LOS ANGELES (CNN) — Donald Trump’s lack of clarity on his plans for dealing with some 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country has been so head-spinning in recent weeks it’s starting to look deliberate.
Facing headwinds among moderate voters who view his past rhetoric as racist, but trying to assuage his core conservative base, Trump has attempted something of an image makeover during the past two weeks — leaving Democrats and Republicans alike unclear on where actually Trump stands.
Trump, who promises to deliver a major speech Wednesday on the issue, seems to have narrowed the scope of his immigration plans and changed his tone, suggesting that he is rethinking a policy that was the lynchpin of his appeal during the Republican primaries.
“All the media wants to talk about is the 11 million people,” Trump complained this weekend during a speech in Iowa, as though that point was a sidebar to immigration policy. “On day one, I’m going to begin swiftly removing criminal illegal immigrants from this country.”
Trump’s comments at Republican Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” were an illustration of the pivot he is attempting — from his promise during the primaries to deport all undocumented immigrants, to a new narrowed focus on immigrant criminals.
“I promise you from the first day in office — the first thing I am going to do — the first piece of paper, the first piece of paper that I’m going to sign is we’re going to get rid of these people, day one, before the wall, before anything,” Trump said in Iowa.
“The reign of terror will be over,” Trump added, without explaining any of the mechanics of how his policy would work — namely how he would deal with the enormous backlog in the immigration courts and the legal rights of immigrants who have been accused of a crime.
Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, tried to parse the Republican nominee’s shifts as evidence that he is working through the issue during an interview Sunday with Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.” But he couldn’t say what the Republican nominee’s current stance is on a deportation force.
“You see a CEO at work. You see someone who is engaging the American people, listening to the American people, hearing from all sides,” Pence told Tapper, promising that Trump would soon “articulate a policy” on the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.
But there’s no certainty that Trump will provide any more clarity on Wednesday — or that this plan will be the last one he offers. Moreover, the safest course for him politically may be to continue to obfuscate on immigration policy to avoid antagonize either side of the debate.
Trump rose to the top of the GOP field by stoking the nativist anger of his conservative followers with vows to deport all the undocumented workers in this country, and build a wall between the US and Mexico, before allowing some of “the good ones” to return to the US.
Republican rivals scoffed at the sheer unfeasibility of his proposal — leading Trump to cite the model of the 1954 “Operation Wetback” under President Dwight Eisenhower, which rounded up thousands of undocumented immigrants from U.S. fields and ranches, bused them to detention centers, and sent them back to Mexico, first by airlift, and then by cargo boat — a journey that was widely denounced as inhumane.
Trump cited the Eisenhower model during a notable exchange with Ohio Gov. John Kasich during the fourth Republican debate last fall.
“For the 11 million people, come on, folks,” Kasich said to Trump. “We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them across, back across the border.. It’s a silly argument. It is not an adult argument. It makes no sense.”
“Let me just tell you,” Trump retorted, “that Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him…. Moved a 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them just beyond the border.”
“Dwight Eisenhower. You don’t get nicer. You don’t get friendlier,” Trump added. “We have no choice.”
Pivot or no?
Now with less than three months before the election, Trump faces a difficult path to the White House because of his narrow appeal, and his sky-high disapproval ratings among minorities.
Unlike George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and John McCain, his disapproval ratings among minority voter are sky-high. And perhaps his biggest problem is the fact that he continues to underperform among college-educated whites — in part because many of them find his rhetoric offensive.
Looking to please a broader audience, Trump has shifted his focus to immigrant criminals rather than the majority of the 11 million people living in this country without papers. In an interview with CNN last week, his new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said the question of whether he would create a deportation force was “to be determined.”
Trump signaled his shift in thinking to Fox News’ Sean Hannity during a town hall that aired last week by suggesting he might allow some immigrants to stay: “There’s no amnesty, but we would work with them.” He explained that he’s been talking to “thousands and thousands” of people on this subject.
“I’ve had very strong people come up to me, really great, great people come up to me, and they’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person who’s been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump,’ I have it all the time! It’s a very, very hard thing,” he said during the Hannity event.
Facing pushback from figures on the right like former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and right-wing commentator Ann Coulter, Trump then backtracked during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
He said there would be no path to legalization for undocumented immigrants unless they leave the country. But he would not answer a question from Cooper about whether he would still attempt to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.
“It’s a process. You can’t take 11 (million) at one time and just say ‘boom, you’re gone,'” Trump told Cooper.
Once the initial deportations of undocumented workers who are criminals occur, he said, “then we can talk.” Of the 11 million deportations, he said, “there is a very good chance the answer could be yes. We’re going to see what happens.”