Eyeing softer immigration rhetoric, Donald Trump is risking the politically charged accusation that he supports amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The Republican nominee on Tuesday signaled plans to embrace legal status for non-criminal illegal immigrants. It would be a reversal from Trump's position of nearly a year, that as president he would forcibly round up and deport all of the 11-12 million mostly Hispanic illegal immigrants living in the U.S.
The shift comes as Trump finds himself trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton, and is a bid to close the gap by increasing his support among moderate white voters who are turned off by his contentious relationship with Hispanics and other minorities.
But the move is fraught with peril, and could cost Trump enthusiasm on the right, without delivering the payoff he's looking for in the center.
"Opponents of immigration reform refer to any process that provides legal status to illegal immigrants here illegally as 'amnesty,'" Republican operative Michael Steel told the Washington Examiner. "It's extremely debatable whether that's a fair use of the term, but it's politically powerful."
Steel would know.
Over the years, he was tasked with explaining the merits of comprehensive immigration reform, and defending against blanket charges of "amnesty," while working for House Speaker John Boehner, who has since retired. Steel reprised that role in the 2016 GOP primary for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Who was among Bush's most vocal antagonists on the immigration issue? Trump. The New York businessman also attacked Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida for supporting amnesty, even though, at least in Cruz's case, he supported the concept of providing legal status to some illegal immigrants but stopped short of backing citizenship.
Now, faced with the prospect of losing the White House in part due to garnering record-low numbers with minority voters, Trump could be backing down.
"There certainly can be a softening because we're not looking to hurt people," Trump said in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. "We want people — we have some great people in this country."
Trump appeared to make the case for legalization using the same argument used by its proponents on the right and the left. As he also told Hannity: "So you have someone whose been in the country for 20 years, has done a great job and everything else and okay. Do we take him and the family, and her and him or whatever, and send him out?"
Trump has yet to settle on a new policy — if he actually does so. He could discuss immigration policy on Aug. 31 during a speech in Arizona. Democrats claim Trump is bluffing to gin up minority votes, without delivering. But even if it is just a feint, it could make immigration hawks in his base nervous.
Trump's primary victory was built on his reputation as a straight-talking outsider who wouldn't flip-flop on issues like a typical politician. Immigration became his signature issue. Trump vowed to enforce immigration laws — period.
The New York businessman said he would halt illegal immigration by building a physical wall the length of the Southern border, and force Mexico to pay for it. Trump also proposed ending birthright citizenship, reducing legal immigration and forming a "deportation force" that would expel all illegal immigrants within two years.
Not even Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a revered immigration hawk on the right who ultimately backed Trump and advised him on the subject, had ever gone that far.
The strategy carried general election risks, as has become apparent with the alienation of Hispanic voters that was fueled as well by the coarse rhetoric Trump directed at illegal immigrants.
The issue might not be a top or overriding priority for Republican voters. But it inspires that portion of the party's base that is outspoken and particularly engaged and Trump managed to put some of his toughest competition in the GOP primary on the defensive by taking the uncompromising position.
Trump criticized Bush for backing comprehensive immigration reform and Rubio for his role in negotiating the "gang of eight" bipartisan deal that included a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.
As for Cruz, Republican operative Rick Tyler recalled how Trump's "amnesty" attacks on the GOP 2016 runner-up caused him fits, even though he opposed the "gang of eight" and never endorsed citizenship.
Tyler, Cruz's spokesman for the first 11 months of the campaign, said immigration influenced where the issue ranked on voters' list of concerns. "Each candidate's position on immigration was a central, deciding factor in the campaign," he said.
Amnesty is defined by critics on the right as the granting of citizenship or even simple legal status, to illegal immigrants.
Republicans that prioritize border enforcement and are stridently opposed to amnesty or legalization might forgive Trump should he ultimately reverse himself — as long as he sticks by his pledge to build the wall. His reputation as an immigration hawk could give him the credibility he needs with this crowd to modulate.
But that supposition would disregard just how incendiary and politically damaging charges of "amnesty" have become in Republican politics over the past decade.
In the 2016 primary, Cruz eventually abandoned his support for any form of legalization in an effort to match Trump. Rubio had distanced himself from the "gang of eight" long before the presidential race began, and campaigned on securing the border first and then having a national debate about the merits of legalizing undocumented immigrants.
On Capitol Hill, "amnesty" accusations are akin to a Scarlet Letter, killing multiple attempts at immigration reform over the years and pitting Republicans for and against a comprehensive overhaul against each other.
"Any type of legal status is amnesty because there was an advantage being given to those that break the law that was not available to those that followed the law," said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group in Washington that has worked to maintain enough GOP opposition to legalization to block comprehensive reform.
Still, some predict that Trump won't lose Republican votes over his reversal, if his new policy is constructed properly.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and prominent opponent of "amnesty" called mass deportations of the kind Trump had discussed unrealistic and conceded that legalization would be a part of any solution that fixed the immigration system.
The key, he said, is for security to come first. The main opposition Krikorian had to recent iterations of reform deals that Republican negotiated with Democrats is that amnesty would have come before security, with no guarantee that the security would ever happen.
"The idea we were ever going to deport all 12 million in two years with deportation squads — or whatever [Trump] popped off about — was never a policy. It was an Uncle George spouting off about the latest thing," Krikorian said. "I think a lot of people took that as symbolic talk, a way of showing he's serious on immigration and, 'I'm not Jeb Bush.'"