Donald Trump’s critics keep looking for a bombshell that will blow up his presidential campaign. Mitt Romney thinks there’s an explosive revelation buried in the GOP front-runner’s tax returns, for instance.
But one place where this ultimate, Trump-destroying weapon almost certainly is not hiding is in a recording of an off-the-record conversation with the New York Times editorial board in which Trump supposedly indicates a willingness to compromise on his plan to deport every undocumented immigrant living in the United States.
Even if we assume that Trump did indeed make such a concession, his flexibility on the issue wouldn’t be earth-shattering news. He said something similar to the Washington Examiner in January and repeated himself to Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity on Monday night.
BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith launched the hype around the interview tape when he wrote on Monday afternoon that “Donald Trump secretly told the New York Times what he really thinks about immigration.” Smith’s report was a follow-up to a Saturday piece by Times columnist Gail Collins, who wrote that Trump can’t explain how he’s going to round up and ship out every undocumented immigrant “because it’s going to be the first bid in some future monster negotiation session.”
Citing unnamed sources, Smith wrote that Collins’s assumption about a negotiation on immigration “is a bit more than speculation. It reflects, instead, something Trump said about the flexibility of his hard-line anti-immigration stance.”
For rival candidate Ted Cruz, who has been trying for weeks to brand Trump as an unprincipled “deal-maker” who can’t be trusted to keep his campaign promises, the idea of a secret tape with some secret waffling seemed like a dream come true. He quickly called on Trump to ask the Times to make the recording public.
Marco Rubio, whose preferred Trump moniker is “con artist,” did the same thing.
But Trump hasn’t exactly been hiding his willingness to scale back on mass deportations as part of a satisfactory immigration agreement. After BuzzFeed published its story, the Examiner’s Byron York re-posted part of a conversation he had with Trump in January, around the same time as the candidate’s meeting with the Times.
YORK: So I look at deporting all illegal immigrants. I look at a temporary ban of Muslims coming to the United States. They get a lot of attention. Are they opening positions in a negotiation?
TRUMP: I'm not saying there can't be some give and take, but at some point we have to look at these things. You look at the radical Islamic terrorism and you look at what's going on, we have to take a serious look. There's tremendous hatred. You look at illegal immigration and all that's taking place with respect to illegal immigration, whether it's the crime or the economy, I mean, it affects many different elements. It doesn't mean I'm hard and fast 100 percent, but we [need] to get a lot of what I'm asking for, or we're not going to have a country any more.
YORK: So they are opening positions?
TRUMP: They are very strong positions. It doesn't mean you're not going to negotiate a little bit, but I guess there will always be some negotiation. But they are very strong positions, and I would adhere to those positions very strongly. That doesn't mean that at some point we won't talk a little bit about some negotiation. Who wouldn't do that?
Then, on Hannity’s show on Monday night, Trump and the host had the following exchange:
TRUMP: I mean, everything's negotiable.
HANNITY: But it's not negotiable about building it.
TRUMP: I actually said — I — no, building it? Not negotiable.
HANNITY: It's not negotiable about — would it be negotiable about the 11 million, maybe let some people stay if they register in a period of time?
TRUMP: I would say this. Look, I've always said we have some good people over here, and they're going to go out, but we will work out some system that's fair. But we either have a country or we don't. We need a border. We need a wall. We need a wall.
If it turns out that Trump told the Times he’d consider nixing the wall altogether, then we really will have a bombshell on our hands. But it seems more likely that he told the Times some version of what he’s told others.
In that case, the quest for a revelation that will lead to Trump’s undoing will continue.