Over the weekend, some of Donald Trump’s top staffers and advisers made some comments that suggested the Republican was hedging on his hardline immigration views. It quickly became clear that the candidate himself would have to address the issue and clarify where he stands.
And in theory, that’d be helpful, but in practice, the GOP nominee spoke at some length to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly last night, and his on-air comments seemed to raise as many questions as they answered.
The host asked at the outset, for example, “Are you really rethinking your mass deportation strategy?” Trump replied, somewhat cryptically, “I just want to follow the law.” He then changed the subject.
The host pressed further, and according to the Nexis transcript, here’s Trump explaining his current position:
“We are going to obey the existing laws. Now the existing laws are very strong. The existing laws, the first thing we are going to do if and when I win, is we are going to get rid of all of the bad ones. We have got gang members, we have killers. We have a lot of bad people that have to get out of this country.“We are going to get them out. And the police know who they are. They are known by law enforcement who they are. We don’t do anything. They go around killing people and hurting people. And they are going to be out of this country so fast your head will spin. We have existing laws that will allow to you do that as far as everybody else, we are going to go through the process. What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country. Bush the same thing. Lots of people were brought out of the country with the existing laws. Well, I’m going to do the same thing and I just said that.”
I’ve seen quite a bit of analysis of this, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. Trump seemed to suggest he’d prioritize enforcement against undocumented immigrants who commit violent felonies, but if so, that’d put him in line with President Obama’s position.
Indeed, note that while Trump said “we don’t do anything” about deporting dangerous people, the Republican added moments later that President Obama has already deported a “tremendous” number of felons.
As for “the process” other undocumented immigrants would have to “go through,” Trump hasn’t explained in detail exactly what that process might look like.
O’Reilly told Trump his plan – at least his plan as it used to exist – would require rounding up millions of immigrants and “putting them in a detention center so that their illegal alien status can be adjudicated.” Trump balked, saying detention centers wouldn’t be necessary, adding, “I’ve never even heard the term. I’m not going to put them in a detention center.”
But according to Trump’s campaign website, those who cross border illegally “must be detained until they are sent home, no more catch-and-release.”
O’Reilly also reminded Trump that he’s touted Dwight Eisenhower’s deportation program in 1952 as a model worthy of emulation. The Republican candidate, perhaps unaware of what’s he’s said in the recent past, responded, “I said that it’s something that has been done at a very strong manner. I don’t agree with that. I’m not talking about detention centers…. We are going to get rid of the bad ones. The bad ones are going to be out of here fast.”
Trump added that for undocumented immigrants who aren’t “the bad ones,” they’ll “go through the process like they are now perhaps with a lot more energy.”
Your guess is as good as mine as to what that means.
There’s an overarching problem that bears repeating: Donald J. Trump doesn’t care about public policy. That’s not intended as a snarky insult, but rather, an observation about why exercises like these are so difficult: the Republican candidate was riffing during a television interview about substantive details to which he’s given very little thought.
Many of us are trying to unpack his comments and get some sense of where the GOP nominee stands on one of his signature issues, but even Trump doesn’t seem to know what he thinks. What he said last night may have no meaningful connection to what he says today, which may be entirely different from what he says tomorrow. It adds an added layer of difficulty to the analysis.
So where does that leave us? Given the available evidence, I suppose it’s safe to say Trump’s position is in flux.