Donald Trump tried almost every strategy possible over the past two weeks to spin his deportation positions. He said he was “softening” and then “hardening” and then “softening again.” He offered subdued remarks in Mexico, then read a fiery speech off a teleprompter in Phoenix, then gave winding, inconsistent comments to the press. He was cordial with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, then reportedly modified a speech just to jab back at him for a tweet he disliked.
The entire period was a dramatic encapsulation of the Trump campaign, which has been characterized by erratic statements, a lack of political clarity and a candidate who resists being controlled or pinned down.
Trump’s immigration policies have been particularly opaque. For more than a year, he’s managed to talk a lot about the issue ― but say very little. This behavior allows others to fill in the blanks, sometimes further obscuring Trump’s position. Or, Trump replies to others’ interpretations by backtracking and pushing a different idea.
That’s how for two weeks, Trump duped everyone into thinking his mass deportation goal may have changed.
In reality, the spin by Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson ended up being the most concise explanation. “There’s not a different message,” she said last month on CNN. “He’s using different words to give that message.”
Translation: He’s not changing his plan, and he still wants to expel as many undocumented immigrants as possible ― whether it’s by deporting them or by making their lives so difficult that they leave on their own.
Trump wants to ramp up deportation of criminals, but also seek out people who overstayed their visas or are otherwise deemed high-priority ― potentially as many as 6.5 million people out of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to the Washington Post. Anyone remaining would be at constant risk of deportation and without any way to gain legal status unless they left the country, without any guarantee they could return.
So how did Trump actually convince some people he’d changed over the last two weeks? The speculation that Trump was about to flip started when members of his Hispanic Advisory Council told Buzzfeed that they had gotten the impression in a private meeting that the candidate might be more open to legal status for undocumented immigrants than previously believed.
The Trump campaign denied it, but the candidate and his top officials allowed the speculation to continue, and at times encouraged it. Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway said Trump’s stance on the deportation force he once supported was “to be determined.”
Trump himself launched more speculation by repeatedly going on TV and hinting at a less severe enforcement approach for undocumented immigrants.
“There certainly can be a softening, because we’re not looking to hurt people,” Trump said on Fox News. Even when he told CNN later that any changes could be considered a “a hardening” of his position, he also said the country “can’t take 11 [million] at one time and just say ‘boom, you’re gone.’”
When he met with Peña Nieto on Wednesday and spoke with him politely, it seemed, again, like Trump was changing.
Then, the whole illusion fell apart. Peña Nieto said he told Trump that Mexico would never pay for a border wall, and Trump hit back by saying again in a Wednesday evening speech that the country would pay.
Trump was also clearer than ever about his deportation stance, saying there would be no legal status for undocumented immigrants unless they left the country first and that “no one will be immune or exempt from enforcement.”
The speech led to several of Trump’s Hispanic advisers dropping their support.
No one will be immune or exempt from enforcement.
Still, the speculation continued Thursday, when Trump said “there’s really quite a bit of softening.”
“We’ve got a lot of people in this country that you can’t have, and those people we’ll get out,” Trump said on the Laura Ingraham radio show. “And then we’re going to make a decision at a later date once everything is stabilized. I think you’re going to see there’s really quite a bit of softening.”
The spin is working on some people ― MSNBC “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough repeatedly said on Friday that Trump’s current immigration policy is the same as President Barack Obama’s or maybe even softer.
This isn’t true. Trump is still advocating his same deportation plans to expel millions. His vague statements about doing something for undocumented immigrants “at a later date” don’t mean much of anything ― he hasn’t even said when he would consider the situation “stabilized” or whether he’d actually support legal status at that point.
This is likely how Trump will continue to play until Election Day, including in an immigration speech reportedly planned for the upcoming week. Trump will keep making statements that people can interpret as pivoting away from deportations, and people will.
But it’s probably best to remember what Pierson said: He’s changing his words, not his message.