Donald Trump’s positions on most issues have been somewhat fluid, except for immigration. On that subject he was clear, vocal and, until just recently, consistent. During the primaries he stuck to a simple, hard line on immigration. Trump was going to create a deportation force to ferret out the eleven million undocumented workers in America and send them packing. He would also build a wall along the border to keep any more illegal immigrants out.
Trump’s immigration position resonated with a large fraction of Republican primary voters tired of the wonky pronouncements and lack of meaningful progress from the party establishment. There is general agreement among political pundits that immigration was the issue that got Trump the nomination. If he were going to stay clear and consistent on just one platform point, you’d think that would be the one. And you’d be wrong.
Taking a Mulligan
After a series of high-profile leadership changes, Trump, an avid golfer, was supposed to take a Mulligan on his campaign, bring in new staff and re-invigorate his base. The plan included spending a week talking about immigration. The audience would include his own Hispanic focus group, a friendly town hall style visual with supporter Sean Hannity in front of a friendly Fox News audience, wrapping it all up with an immigration speech later that week. It was a good plan but went off the rails almost immediately when an off-the-record meeting with representatives of the Hispanic community didn’t stay off the record and some went public suggesting that Trump had expressed support for letting some workers settled here illegally stay in the country if they paid back taxes.
Roiling the Base
At nearly every turn the communications coming from the campaign and the candidate delivered messages seemingly contradictory to previous positions. Trump appeared to be on the verge of one of the greatest flip-flops in political history. If that wasn’t bad enough, there were also new questions about how Trump’s wife Melania managed to work as a model while in the U.S. on a tourist visa, which is not allowed—and how she qualified for a green card.
The major speech on immigration ended up getting canceled and the campaign sent out a series of conflicting messages that infuriated both Hispanic leaders and Trump's own supporters. Instead of clarifying his position and solidifying his base, the campaign suddenly had to start explaining, never a good development in politics.
Even his most staunch supporters felt a little betrayed about what they sensed was a softening of his signature issue, leading one campaign spokesperson to insist that Mr. Trump wasn’t changing his position, only "his words." Even his strongest supporters, like Ann Coulter, came out firing at the change in tone. Other conservatives piled on including Rush Limbaugh, Ed Rollins and Mark Levin.
Let Me Explain
Paradoxically, the one thing Trump has going for him in this recent immigration controversy is the lack of clarity. It’s likely he’ll be able to calm the troubled base though it’s not as clear if some edge of doubt will remain with the faithful. What’s more certain is that it couldn’t have come at a worse time or on a worse subject for the Trump campaign.