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Is Trump Flip-Flopping On Immigration? Yes Or No, It's Sure Been Confusing

Donald Trump speaks during the Joni Ernst Roast and Ride event on Aug. 27 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Stephen Maturen
Getty Images
Donald Trump speaks during the Joni Ernst Roast and Ride event on Aug. 27 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Donald Trump will give a speech Wednesday outlining his immigration stance. Given the last week of news coverage, he could have some serious explaining to do.

An immigration policy centered around extreme positions — mass deportation of 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, plus building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — initially helped Trump stand out in the massive Republican primary field.

So it was a surprise when, last week, the Trump campaign seemed to change direction, indicating that he was open to "softening" his immigration position, and even at one point that he might be open to a path to legalization for some of those immigrants. Here's a quick rundown of some of the things the campaign has said about immigration in the past week.

Aug. 20 — Members of Donald Trump's Hispanic advisory council said Trump was open to relaxing his immigration stance, Buzzfeed reports. Trump said his solution for how to deal with 11 million people in the country illegally "must be something that respects border security but deals with this in a humane and efficient manner," according to immigration attorney Jacob Monty, who attended the meeting. The Trump campaign later released a statement dismissing the Buzzfeed report, saying that Trump's position had not changed.

Aug. 21 — CNN's Dana Bash asks Trump Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway about Trump's November promise to create a deportation force. Conway first demurs, then says it's still "to be determined."

Meanwhile, members of Trump's Hispanic advisory council do not verify to NBC News that Trump would advocate a legalization plan. Immigration lawyer Monty says he is hoping for specific policies like a guest-worker program and a "touchback" system, in which immigrants in the U.S. illegally would go back to their home countries and then come back through the visa process. (Another version of "touchbacks" is for immigrants to not go back to a home country but to go to a consulate or embassy of that country to apply.)

Aug. 22 — Trump postpones a planned immigration speech in Colorado. In an email explaining the postponement, the Trump campaign says the speech "is still being modified," according to the Denver Post.

Trump tells Fox & Friends that he's not reversing his position. "No, I'm not flip-flopping," he said. "We want to come up with a really fair, but firm, answer. That's — it has to be very firm. But we want to come up with something fair."

Aug. 23 — In a town hall with Fox's Sean Hannity, Trump says "there could certainly be a softening" in his stance on immigration, adding that "the bad ones" need to be kicked out of the U.S. Meanwhile, he says there could be some leniency for law-abiding immigrants, intimating he would be open to legalization but not full citizenship.

"No citizenship," he said, adding, "Let me go a step further — they'll pay back taxes; they have to pay taxes; there's no amnesty, as such, there's no amnesty, but we work with them."

Conway tells CNN that Trump's "softening" response in the Hannity town hall is "very consonant with what [Trump] said all along." She adds that Trump "wants to find a fair and humane way and effective way to address the fact that roughly 11 million illegal immigrants live among us."

Wednesday — When a West Palm Beach, Fla., CBS affiliate asks Trump about his shifting immigration policy, he insists that he still has a tough stance, but is vague on exactly what that stance is. "Well, I'm going to announce something over the next two weeks," he said, "but it's going to be a very firm policy." According to CBS, he later adds, "We're going to build a wall, it's got to be a very powerful wall. But we want people to come into our country, but we want them to come in legally, but we're going to be very, very strong on immigration."

Thursday — Trump tells CNN's Anderson Cooper that he is actually not open to a pathway to legalization. "There's no path to legalization unless they leave the country," he said. "When they come back in, then they can start paying taxes, but there is no path to legalization unless they leave the country and then come back."

Campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson tells CNN that it's only Trump's rhetoric — not policy — that has changed. "He hasn't changed his position on immigration," she contended. "He's changed the words that he is saying."

Saturday — In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, Trump calls immigration a "civil rights issue" and emphasizes his plans to remove some — but not all — people who are in the country illegally. "On Day One," he said, "I am going to begin swiftly removing criminal illegal immigrants from this country, including removing the hundreds of thousands of criminal illegal immigrants that have been released into U.S. communities under the Obama-Clinton administration."

Sunday — Conway tells CBS' John Dickerson that Trump's position hasn't changed, this time saying that Trump "is not talking about a deportation force."

Trump's vice presidential pick Mike Pence tells CNN's Jake Tapper: "There will be no path to legalization, no path to citizenship, unless people leave the country."

Trump also tweets that he will give a major immigration speech in Arizona on Wednesday.

Monday — New reports of policy specifics bounce around the media. Though Trump's calls for a wall remained steady throughout this period, NBC's Hallie Jackson reported that Trump may now be calling for a "virtual wall," as MSNBC's Ari Melber tweets:

CNN's Jim Acosta also tweets that a Trump adviser told him that Trump now wants to "Secure border first. Then have conversation on what to do with undocumented 'years from now.' "

However, Trump spokesman Jason Miller tells NPR that the "virtual wall" report is false — "There's going to be a physical wall" — and that Acosta's report is also "erroneous."

One main message from the campaign: This isn't a change

These interviews, speeches and tweets don't at all make it clear what Trump's Wednesday speech will say. For now, at least two uniform messages are clear: (1) that Trump wants to be "fair" and "humane" in however he eventually deals with the 11 million people in the country illegally, and (2) that his immigration policy has not changed.

Should he eventually back away from a deportation force and push a path to legalization, as his campaign at times in the past two weeks has suggested he could do, it would be a seismic shift for a candidate who has made immigration a linchpin of his campaign. Trump has flip-flopped on a number of issues (abortion, H1-B visas, Syrian refugees), but this would be a particularly massive change.

The label "flip-flopper" is a particularly sharp barb that can inflict irreparable damage on a campaign — just ask 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry. However, flip-flops aren't uniformly harmful, as NPR's Mara Liasson wrote in 2008. Occasionally, a flip-flop can even be a positive — if not, ever-calculating politicians wouldn't commit this political sin so often.

Liasson pointed to William Safire's New Political Dictionary, which acknowledges the potential upside of a flip-flop:

"Although the term is always pejorative and brings an irate denial, a refusal to flip-flop in the light of changing circumstances can be a sign of rigidity; a willingness to flip-flop is expressed by supporters as evidence of flexibility."

Should Trump overhaul his immigration policy, it would show he's willing to gamble that that flexibility will draw in some Hispanics (and perhaps moderate Republicans) without scaring off his most loyal supporters.

Some Trump voters don't even expect firm policies

Many Trump supporters would seem to be fans of at least some rigidity (see: ever-present chants of "build the wall"). However, others say they not only want Trump to be flexible on his policies, but believe he already is quite flexible.

"[N]ot everything Trump says is true — I mean, it's not true like it's in concrete," Nevada voter Judy Callahan told NPR's Sarah McCammon recently. "He said he would stop the border flow, he would build some kind of wall, and he would work on the people that are here. That's all there is; the rest of it's kind of fluff."

Others said they assume his policy positions are merely starting points for a negotiation. This has been a popular theme among his voters, reported by other outlets, as well.

Trump seems to bank on some voters being OK with fuzzy positions; as he toldTime, "My voters don't care, and the public doesn't care" about specific policy proposals. He may not want to be saddled with the flip-flopper label, but he has indicated that he's happy to shift his positions. And as he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on his shifting economic policy proposals, "Sure, it's a change. I'm allowed to change. You need flexibility, George, whether it's a tax plan, where you're going — where you know you're going to negotiate."

Trump has many, many flip-flops to his name, but he isn't alone in shifting positions; Hillary Clinton has famously pulled a U-turn on the Asia trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. She moved from supporting it years ago to saying she doesn't support it in its current form. Many perceived that as a reaction to Bernie Sanders' successful populist campaign. Making matters worse for Clinton, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (a longtime Clinton associate) suggested that she might change her position again (though he later clarified that he doesn't expect her position to change).

Should that happen, Clinton's supporters likewise might not punish her — 55 percent of Clinton supporters say the deal would be a "good thing" for the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center, compared with only 24 percent who say it would be a "bad thing."

All of which is to say that Safire's "changing circumstances" certainly seem capable of changing even a candidate's most significant policy positions. And given the overhaul of Trump's campaign leadership amid a persistent polling deficit, the Trump campaign has had plenty of "changing circumstances" this summer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.