Donald Trump hinted at a new immigration policy that would be a softening, but also a hardening, of his previously stated policies.
He meandered through all of that territory, and to both sides of the US-Mexico border, to land back where he started on a signature issue. His anger-tinged speech Wednesday night in Phoenix carried high expectations of a new tone and fresh policies, but brought little of either.
If anything, despite a mostly friendly foray to Mexico City earlier in the day, Trump’s newly articulated policies represented a substantial strengthening of his commitment to rooting out illegal immigration, as well as ridding the United States of those immigrants themselves.
“Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” Trump declared. “Otherwise we don’t have a country.”
Even by Trumpian standards, Wednesday’s events capped a dizzying policy journey. The day’s frenzy started with a surprise acceptance of an invitation to visit Mexico, where Trump was courteous and even complimentary toward his hosts.
Trump seemed like a downright conventional politician as he talked of a “constructive conversation” and “shared goals.” Gone, for a few hours, was the Mexico he’s portrayed over the past year-and-a-half as a menacing enemy — siphoning American jobs and wages, taking advantage of free-trade agreements, and sending rapists and drugs across a porous border.
Trump ‘Didn’t Discuss’ Border Wall Payment With Mexican President
Hillary Clinton Hits Trump for ‘Dropping In’ on Mexico
The notion of Mexico paying for a border wall is so closely associated with the campaign that Trump no longer has to say it at rallies; he lets the crowd say it for him. But Wednesday, he told reporters after his meeting with Mexico’s president, “We did not discuss payment of the wall.”
Within hours, it became clear from both sides that the wall did come up in their private chat –- raised by President Enrique Pena Nieto by way of a reminder that Mexico will not pay for it. It seemed like Trump might be forced to give a tad on a signature issue.
That was, until Wednesday night in Arizona.
“We will build a great wall along the southern border, and Mexico will pay for the wall,” Trump said. “They don’t know it yet.”
What even his allies didn’t know was how firmly he would reinforce his previous positions on illegal immigration. He vowed not just a wall but big boosts to border patrol forces and stepped-up enforcement actions, and a cancellation of Obama executive orders that sought leniency for many undocumented immigrants.
Trump promised “zero tolerance for criminal aliens” and “extreme vetting.” He even joked that his new policies could result in the deportation of Hillary Clinton herself.
Trump’s visit to Mexico, and his apparent new tone, initially seemed to rattle the Clinton camp. Clinton herself hasn’t responded to an invitation to visit the Mexican president, and she blasted Trump’s visit as “a photo op” in pointing out that diplomacy requires “consistency and reliability.”
Trump, in the end, was more consistent than his political enemies were ready to give him credit for. That raises its own political challenges for Democrats, with Trump more than ever tapping into the anger and emotions that surround debates over immigration, integration, and national security.
“We won’t get another opportunity – it will be too late,” Trump warned.
Trump has long said he’s capable to changing, and he’s proven that point over time. But on a core issue that vaulted him to prominence – that powered his unlikely rise through the primaries, and to the nomination – he’s shown that he’s sticking with what got him this far.