One thing is certain in the current brouhaha over Donald Trump's immigration proposals: the candidate and his top aides are making a mess of things. What is the status of his old proposal to deport all immigrants who are in the United States illegally? After days of Trump and his senior advisers talking about it, the answer is entirely unclear.
The fundamental problem vexing Team Trump is that the deportation proposal was never really clear. Yes, Trump said it often last year, but he also pointedly left it out of many immigration discussions, as well. It went largely unnoticed, for example, that when Trump posted an immigration position paper on his campaign website last year, it had a lot about a border wall and enhanced enforcement — and nothing at all about mass deportations.
Many of the statements from Trump being played in current coverage of the deportation issue date from November 2015. This year — not so much.
Trump has held many, many rallies in which he talked about building the wall — he's talked about it so much that it is now a call-and-response with some audiences. But at the same events he said nothing about deportations.
Back in January, not long before the Iowa caucuses, I interviewed Trump and asked whether the deportation proposal was some sort of bargaining chip, rather than a set policy. This is our exchange:
QUESTION: I read Art of the Deal. And one of the things you write about is you have to be bold, you have to make a splash, you have to attract attention. You've also talked about compromise. There was a time you said there's nothing wrong with compromise — you just ask for about three times what you want, and then you get what you want. So I look at deporting all illegal immigrants. I look at a temporary ban of Muslims coming to the United States. They get a lot of attention. Are they opening positions in a negotiation?
TRUMP: I'm not saying there can't be some give and take, but at some point we have to look at these things. You look at the radical Islamic terrorism and you look at what's going on, we have to take a serious look. There's tremendous hatred. You look at illegal immigration and all that's taking place with respect to illegal immigration, whether it's the crime or the economy, I mean, it affects many different elements. It doesn't mean I'm hard and fast 100 percent, but we to get a lot of what I'm asking for, or we're not going to have a country any more.
QUESTION: So they are opening positions?
TRUMP: They are very strong positions. It doesn't mean you're not going to negotiate a little bit, but I guess there will always be some negotiation. But they are very strong positions, and I would adhere to those positions very strongly. That doesn't mean that at some point we won't talk a little bit about some negotiation. Who wouldn't do that?
What did that mean, precisely? Trump deliberately left that unclear, but he wanted to stress that whatever he did would be strong. And strength was the subject a couple of months earlier, in November 2015, when I first wrote about the possibility of a Trump compromise on deportations:
Perhaps deporting all illegal immigrants is the political version of asking for about three times more than you want.
Trump has repeated his deportation vow many times. But few have noted that when Trump rolled out his written immigration plan, posted on his campaign website, there was nothing about mass deportation. In addition to Trump's famous "beautiful wall," the plan had a lot of mainstream conservative proposals about securing the border and tightening interior enforcement.
The effect of Trump's deportation proposal was to pull the Republican immigration debate toward immigration and further right — that is, where Trump wanted it to go. When Trump made an actual written proposal, even an abbreviated campaign-style proposal, it was more measured.
Asking for about three times more than he wants helps Trump keep up his image with supporters. Perhaps the biggest part of Trump's appeal to those supporters is that they see him as strong, and other candidates as weak. Trump has to keep sounding strong to keep their support — even if the things he says scandalize others.
The strategy — making strength on immigration Trump's signature issue — worked fantastically well in Trump's march through the Republican primaries. But the general election campaign is different, and Trump has finally found himself under pressure to clarify his position. And in the last 72 hours Trump has lost control of the issue.
His new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has said Trump's position on deportations is to be determined. Trump himself has said things that appear to be hardline and things that appear much softer. The problem will not be resolved until Trump lays out, in some systematic way, where he stands on the question and explains in turn where that position fits into his larger immigration policy.
Trump's deportation mess is troubling to some of the best-informed conservatives on the immigration issue because it creates a huge and damaging controversy over a matter that is not at the heart of solving the larger immigration problem. "The disposition of the 12 million illegals already here is not the core dilemma we face," writes Mark Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter limits on immigration. "The core dilemma is how to make sure we don't end up with another 12 million illegal aliens."
What Trump does could have a serious effect on his campaign. Perhaps a new, more moderate position might attract some undecided voters. But a retreat from the deportation pledge, or at least what many supporters believed Trump's deportation pledge to be, could disillusion some who have supported and worked for Trump's candidacy. There are a significant number of Trump supporters who were drawn to him because of his stand on immigration.
Like Ann Coulter. The conservative author has written a new book, In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!, and in an appearance on MSNBC Tuesday said she hoped Trump is not, in fact, backing away from his positions on immigration.
Still, Trump's recent statements "sound very consultant to me," Coulter said. "I think this is a mistake." And she added: "This could be the shortest book tour ever if he's really softening his position on immigration."