The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Trump could be the one man to make immigration reform happen — if he wanted to

Vice President Pence (L) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) applaud as President Trump (C) delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress (EPA/JIM LO SCALZO/POOL)
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After a bit of a head-fake on Tuesday afternoon, President Trump opted not to call for comprehensive immigration reform in his speech Tuesday night. Instead, he spoke obliquely about a bipartisan way "to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades" -- without referring to the path to legal status he had been flirting with.

So yet again, we're left wondering what Trump's real intentions are on immigration reform. And I'll admit that I'm skeptical he's really changed his spots, given his history of hard-line rhetoric. (CNN quotes a Trump administration official saying it was all a "misdirection play" -- whatever that means.)

But here's the thing: If there's one Republican who could make comprehensive immigration reform happen -- if he wanted to -- it's Trump.

The big sticking point has always been that the GOP base has chewed up and spit out every attempt at comprehensive reform over the last decade-plus, no matter the poor soul who took the lead. George W. Bush and John McCain tried and failed, then Marco Rubio did. All of them ran into a base that recoiled at legalizing those who broke the law when they came to the United States, and congressional GOP support quickly dried up.

But Trump has shown a remarkable knack for getting the Republican Party to kick its political purity habit and bend on its principles. He's effectively morphed the GOP into an anti-free trade party that is okay with massive infrastructure spending and doesn't care that its president is a late-comer to social conservatism. Trump's appeal has always been about his tone rather than the details, which he's often worked out and fudged as he's gone along.

"I think Donald Trump has an ability to solve the problem unlike anybody in recent times," Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Wednesday night. "We always pass the bill in the Senate like 68 votes. It goes to the House. My Republican colleagues in the House -- it always dies. I think Trump has the ability to tell the right, you know, this is a good deal, take it. "

And we don't have to look too far back for an example of how Trump could do it on immigration.

Back in August, it looked like Trump was flirting with comprehensive reform. As it happens, Ann Coulter had just released a book deifying Trump and saying "there's nothing Trump can do that won't be forgiven ... except change his immigration policies."

But plenty of hard-line conservatives did seem ready to forgive even such an apostasy.

Trump, in fact, originally suggested he might be open to "softening" his approach to immigration reform on Sean Hannity's show -- after Hannity tossed a softball of a question that might as well have come from an immigration reform activist. "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, would there be any room in your mind?" Hannity asked.

After Trump said "there certainly can be a softening," Hannity didn't push back or probe further.

There was also, as Callum Borchers noted at the time, a remarkably muted response from Breitbart News, the purveyor of hard-line, nationalist immigration policies if there ever was one. The website basically reported what Trump said and didn't bother to add any context or commentary. The Drudge Report let it slide too.

And The Post's Ed O'Keefe and Jenna Johnson reported from a Trump rally in Florida that Trump supporters weren't really bothered by the rhetorical shift:

“He’s calmed it down, a little bit, but he’s still going,” said [Babs] Buffington, 75, who attended Trump’s campaign rally here Wednesday afternoon. “He’s still going to build the wall.”
Her daughter agreed.
“That’s the most important thing,” said Krista Kosier, 51. “He’s still going to build the wall. He’s still going to get rid of the murderers and rapists and those wreaking havoc in our country.”

(Side note: "Babs Buffington" is a real person's name.)

Rush Limbaugh got in on it, too. Rather than knocking Trump for going soft, he relished the fact that Trump supporters weren't ditching Trump over the possible immigration flip-floppery. He was apparently happier it was giving the press fits and didn't care so much that Trump might be throwing in the towel.

"Trump supporters don't care what he does or what he says because there is no way they are going to do anything that helps elect Hillary Clinton," said Limbaugh. "It's no more complicated than that."

It is slightly more complicated than that, of course. Trump supporters and the GOP base are much more willing to give Trump a pass on stuff like this not just because he's not-Clinton, but because they believe his heart's in the right place -- which is not an assumption many of them were able to make with the likes of Bush, McCain, Mitt Romney and Rubio. That gives Trump plenty more latitude to do things on policy that the base might have ideological issues with in another politician.

Whether or not Trump actually wants to do comprehensive immigration reform, again, is very much an open question. And if he attempted it, perhaps it would ultimately go as poorly for him as it did for those who tried and failed before him.

But he is also uniquely suited to make it happen -- if he wants.