Just hours after reviving his harsh rhetoric on immigration, Donald Trump on Thursday morning insisted that there is actually “quite a bit of softening” in how he’s approaching his signature campaign issue.
The Republican nominee’s latest comment — to conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham, no less — makes it even harder to pin down just where Trump is landing on the hot-button issue, and amplifies the pick-what-you-want-to-hear nature of his talk on immigration.
“You’re going to be asked this, so I might as well ask it,” Ingraham said to Trump during a radio interview. “The line last week [was] you were softening on immigration, then you come out with a very specific, very pro-enforcement plan last night. Where’s the softening?”
Passing on the chance to disavow the prior “softening” narrative, Trump insisted instead, “Oh, there’s softening. Look, we do it in a very humane way, and we’re going to see with the people that are in the country. Obviously I want to get the gang members out, the drug peddlers out, I want to get the drug dealers out. We’ve got a lot of people in this country that you can’t have, and those people we’ll get out.”
“And then we’re going to make a decision at a later date once everything is stabilized,” Trump continued. “I think you’re going to see there’s really quite a bit of softening.”
The comments came after Trump consoled grieving immigration hard-liners worried Trump was flirting with amnesty for undocumented immigrants, as he delivered a fiery speech that could have been ripped from his early campaign days.
Speaking from Phoenix after having visited with the Mexican president, Trump railed for nearly 90 minutes about how undocumented immigrants are hurting America. He promised to build his border wall, make Mexico pay for it, and to empower a massive new “deportation task force” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to round up undocumented immigrants.
“People will know that you can’t just smuggle in, hunker down, and wait to be legalized. Those days are over,” Trump declared.
“Wow. This doesn’t sound like ‘softening.’ GO, TRUMP!!!” tweeted conservative commentator Ann Coulter on Wednesday night.
“I think it’s arguably the best day of his campaign,” said Brent Bozell, a prominent conservative.
Trump’s hard-edged speech also managed to alienate several of his Hispanic supporters, who quickly distanced themselves from the Republican nominee.
“I was a strong supporter of Donald Trump when I believed he was going to address the immigration problem realistically and compassionately,” said Jacob Monty, a member of Trump’s National Hispanic Advisory Council who has aggressively made the Latino case for Trump. “What I heard today was not realistic and not compassionate.”
But embedded in Trump’s speech, underneath all the bluster, was still some of the talk that days before had generated a flood of headlines that Trump was easing up on his severe immigration policies.
While Trump had previously threatened to use a deportation force to round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants, the billionaire on Wednesday night emphasized that his new deportation task force would focus on deporting criminals — an approach very similar to President Barack Obama’s.
“Our enforcement priorities will include removing criminals, gang members, security threats, visa overstays, public charges,” Trump said.
And he said that “anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” but he did not say that all undocumented immigrants would have to live in fear of having their door knocked on by his triple-strength ICE deportation team.
While much of Trump’s talk on immigration has been difficult to parse, some of the elements of Wednesday night’s speech sounded similar to his comments to Fox News’ Sean Hannity and CNN’s Anderson Cooper that landed him in hot water with conservatives last week.
“It’s a process. You can’t take 11 [million] at one time and just say ‘boom, you’re gone,'” Trump told Cooper last Thursday, as he defended his latest immigration comments. “I don’t think it’s a softening. I’ve had people say it’s a hardening, actually.”
Trump on Ingraham Thursday morning again paired his talk to being “very humane” with tougher talk of securing the border — throwing meat to conservatives and independents alike.
Trump added that he feels “strongly that we have to stabilize the border, we have to absolutely stabilize the border and we have to have a strong border, otherwise we don’t have a country.”
Later in the show, a caller tried to explain what Trump meant by those remarks, as conservatives continue to try to bend Trump’s comments to their liking.
“I don’t want people to freak out about that. He’s just talking about there’s not gonna be those Bill Clinton and Elian Gonzalez kid from Cuba-type stories going around, going into houses with machine guns and stuff,” a man from Florida said.
Ingraham concurred, adding her own interpretation in the process.
“Yeah, I think what he’s saying is the previous record of open border isn’t gonna exist, and you know, we’re not gonna be running around with vans, throwing people into vans, unless they’re hardened criminals,” she said. “And if you’re arrested for a crime, you can’t stay in the country. But the idea that you’re gonna just run around with vans and throw fruit-pickers into the back of the vans, that’s not gonna happen. So I think that’s what he was talking about.”