TAMPA — As prominent Republicans try to determine whether Donald Trump has changed his mind about mass deportations, Babs Buffington is confident that the GOP presidential nominee hasn’t shifted at all — but it’s not a big deal if he has, as long as he builds a wall along the southern border.
“He’s calmed it down, a little bit, but he’s still going,” said 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.”
Trump has been signaling for days that he might be open to a “softening” of one of his most extreme immigration positions and no longer call for the deportation of an estimated 11 million immigrants who are living in the United States illegally. He and his aides seemed to be testing the waters, setting off alarm bells among some conservatives who have rallied around his hard-line immigration stance.
But judging from many rally-goers here in Tampa on Wednesday and at an event Tuesday in Austin, many rank-and-file voters will give Trump relatively broad latitude to alter the parameters of his immigration policies.
“He always said that as he got closer to November he’d get into more details. Now we’re seeing that,” said Ahava Van Camp, who attended the Tampa rally with her husband, Tom, and Bevo, their Maltese-poodle mix, who sat in a purple push cart. “It’s not a pivot. He’s on second base and getting closer to home.”
Tom Van Camp mentioned the candidate’s appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News Channel program Monday night, when Trump said that he would do “the same thing” that President Obama has done when it comes to illegal immigrants who have not committed crimes.
“These existing laws — which can be enforced — will do the same thing” as Trump has been calling for, Tom Van Camp said. “It’ll still kick people out.”
“Starting with the dangerous folks is smart,” he added. “It’s not going to be easy. In fact, I predict it’ll take the full length of his first term to get it done.”
Trump’s shifting signals come months after he clinched the GOP nomination in large part by going further than any of his rivals on immigration, declaring that all undocumented immigrants “have to go” and that he would create a “deportation force” to carry out the task.
The idea, however, was never part of the formal immigration policy that Trump released a year ago, and he has rarely mentioned the topic at his rallies. Instead, he describes in great detail the wall that he would build along the U.S.-Mexico border and warns that many illegal immigrants are violent criminals or terrorists — emotional appeals that sound tough and don’t require him to get into details.
Trump also continues to bob and weave on specifics. At a town hall meeting Tuesday hosted by Fox News in Austin, he said he is open to “softening” laws to help immigrants already living in the United States illegally but peacefully.
At the same time, when asked how he would respond to visa-holders who stay longer than allowed — one of the largest categories of illegal immigrants — he responded: “You have to get them out. You have to get them out.”
Trump added further to the confusion in an interview with Fox News released Wednesday, when he said that there would be “no amnesty” for undocumented immigrants with good records but that “we [would] work with them” to presumably stay in the country.
The softening comment in particular — which followed several days of other signals by Trump and his advisers that changes were afoot — alarmed some of his most prominent conservative supporters.
“Did he use the word ‘soften’?” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) asked reporters during Trump’s Austin rally as he struggled to formulate a response.
“Donald Trump is wrestling with that issue,” said Sessions, who has been advising the candidate for months. “I fundamentally believe that the first and foremost priority is to fix the unlawful immigration. That’s got to stop and only once that’s done, then you can begin to talk about what we should do in a proper way for people who’ve been here a long time. I think that’s what he was suggesting today.”
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has made controversial comments about illegal immigrants, said that he doesn’t think Trump has altered his position — and that it “would be a mistake” for him to do so.
“By crossing the border illegally, they’re, by definition, criminals. And he has said he wants to remove the criminals in this country,” King said Wednesday on CNN, giving his interpretation of Trump’s comment. “So I would say that it would be tantamount to amnesty to reward people that break the law.”
Trump’s murmur of a “softening” came the same day that conservative columnist Ann Coulter released her new book, “In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!” During an interview on MSNBC, Coulter said that if Trump actually softens his deportation stance, this could become “the shortest book tour ever” for her.
“Why are we talking about softening the lives of lawbreakers?” she said. “I think this is a mistake. This sounds like it’s coming from consultants.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who railed against Trump’s divisive rhetoric during the bitter GOP primary, declined to comment directly on Trump’s change in tone. But spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said, “It is unsurprising that Donald Trump is finally faced with reconciling his immigration policy with reality, something Governor Bush predicted last year.”
Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), one of the most passionate advocates of immigration reform, said Trump’s attempts to change his views will be futile.
“It’s baked in. He can’t change it. He should have thought of this earlier,” Gutiérrez said. “It’s too late.”
Trump didn’t mention deportations during his rally in a cavernous event space on the grounds of the Florida State Fairgrounds on Wednesday afternoon — and only briefly touched on the issue of immigration, promising to protect American jobs and target illegal immigrants who commit crimes. He urged Hispanic voters to support him and bragged that in the past three weeks his “polls with African American folks and Spanish-speaking folks, the Hispanics, Latinos, have gone way up,” an assertion that is not backed up by any scientific public polls.
With about 24 hours of public notice, the venue was barely half full, with movable bleachers four rows high packed mostly with a mix of older and middle-aged supporters, most of them white.
As Trump warned the crowd that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would accept more Middle Eastern refugees, a few people screamed out, “Build that wall!” It didn’t fit with what he was saying, but he went with it anyway.
“We’re going to build a wall, don’t you worry about it,” Trump said. “We’re going to build a wall. We’re going to build the wall, and Mexico is going to pay for the wall, 100 percent. And it’s going to be a big wall. It’s going to be a real wall. It’s going to be as beautiful as a wall can be, but it’s going to be a wall. And we’re going to have protection for tunnels so that people can’t tunnel under. We can easily have protection. But we’re going to have protection for tunnels.”
Trump then recapped his formal immigration position: “We’re going to have a real border. We’re going to have a real wall. Mexico is going to pay for it.”
Johnson reported from Washington. Eva Ruth Moravec in Austin contributed to this report.