Trump Time Capsule #85: The Immigration Pivot

Donald Trump in Jackson, Mississippi this evening, with Nigel Farage. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The previous 84 items in this series cover developments that might concern Donald Trump’s opponents. Tonight we have one that might concern his most fervent supporters.

In an interview aired Wednesday evening with his supporter Sean Hannity, Trump showed that he understood the logic behind immigration-reform proposals like that of Marco Rubio’s “Gang of 8.” The starting point for such proposals has been the reality that millions of people are already in the United States without legal permission. Some are ordinary criminals, who if they’re caught are usually jailed or deported. But many others are parents, students, workers, or others who lead regular law-abiding lives except for their illegal immigration status.

What do you do with them? From George W. Bush to Barack Obama to the bipartisan members of the Gang of 8, the answer was: you don’t pretend you’re going to round them up and expel them. It can’t and won’t happen, and shouldn’t. But Donald Trump’s answer since the start of his campaign has been: Yes it can! And will and should! Find these illegals and send them home. That was the basis of his attack on softies like Rubio (who ended up renouncing the Gang of 8) and Jeb Bush. It was the logical complement to his talk about the wall. It has been to his campaign what standing up to the Soviets was to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

But in the interview tonight Trump said, in effect, Never mind! You can read the whole extraordinary transcript of his talk with Hannity in this Twitter post by Sopan Deb of CBS News. Here is a crucial passage:

Transcript via Sopan Deb of CBS.

“It’s a very, very hard thing.” It’s so tough to think of throwing a family out. These are exactly the real-world concerns behind decades’ worth of reform efforts. They’re the same concerns Trump has until now mocked as weak and loser-like. His hard line on deportation is what has attracted his most devoted supporters. One of those, Ann Coulter, had a pro-Trump book published this very day, in which she says: “There is nothing Trump can do that won’t be forgiven. Except change his immigration policies.”

Will his supporters still forgive him? Has his policy changed? Is it a policy at all? We’ll see. One way or another, this is a moment to note.


Three more details about the pivot:

1) In a speech this evening in Jackson, Mississippi, Trump sounded more the way he had for the past year, and less how he sounded in the Hannity session aired on Fox at about the same time. (It was taped a few days earlier.) For instance, tonight he said, “The media ignores the plight of Americans who have lost their children to illegal immigrants, but spends day after day pushing for amnesty for those here in total violation of the law. We can’t allow that.”

“We can’t allow that,” versus “Who wants those people thrown out?” Same candidate, same night. Remember back when “I voted for it, before I voted against it” was by itself a major campaign gaffe?

2) With ten weeks to go in the campaign, the Republican nominee is spending an evening …  in Mississippi! This is a state with a whole 6 electoral votes. A Republican who is worried about carrying Mississippi might as well quit right now and move to Ukraine. Meta point: any day Trump is not spending in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or two or three other swing states is a day lost forever, unless it’s for a fund-raising sortie to California or New York.

3) Trump’s featured ally in Mississippi was … Nigel Farage! A Brit, the Trump of England, who rabble-roused for the Brexit vote and then resigned his party’s leadership after it passed. Perhaps there’s a comparable case, but I’m not aware of it: a nominee stumping in a small non-swing state, alongside a controversial foreigner whom very few in the crowd would recognize. Not that anything’s wrong with it. But the strategic choice is … notable.


Also notable: from the same platform tonight, in Mississippi, reading from prepared text on his teleprompter, Trump said, “Hillary Clinton is a bigot who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future.” You can do your own glosses on this. (“The judge, we believe, is Mexican,” etc. That was way back in Time Capsule #7!) I’m just noting for the record that this is the day it occurred.