Did Trump Change His Mind on North Carolina's Transgender Law?

After criticizing the controversial legislation Thursday morning, the Republican gave an opaque and cryptic half-reversal Thursday evening.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

A handful of things in Donald Trump's political cosmology are fixed: You can be (mostly) sure that the wall with Mexico and the love of tariffs will persist from day to day. But pretty much everything else is subject to change and—fittingly for the artist of the deal—negotiable.

Take the Republican front-runner’s stance on North Carolina’s controversial HB2, which (among other things) mandates that transgender people use bathrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificate, not the gender with which they now identify.

On Thursday, Trump criticized the law during a Today show town hall. “North Carolina, what they’re going through with all the business that’s leave and all the strife, and that’s on both sides,” he said. “You leave it the way it is… There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble.”

The answer wasn’t some spur-of-the-moment improvisation. Trump prefaced his answer by saying he had expected a question about HB2. Trump’s rival Ted Cruz, who supports the North Carolina law, wasted no time attacking Trump for it, including in a menacing video. By Thursday evening, when he appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, Trump was asked to state his position. Hannity’s question was leading—he basically invited Trump to offer his support for the law.

Trump started off by saying that the number of people affected by the law is small, “but we have to take care of everyone, frankly.” He went on: “They have a law that, it’s a law that unfortunately is causing them some problems. I fully understand if they want to go through, but they are losing business and they are having a lot of people come out against.”

Did you catch that? On the one hand, Trump is saying the law is a bad idea, since there’s lost business and everyone has to be protected. On the other hand, he is saying that if they want to go through with a law that harms the state, they should feel free. That’s not a total reversal, but more of a slippery attempt to have it both ways.

“With me, I look at it differently, a community whether it’s North Carolina or local communities, really, they should be involved,” he added. “I think that local communities and states should make the decision. The federal government should not be involved.”

But that doesn’t really clear anything up. The question asked of Trump was never whether the federal government should get involved—though thanks to questions of federal funding for everything from highways to schools, it is automatically a player—but whether he thought the law was right. Moreover, the central question in HB2 is whether it is states or local communities that should make the decision. The law was passed by state legislators as a response to the city of Charlotte mandating transgender-bathroom accommodation, and HB2 specifically preempts local attempts to require accommodation or bar LGBT discrimination. Simply saying “local communities and states should make the decision” doesn’t actually answer anything about where Trump stands.

So what does Trump really believe about HB2? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.