Ten days after he appointed new campaign leadership, Donald Trump and many of his closest aides and allies remain divided on whether to adopt more mainstream stances or stick with the hard-line conservative positions at the core of his candidacy, according to people involved in the discussions.
Trump has been flooded with conflicting advice about where to land, with the tensions vividly illustrated this week as the GOP nominee publicly wrestled with himself on the details of his signature issue: immigration.
A particular flash point has been whether to forcibly deport an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants from the country, a move Trump long advocated but is now reconsidering.
“He has been listening to a wide range of opinions on that,” said former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has been at Trump’s side nearly constantly over the past week. “As you might imagine, there are different opinions on this, even in his campaign. In a very thoughtful way, he’s trying to figure what the right position is.”
“By the way,” Giuliani added, “that’s what everybody criticized him for in the past: that he’s not able to do that. He actually is able to do that.”
The conversations in recent days have featured voices from a range of Republican views, all jockeying to tilt the businessman’s politics in their direction, according to those involved. Trump tends to echo the words of the last person with whom he spoke, making direct access to him even more valuable, the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk about internal campaign discussions.
Those pushing Trump to soften his stances and tone — and who have gained immense influence in recent days — include Giuliani, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Fox News chief Roger Ailes, a longtime ally who has no formal role with the campaign but talks to the candidate frequently and attended a strategy session last weekend. At recent private fundraisers, many Republican donors have also urged Trump to adopt a different pitch and rethink his priorities.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to discuss immigration policy with Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), who is seen as the populist force behind much of his candidacy. While he has defended and encouraged Trump’s deliberations, Sessions is considered a balancing force against more centrist appeals. So is new campaign chief executive Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, the hard-charging conservative website.
Trump was joined on the trail this week by Giuliani and Sessions, along with Stephen Miller, a former aide to Sessions who has become a well-trusted confidant. His New York-based children continue to play an outsize role.
But any suggestion of change has alarmed some conservatives and ardent backers. Firebrand commentator Ann Coulter declared this week that it was “a mistake” for Trump to consider abandoning his support for mass deportations and said his tone “sounds very consultant to me.”
The back-and-forth over immigration comes amid broader efforts by Trump to reach out to voters beyond the disaffected whites who compose his base, including events such as a roundtable Friday with Hispanic business leaders in Las Vegas. Trump also lashed out this week at his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, for accusing him of appealing to racist elements, repeatedly labeling her a “bigot” because he says her policies don’t help minorities.
Last year, Trump cast illegal immigrants as being mostly violent criminals, and he rolled out an immigration plan that embraced ideas that had long dwelled at the fringes of the GOP: no longer granting citizenship to children born in the United States to illegal immigrants, constructing a massive wall along the border with Mexico and perhaps restricting some legal forms of immigration. In interviews, Trump added that he would form a “deportation force” to remove the millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.
But Saturday, Trump asked a panel of Hispanic advisers for alternate ideas and made clear that he was willing to change on the issue. The next day, newly installed campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who has advised GOP candidates for years on how to win over swing voters, said in a CNN interview that Trump’s position on creating a deportation force was “to be determined.”
Over the next few days, Trump took a variety of positions that created a frenzy of confusion over where exactly he stands. On Tuesday, Trump said he was open to “softening” the rules for the millions of immigrants who came to the country illegally but are living peaceful and prosperous lives, only to say Thursday that his position is “hardening.”
At an immigration-focused town hall in Texas on Tuesday, which was later broadcast on Fox News, Trump repeatedly polled his audience on what he should do, allowing his internal conflicts to play out publicly.
“Can we go through a process? Or do you think they have to get out?” he asked the audience. “Tell me. I mean, I don’t know, you tell me.”
Trump provided the crowd a sympathetic portrait of a theoretical illegal immigrant who has been in the country more than a decade, building a life with children and a stable job. He repeatedly asked if that sort of person should be allowed to stay or be kicked out of the country, getting results that were often difficult to measure. At one point, Trump asked who in the crowd wanted all illegal immigrants thrown out, even the law-abiding ones, and a man stood up and bellowed: “I do!”
Fox News’s Sean Hannity then asked Trump: “You heard from the audience. What does your gut tell you you want to do?”
“Well, look, this is like a poll, this is like a poll,” Trump said. “And I love the guy that stood up and said — where is that guy? I love this guy. That’s my guy. I mean, I get it. I get it. And I understand what you’re saying. But this is sort of like a poll. And this is what I’m getting all over the country.”
Trump’s often contradictory comments on deportations came during interviews with Fox News or CNN, not during his campaign rallies. For two weeks, Trump has been reading prepared remarks from a teleprompter, a machine he had long cursed. As the week progressed, his control slipped and he went off-script more often — saying at a rally in Ohio on Monday that some urban areas are more dangerous than war zones and making a joke in Tampa on Wednesday about Clinton being medicated.
This week the campaign twice started to plan an event where Trump could give an immigration speech — an opportunity for him to settle on a position and document it — only to cancel without a clear explanation.
Trump’s comment about being open to “softening” laws to help illegal immigrants came Tuesday, the same day Coulter released her new book, “In Trump We Trust,” in which she writes that anything Trump does could be forgiven, “except change his immigration policies.” During an MSNBC interview that night, Coulter was obviously frustrated and threatened to cancel her book tour if the candidate clearly changed his position.
“I think this is a mistake. I’ve thought he’s made other mistakes, and I’ve given him constructive criticism when I think he makes a mistake,” she said. “I think this is a mistake.”
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked: “Does he take your criticism?”
“Um,” Coulter responded. “I haven’t had a lot, but yeah. No, he does listen to people. And I’m not advising him or anything, but I did write this magnificent book.”
By Wednesday, Coulter seemed confident again in Trump’s candidacy as she attended a book party in Washington and told Bloomberg News’s Joshua Green: “My worship for him is like the people of North Korea worship their Dear Leader — blind loyalty. Once he gave that Mexican rapist speech, I’ll walk across glass for him. That’s basically it. . . . I’ll criticize him, and I have, but it’s all minor stylistic stuff. We all want to shoot him at various times.”
Thursday, Trump took a different tone in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and said that he foresees “a lot of people being deported,” although he admitted such deportations could not all happen at once. Trump also doubled down on the notion that a majority of illegal immigrants are violent criminals who will be the first to go.
“And there are probably millions of them, but certainly hundreds of thousands,” he said. “Big numbers. They’re out. They’re out.”
At one point, Cooper asked Trump, “So if you haven’t committed a crime and you’ve been here for 15 years, and you have a family here, you have a job here, will you be deported?”
“We’re going to see what happens once we strengthen up our border,” Trump replied, describing that strength in detail. “And then we’re going to see what happens. But there is a very good chance the answer could be yes. We’re going to see what happens.”