Republican presidential nominee and former Democrat donor Donald Trump is known to flip-flop on issues from time to time. He’s already waffled on his Muslim ban, strategy to defeat ISIL, taxes, minimum wage, abortion and many, many other points. But on the signature issue of his candidacy—stopping illegal immigration—he’s mostly stuck to his guns. Until now.
In an Aug. 23 interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump unexpectedly softened on his proposal for a “deportation force” to send back 11 million undocumented immigrants—a policy idea he used during the primaries to attack Republican opponents who backed legal paths to citizenship.
During the town hall-style interview taped in Texas, Hannity asked Trump whether he would accommodate immigrants who have been law-abiding and have children in the US. “There could certainly be a softening because we’re not looking to hurt people,” answered Trump, who met with Hispanic leaders last weekend.
There would be no path to citizenship and they would have to back-pay taxes, he added, “but we work with them.” Trump then appealed to the audience to imagine a hypothetical undocumented immigrant who also happens to be “terrific.”
It was a risky move. Trump’s hard line on immigration is central to his vow to restore “law and order.” He has notoriously called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, and in a speech accepting the Republican nomination, framed illegal immigrants as a threat to public safety (pdf). Now, suddenly, he’s publicly acknowledged that some illegal immigrants might also be good people.
Trump has always left himself wiggle room on immigration. Even while whipping up crowds with promises to “stop the inflow of illegals,” he has kept his official position on deportation vague. Last August, when pushed to explain his statement that “they have to go,” he gave the same line he gave Tuesday night: “We’re going to work with them.” So his latest statements might not be a sign of flip-flopping so much as what happens when Trump is forced to firm up previously squishy positions—which is how Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson explains his shift.
“He hasn’t changed his position on immigration,” Pierson told CNN. “He’s changed the words that he is saying.”
Will that subtlety matter to his supporters? Or will his “softening” on immigration simply look weak?
More is likely to be revealed when Trump delivers his immigration speech, which was originally planned for this week. But his rhetoric now sounds pretty close to that of the Republican opponents he mocked back in the primaries, as a former Jeb Bush staffer observed.