room, one by one, giving him their thoughts on whom he should pick as his running mate.”

Trump’s persona is that he’s gleefully politically incorrect: He speaks the truth and doesn’t care who he pisses off. In reality, he has a disconcerting tendency to agree with whoever he’s talking to: whether that’s Sean Hannity, or a crowd of Trump supporters, or the members of his Hispanic advisory group.

Or even a group of young unauthorized immigrants who met with Trump in 2013, asking him to support the DREAM Act. “You’ve convinced me,” Trump reportedly told them.

“We left there feeling so excited,” Gaby Pacheco, who led the group, told Sarlin this week. “I feel like such a fool.”

Pacheco wasn’t the only person to suffer from Trump’s tendency to be persuaded by whoever he last spoke with — just one of the earliest.

Trump talks this week like someone who has just started thinking about immigration, and is beginning to wrestle with the tension between “enforcing the law” and keeping families in communities where they’ve put down roots.

But he talked to Pacheco and company three years ago. He’s talked to Sen. Jeff Sessions, on the other side of the issue, routinely over the last year. He took a trip to the border; he’s met repeatedly with border patrol agents and gone on their podcast.

Jeff Sessions Donald Trump
Trump is buddy-buddy with Sessions, but has he actually learned anything from him?
(Mark Wallheiser/Getty)

None of it seems to stick.

Earlier this week, Trump said he’d “never heard of” detention centers for immigrants, and promised he wouldn’t detain them. That’s how immigrants get deported — they get detained first, then loaded onto planes. If Trump doesn’t understand that, he not only hasn’t read his own immigration white paper — he doesn’t understand the logistical basics of how the government gets an unauthorized immigrant out of the US.

It’s not just that Trump is suddenly inconsistent on the one issue where he’d practiced the virtue of consistency. It’s that he wipes the slate clean with facts, too. It’s not clear that Trump knows anything more about immigration policy than he did three years ago. That’s not a good trait to have in a would-be president — especially an “outsider” whose supporters promise will make up for his inexperience by being a quick study.

Trump might soften his policies without softening his tone

It’s likely that however people react to the ideas Trump is floating during this erstwhile “immigration week” will affect whatever policy the campaign ends up putting out in the next two weeks or so.

The biggest unknown, at this point, is how his supporters feel.

Some of Trump’s most gung-ho supporters are all but throwing themselves off ledges at the mere hint that Trump might be softening on deportations. Plenty of “alt-right” Twitter users expressed their horror at Trump for “cucking out” on his core issue.

But Trump’s core base of support isn’t the people on the internet: It’s older, and more rural, and less likely to be on 4chan making Nazi frog memes.

Some reporters, doing man-on-the-street interviews at Trump rallies this week, have found that attendees aren’t concerned about a shift on immigration: They think that Trump never really meant to deport all 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US anyway, or that he was just stating a negotiating position. They trust he’s going to come up with the right thing to do.

Even Ann Coulter, who picked the wrong week to release a book called “In Trump We Trust,” had worked through the stages of grief enough to accept that (as she told the Washington Examiner Thursday) “maybe it is in our interest to let some of them stay.”

ann coulter with book
“Ehhh … cómo se dice ‘Never mind’?”
Aaron Davidson/Getty

Maybe they’re simply caving to Trump’s cult of personality, destroying any meaning to Trump’s campaign beyond the man himself. But it’s also true that, while the Trump campaign’s lost its footing on immigration, its rallies and ads are still full of red-meat attacks on immigrants and immigration.

Right after taping the town hall with Hannity, Trump gave a rally in Austin where he was joined by border patrol guards talking about how dangerously insecure the Obama administration had left America. The next night, he spoke in Jackson about how politicians who pushed for “amnesty” were too cowardly to meet with the relatives of people killed by unauthorized immigrants.

My colleague Zack Beauchamp pointed out earlier this week that, whose executive editor Steve Bannon is now Trump’s campaign chair, represents an attitude toward conservatism that isn’t about policy, but about culture war. The mission of founder Andrew Breitbart (Beauchamp says) was “to fight back, to liberate culture from leftist political correctness.”

Bannon’s site routinely features stories of unauthorized immigrants who’ve committed crimes; the message that unauthorized immigrants are “bad people” is more important than any policy proposal they could come up with. And now, Bannon’s candidate is doing the same.

Maybe Trump’s core supporters will abandon him if he actually makes the pivot to supporting legalization. (Maybe he won’t end up supporting legalization, precisely because he knows he’d lose some of his biggest fans.) But it’s possible, maybe, that Donald Trump’s much-vaunted “softening” won’t really be a softening at all: that he’ll find a way to square support for legalizing unauthorized immigrants at the policy level, with the full-throated culture war against “bad” immigrants that led many Americans to feel like he understood them to begin with.

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