Update: During a town hall with Sean Hannity recorded Tuesday night, Trump expanded further, saying he might "soften" the laws for illegal immigrants who have contributed to society.
Hannity asked: "Is there any part of the law that you might be able to change that would accommodate those people that contribute to society, have been law-abiding, have kids here?"
"There certainly can be a softening, because we're not looking to hurt people," Trump said, according to excerpts provided by Fox News. "We want people -- we have some great people in this country. We have some great, great people in this country. So, but we're going to follow the laws of this country."
It marks his most direct comment when it comes to not deporting every illegal immigrant, as he previously proposed, and potentially creating a path to legal status. Below, we look at Trump's previous appearance on Fox, in which he also hinted at a softer approach but didn't clearly state it.
Donald Trump, it turns out, isn't rolling out his immigration proposal Thursday. But he's clearly still thinking about what he'll propose.
Reports over the weekend indicated that Trump was softening his language on what to do with the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States — and was perhaps even open to legalizing some of them. And we in the media noted the potential flip-flop this would represent from the man who previously promised to deport all 11 million.
So what might Trump announce in his plan — whenever he does announce it? He spoke to Bill O'Reilly about it Monday night, and a few clues can be gleaned.
In short: He's not talking about mass deportation anymore. Instead, he's talking about deporting "bad" illegal immigrants and leaving unspecified what he'd do with the rest.
Here's the transcript, with our emphasis and analysis:
O'REILLY: The media, as you know, are running wild with this. Are you really rethinking your mass-deportation strategy?
TRUMP: I just want to follow the law. What I'm doing is following the law. You know, this was for that, we had a great meeting over the weekend with Hispanics and leaders of the Hispanic community. And we discussed a lot of different things. And this was one of the many things that was discussed. And one of the groups, one of the media outlets that have gotten everything about me wrong, including the fact that I would never run and the reporter actually said he would give up his salary if he did. I don't think I have ever held him to that. But one of these media outlets said that they had word from one of the people it turned out to be false. In fact, the people all denied it, Bill, and I think you probably have seen that but —
O'REILLY: All right. But I want to get on the record once again.
TRUMP: We had a great — well, let me explain to you. We had a great meeting with Hispanic leaders.
TRUMP: It was at Trump Tower. And it was very, very, I think, it was very obvious what took place because they came out and they said exactly what took place, but the media got it wrong. We are going to obey the existing laws. Now the existing laws are very strong. The existing laws — the first thing we are going to do if and when I win, is we are going to get rid of all of the bad ones. We have got gang members, we have killers. We have a lot of bad people that have to get out of this country.
We are going to get them out. And the police know who they are. They are known by law enforcement who they are. We don't do anything. They go around killing people and hurting people. And they are going to be out of this country so fast your head will spin. We have existing laws that will allow to you do that. As far as everybody else, we are going to go through the process. What people don't know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country. Bush the same thing. Lots of people were brought out of the country with the existing laws. Well, I'm going to do the same thing, and I just said that.
This is Trump deflecting and filibustering and trying to avoid the heart of the matter: mass deportation. But here and elsewhere, his campaign has pointedly declined the opportunity to double down on mass deportation. His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said over the weekend that Trump's stance on it was "to be determined."
So no firm answer here, but there are a few big take-aways: 1. He wants to "follow the law" and 2. He will definitely deport "the bad ones."
This last point is key. Trump seems to be making a distinction between "the bad ones" and other undocumented immigrants. But under his old plan, there really was no distinction until after the deportation had taken place.
"We have at least 11 million people in this country that came in illegally," he said at a February debate. "They will go out. They will come back — some will come back, the best, through a process. They have to come back legally."
Trump suggests the non-"bad ones" will "go through the process," but he doesn't make at all clear whether that process involves deportation. Previously, the process was that they would be deported and then could come back through the regular process. Now, he seems to contrast his deportation of the "bad ones" with how the others would be treated. That suggests that perhaps they wouldn't be deported at all.
O'REILLY: Okay. But here's what everybody wants to know —
TRUMP: Do it in a very humane manner.
TRUMP: We want to do it in a very humane manner.
O'REILLY: You are going to have to go through the court system when you deport, as they have to do now. You're going to add federal judges, you're going to have to do a lot of things to make this thing efficient. Also, and here's the crux of the whole matter, and you know this: The actual seizure of human beings, taking them from their homes and putting them in a detention center so that their illegal alien status can be adjudicated.
TRUMP: You don't have to put them in a detention center. Bill, you are the first one to mention detention center. You don't have to put them in a detention center.
O'REILLY: All right. So, you wouldn't do that, you keep them in their homes.
TRUMP: No, I never said. I have not even heard the term. I am not going to put them in a detention center.
Again, Trump seems to be softening his stance without committing to anything firm. But if he is truly going to deport millions of illegal immigrants, it isn't clear how he would avoid putting them in detention centers. These are people, after all, who have been living largely outside the system and avoiding law enforcement.
Allowing them to stay "in their homes," as O'Reilly grants Trump, doesn't seem practical for deportation purposes — but perhaps it does for legalization.
Then again, Trump could simply have not really thought this all through and is just doubling down on his long-standing claim that all this would be done in a "humane" manner.
O'REILLY: Well, you cited Dwight Eisenhower — Mr. Trump, you cited Dwight Eisenhower on this program.
TRUMP: In 1952, who, by the way, deported tremendous numbers of —
O'REILLY: Well, he rounded them up. He took them out. And so when you cited him as an example of someone that you emulate —
TRUMP: No, I said that —
O'REILLY: — that's what the conclusion is.
TRUMP: Yeah, I said that it's something that has been done in a very strong manner. I don't agree with that. I'm not talking about detention centers. I have very, very good relationships with a lot of people, a lot of Hispanic people. We are talking about it. We are going to get rid of the bad ones. The bad ones are going to be out of here fast. And you know there are a plenty of bad ones, gang members, gang leaders.
O'REILLY: Sure. Absolutely.
TRUMP: You look at Los Angeles, you see what's happening.
TRUMP: They are going out, they are going to be out of here so fast, your head will spin. As far as the rest, we are going to go through the process like they are now, perhaps with a lot more energy, and we're going to do it only through the system of laws.
Trump is being extremely cryptic here, but it's worth noting that he seems less approving of "Operation Wetback" than he previously did. In a November debate, Trump repeatedly mentioned how good a guy Eisenhower was while discussing the program.
"Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower — good president, great president, people liked him. 'I like Ike,' right, the expression, ‘I like Ike’ — moved 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country," Trump said. "Dwight Eisenhower. You don't get nicer. You don't get friendlier. They moved a 1.5 million out. We have no choice. We have no choice."
As for the end of Trump's comments — "go through the process," "perhaps with a lot more energy," but "through the system of laws" — they mean very little by themselves. Would Trump be abiding by the law if he created a new process through which undocumented immigrants could be legalized? Sure. Is he talking about the existing process or a new one? Who knows. And what the heck does "with a lot more energy" mean?
In the end, we probably aren't the only ones who don't know what Trump's proposal will be. He probably doesn't even know it himself.