NEW YORK – Republican Donald Trump promised on Monday to be “fair, but firm” toward the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally, a shift in tone that raised questions on whether he’s backtracking from previous pledges to push for mass deportations.
The billionaire businessman, whose hard-line approach to immigration and fierce rhetoric propelled him to the GOP presidential nomination, insisted that he’s not “flip-flopping” on the divisive issue as he works to broaden his support two and half months to the general election. Polls show him trailing Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in both national polls and battleground states.
But in a meeting with Hispanic activists on Saturday, Trump indicated that he was open to considering allowing those who have not committed crimes, beyond their immigration offences, to obtain some form of legal status – though attendees made clear Trump has yet to make up his mind.
“The impression I got was that the campaign is working on substantive policy to help the undocumented that are here, including some type of status so they would not be deported,” said Pastor Mario Bramnick, president of the Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition, who was in attendance.
Bramnick said he’d left the meeting “very encouraged” and “hopeful in anticipating the policy and language” Trump’s campaign is expected to release in the coming weeks.
Any walk-back would mark a dramatic reversal for Trump, whose tough stand on immigration has been the driving issue of his campaign. During the GOP primary, Trump vowed to use a “deportation force” to round up and deport the millions of people living in the country illegally – a proposal that excited many of his core supporters, but alienated Hispanic voters who could be pivotal in key states.
Trump said in an interview with “Fox & Friends” on Monday that he was “working with a lot of people in the Hispanic community to try and come up with an answer.”
“We want to come up with a really fair, but firm answer. It has to be very firm. But we want to come up with something fair,” he said.
Asked whether Trump’s plan still included a deportation force, his new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said Sunday it was “to be determined.”
“What Donald Trump says is we need a fair and effective way to deal with the 11 million who are here, who live among us,” Conway said on CNBC on Monday. At the same time, she said, he is committed to “protecting American jobs and American workers and also securing our borders, obviously.”
The discussion comes following a shake-up in Trump’s campaign and as he tries to reverse weeks of decline in polls. His team appears to have realized that he must expand his voting base beyond the Republican voters who powered his primary campaign.
There have been signs for weeks now that Trump was shifting course. Hispanic business and religious leaders who would like to see Trump move in a more inclusive direction, have reported closed-door conversations with Trump in which they say he has signalled possibly embracing a less punitive immigration policy that focuses on “compassion” along with the rule of law.
At last month’s GOP convention, the Republican National Committee’s director of Hispanic communications, Helen Aguirre Ferre, told reporters at a Spanish-language briefing that Trump had already said that he “will not do massive deportations” – despite the fact that Trump had never said so publicly.
Instead, she said, “he will focus on removing the violent undocumented who have criminal records and live in the country.”
Indeed, Trump’s first television ad of the general election specifically singles out illegal immigrants with criminal records, claiming that, if Clinton is elected, “Illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes get to stay.”
But Trump’s campaign has pushed back on the notion that he’s reversing course. “Mr. Trump said nothing today that he hasn’t said many times before, including in his convention speech,” rapid response director Steven Cheung said after the meeting. “There is nothing new to report in regards to his plan,” added spokeswoman Hope Hicks.
Over the last week, Trump has worked to moderate his rougher edges, offering regrets for remarks he’s made that have caused pain and sticking with his teleprompter at a series of events. Yet it remains to be seen whether the provocateur will be able to stay on script.
After weeks of largely avoiding Twitter, Trump was back on Monday, calling MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” “unwatchable!” and one of its female hosts “off the wall, a neurotic and not very bright mess!”
Clinton, meanwhile, is spending the next three days fundraising across California, mingling at a series of events with celebrities, Hollywood moguls and technology titans. She’ll stop by the home of actors Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel in Los Angeles, address donors with NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson in Beverly Hills and join Apple CEO Tim Cook and other business leaders in Silicon Valley.
But Clinton’s email scandal continues to haunt her. In the latest revelations, the State Department said Monday it is reviewing nearly 15,000 previously undisclosed emails. The emails were recovered as part of the FBI’s now-closed investigation into the handling of sensitive information that flowed through Clinton’s private home server during her time as secretary of state.
Lawyers for the department said they anticipate releasing the first batch of these new emails in mid-October, raising the prospect new messages sent or received by Democratic nominee could become public just before Election Day.
Associated Press writers Lisa Lerer in Los Angeles and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.
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