Sean Hannity, the Fox News host who frequently helps Republicans dig out of controversies with friendly interviews, paid that favor to Donald Trump Monday night. While Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was telling his final pre-Super Tuesday audience that the New York Times was holding a tape of Trump possibly flip-flopping on his immigration stance, Hannity prodded Trump to explain himself.
"The New York Times is claiming today that they had an off-the-record conversation with you in January," he said on his Fox News show. "Off the record, by the way. Now they're leaking it."
"Yeah, of course they're leaking it," said Trump. "The most dishonest media group. And it's also failing. I call it the failing New York Times. It's doing so badly, it's dying. But I did. We had a board meeting. It was off the record. All of a sudden, they leak it. It's all over the place."
"They said you said it's negotiable on the wall," said Hannity.
Trump did not miss a step. "It's negotiable," he said. "Things are negotiable. I'll be honest with you -- I'll make the wall two feet shorter, or something. I mean, everything's negotiable."
"It's not negotiable to build it?" asked Hannity.
"No!" said Trump. "Building it? Not negotiable."
"Would it be negotiable about the 11 million?" asked Hannity, referring to the frequently cited estimate of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. "Maybe let some people stay if they register in a period of time?"
"I would say this," said Trump. "I've always said, look, we have some great people over here. And they're going to go out, but we're going to work out a system that's fair."
By fielding the question from Hannity, Trump got to answer the "secret tape" question with no real follow-ups. Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) used news conferences and televised speeches today to raise the pressure on Trump, directing voters to a story by BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith that asked whether the Times was sitting on audio of Trump contradicting his promise to build a border wall and deport everyone living illegally in the United States. Mitt Romney, the unsuccessful 2012 Republican nominee who has remained neutral in this primary season, added to the 11th-hour frenzy by asking if the tape contained a "bombshell."
If Trump's supporters were nervous, they failed to show it on social media. Late this afternoon, many pointed to Washington Examiner reporter Byron York's January interview with Trump, in which the Republican front-runner freely admitted that he was taking a hard line on immigration before any negotiations with Congress or Mexico could begin. In Smith's story, a line from Times columnist Gail Collins -- "you obviously can’t explain how you’re going to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, because it’s going to be the first bid in some future monster negotiation session" -- was read as evidence that Trump had revealed something "about the flexibility of his hardline anti-immigration stance."
"He has addressed the 'opening position' question in a non-secret interview," wrote York, "in a way that would not disappoint followers who want to see him take a tough position on illegal immigration."