The prepared text for the State of the Union included a line about immigration that likely would've been unremarkable -- if Trump hadn't ad-libbed five additional words.
The president was supposed to say, "Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways. I want people to come into our country, but they have to come in legally." But when delivering the remarks, Trump actually said, "I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever...."
It was jarring because Trump was describing the opposite of his own position. For most of his presidency, the Republican has demanded sharp cuts to legal immigration, and has made this a non-negotiable element of any deal. Even when Democrats offered him billions of dollars in wall funding in exchange for DACA protections for Dreamers, Trump balked. Without reductions to legal immigration, he said, there would be no agreement.
And yet there he was on Tuesday night, endorsing -- seemingly by accident -- increased legal immigration, contradicting the specific demands he made to Congress. So what's the president's current position? What he said in his speech or what he said before his speech? Bloomberg Politics reported yesterday:
[O]n Wednesday, Trump said he meant what he said."Yes, because we need people in our country because our unemployment numbers are so low," he said in an interview with regional news organizations after he was asked whether he favors a change in policy to expand legal immigration, according to a reporter for The Advocate of Louisiana.
In theory, this offers a possible breakthrough in the immigration debate. Trump's insistence on drastic cuts to legal immigration have been a sticking point for over a year, and if the president now wants the opposite of what he demanded, it's suddenly easier to imagine real progress on the issue.
But therein lies the rub: no one can say with any confidence what his position will be on his own agenda on any given day.
If Trump was sincere in his ad-lib, and if conservative media doesn't tell him he has to change his mind, and if he's prepared to sell this dramatic reversal to his far-right allies on Capitol Hill, then the president accidentally jolted the debate in a constructive way.
But because Trump has developed a reputation for being a confused leader who routinely says things he doesn't mean, and who's widely recognized as a poor negotiator because of his inconsistencies and willingness to vacillate, no one seems eager to get their hopes up.