The Slatest

Donald Trump Isn’t Flip-Flopping on Deportations. He’s Playing Both Sides.

Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally on Aug. 12 in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Donald Trump on Monday denied a weekend’s worth of speculation that he is considering softening his hard-line support for the mass deportation of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. “No, I’m not flip-flopping,” he told Fox News. In his next breath, however, the GOP nominee made clear that his current plan remains a work in progress. “We want to come up with a really fair but firm answer,” he said. “That’s—it has to be very firm. But we want to come up with something fair.”

Trump’s comments came after BuzzFeed, Univision, and the Washington Post all reported that, during a Saturday meeting with his newly announced Hispanic advisory council, Trump appeared open to allowing some undocumented immigrants to remain in the country legally. Trump’s own team then fanned those flip-flopping flames on Sunday, most notably when his brand new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, told CNN that it was “to be determined” whether Trump still supports using a “deportation force” as part of immigration plan.

On one hand, the frenzy over Trump’s potential reversal is understandable. Trump has made his deportations-and-wall-building immigration plan a centerpiece of his campaign, and the mere suggestion that it might not be set in stone is stunning. Trump is allergic to policy specifics, but on the topic of mass deportations he’s been remarkably clear for the past 12 months:

  • “All criminal aliens must be returned to their home countries,” declared his original policy statement on immigration, which was released last August (and remains live on his website Monday).
  • “They have to go,” Trump said on Meet the Press that same weekend when asked whether he would deport any immigrant in the country illegally.
  • “We’re rounding ‘em up in a very humane way, in a very nice way,” he said the following month on 60 Minutes.
  • “You’re going to have a deportation force, and you’re going to do it humanely,” Trump said on Morning Joe in November.
  • “We have at least 11 million people in this country that came in illegally,” Trump said during a Republican debate in February. “They will go out. They will come back—some will come back, the best, through a process. They have to come back legally.”

So if he were to actually to be shifting his position away from rounding up 11 million people and forcibly removing them from the country, this would be a big deal. But on the other hand, this also appears to be just more of the same vagueness and lack of specificity from Trump. As my colleague Isaac Chotiner put it last week after Trump’s foreign policy speech, the celebrity businessman doesn’t have policy ideas as much as he has moods. “Trump’s policies may loosely cohere into some sort of familiar ideology,” Chotiner wrote, “but his campaign and his ideas all basically exist within his head.” Fortunately for Trump, though, those vague policy notions also exist somewhere else, too: inside the heads of his supporters, who are willing to hear two contradictory statements from their candidate of choice and then simply choose the one they like best and discard the other.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Trump has attempted to use that dynamic to his advantage, either. Consider how he tried to cloud the conversation around his Muslim ban to ease the concerns of those Republicans who thought his original proposal went too far—such as his eventual vice presidential nominee Mike Pence—without fundamentally changing it. What originally was a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” is now a ban on people from “areas of the world where there’s a proven history of terrorism against the United States,” a category that Trump refuses to define, allowing his supporters to draw their own conclusions from his Islamophobic remarks.

Trump knows what he’s doing. As he put it last summer when fielding a question about the lack of policy specifics in his immigration plan: “I don’t think the people care. I think they trust me. I think they know I’m going to make good deals for them.” Even while being frustratingly inconsistent on the specifics, then, Trump has actually been remarkably consistent when it comes to his overarching promises: He isn’t actually making any.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.