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Trump, shifting back, now says no legal status for all 11 million illegal immigrants

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H., on Thursday. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

This post has been updated.

Donald Trump on Thursday appeared to shift back to some version of the hard-line immigration posture he adopted in the GOP primaries, telling CNN that he does not support a path to legal status for illegal immigrants unless they leave the country and return legally.

The comment added a new layer of confusion to the GOP presidential nominee's position on one of his signature issues. This week, Trump and his aides have softened their rhetoric on immigration, signaling an openness to legalizing many of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants despite Trump's long-standing vow to deport them all.

In a CNN interview that aired Thursday evening, Anderson Cooper asked Trump: "So if they haven’t committed a crime, is there going to be a path to legalization? I’m not talking about citizenship."

Trump responded: "First thing we’re going to do. No is not a path — there is no path to legalization unless people leave the country. When they come back in, if they come back in, then they can start paying taxes, but there is no path to legalization unless they leave the country and come back."

In seeming to shift back toward his original position, Trump acknowledged that he would not be able to easily and efficiently deport all 11 million people at once. Trump said that "bad dudes" would be deported as soon as he took office, a group he described as containing "probably millions." He did not say what would happen to the remaining immigrants, but he did say "there is a very good chance" they would eventually be deported.

"It's a process. You can't take 11 at one time and just say: 'Boom, you're gone,'" Trump said.

Despite the array of positions Trump has floated this week, he insisted that his position has not changed.

"I don't think it's a softening," he said. "I've had people say it's a hardening, actually."

Trump has said he would force undocumented immigrants to leave the country as president, but some are questioning whether that's still the plan. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

In the primaries, Trump campaigned as the most conservative candidate in the field on immigration, once vowing to use a "deportation force" to send the nation's undocumented immigrants back to their home countries. But he said on Fox News this week that while he would offer “no citizenship” and “no amnesty” as president, some otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants might be allowed to stay if they pay back taxes.

“No amnesty, but we work with them,” Trump said. His new position sounded a lot like the stances of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, whom Trump once accused of being far too weak on immigration.

Spokesmen for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for more clarity on Trump's position in light of the CNN interview.

Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.