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Trump tries changing his immigration rhetoric, but not his policy

Donald Trump's rhetoric on immigration is increasingly confusing -- so ignore it and focus on his actual plan, which hasn't changed.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Austin, Texas, Aug. 23, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Austin, Texas, Aug. 23, 2016.
Over the last week or so, much of the political world's conversation has focused on an issue that seemed quite clear up until very recently: Donald Trump's immigration plan. Recently, words like "softening," "pivoting," and "flip-flopping" have become ubiquitous.
The Republican candidate said this morning that voters shouldn't be "fooled" by the media's coverage, because he continues to support being "very strong on illegal immigration" -- though that didn't clarify matters much, since no one knows what that means, exactly.
In this case, though, the media isn't really the problem. Trump and top members of his leadership team have publicly suggested the campaign's position on immigration is in flux. The GOP candidate muddied the waters further last night, telling a town-hall audience that undocumented immigrants, under his vision, will have to "pay back-taxes, they have to pay taxes, there's no amnesty, as such, there's no amnesty, but we work with them."
At one point, Trump went so far as to seek guidance from his audience in Texas. "You have somebody who is terrific, who has been here ... a long time," he said to the crowd. "A long court proceeding, long everything, okay? In other words, to get them out, can we go through a process or do you think they have to get out? Tell me. I mean, I don't know. You tell me."
Is it any wonder there's some uncertainty surrounding the state of his position? He's gone from trying to lead on the issue to literally polling an assembled audience for guidance.
This is not to say a candidate's rhetoric is irrelevant, it's just that a candidate's policy proposals matter more. And as of this morning, as TPM noted, the Trump campaign insists that the substance of his immigration plan remains unchanged.

Donald Trump's national spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, said on Thursday that her boss hasn't changed his position on immigration -- just "the words he's saying." In a panel discussion on CNN, Pierson said that Trump's nebulous immigration policy hasn't shifted. "He hasn't changed his position on immigration," she said. "He's changed the words that he is saying.... He's using different words to give that message."

This wasn't just an off-hand comment. On the contrary, it's quite elucidating: Trump may be confusing everyone with his inconsistent rhetoric, so let's focus less on what he says and more on what he proposes.
And what Trump has proposed -- a border wall, mass deportations, ending birthright citizenship, etc. -- remains his 2016 platform.
The Republican nominee is obviously aware of the fact that his anti-immigration posturing has alienated much of the American mainstream, putting his candidacy in jeopardy, which has in turn led to a rhetorical shift. But therein lies the rub: the shift, at least for now, is purely rhetorical.
When there's a substantive policy change, the chatter about Trump's "pivot" will be far more salient. In the meantime, the assessment from Trump's spokesperson is worth remembering: the candidate has only "changed the words that he is saying."
His proposed policy may soon "evolve," too, but in the meantime, it's probably best not to take Trump's rhetoric at face value.