Trump tones it down on immigration, or does he?

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: Aug 22, 2016 22:11 IST
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump addresses a campaign event at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on Saturday. (AFP)

Is this the new Donald Trump, re-staffed, re-set? The Republican nominee, who has had a tough few weeks, appears to be wavering on his earlier hardline position against illegal immigration, a cornerstone of his campaign.

His new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said in a TV interview on Sunday his position on the deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants had yet “to be determined”.

That seemed like a comedown, but Trump sought to dispel that notion on Monday, saying he was not flip-flopping and he still favoured “firm, but fair” measures as before.

Strong measures against illegal immigration – such as a wall along the border with Mexico – have been a key component of his campaign, one he has been hammering for the start.

But it also cost him the support of Hispanics, who account for 17% of the US population – more than blacks, less than whites – and most undocumented immigrants are Hispanic.

The Republican has the support of only 14% of registered Hispanic and Latino voters, according to a recent poll, to three-fourths for his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

Trump has also been polling poorly among the other powerful ethnic minority, African Americans, getting only 1% support in a recent poll, with zero in some important swing states.

He tried to reach out to blacks last week, asking them to try him once as they didn’t have much to lose, arguing the Democratic party has always taken advantage of them and their vote.

In a similar outreach to Hispanics, Trump met a group of them on Saturday and, according to reports, told them deporting undocumented immigrants was “neither possible, nor fair”.

His campaign pushed back immediately, saying he was making the same argument as he has before – that he has always favoured being “fair and human”. Conway made the same point.

But her statement that Trump’s position was yet “to be determined” was seen as an attempt to throw the door open to softening the rhetoric, as the campaign has done before.

Trump’s first call for banning Muslims from entering the US, for instance, was whittled down to a temporary suspension from some areas of the world, through multiple iterations.

Trailing Clinton in polls nationally – although the gap has narrowed lately – and some swing states, and hit by a spate of self-inflicted setbacks, Trump is trying to reset his bid.

He recently hired Stephen Bannon, a hard-charging media executive, as campaign CEO, promoted Conway to campaign manager, and fired campaign chair Paul Manafort.

Trump even expressed regrets during a campaign speech for offensive remarks. Though lacking specifics, it was considered a milestone coming from someone who never yields an inch.

Trump has also stuck to the script speech scrolling down the teleprompter by and large, checking his impulse to ad-lib, which often got him into unnecessary controversies in the past.

He has tried to change before, “only to snap back to his old self”, as noted by conservative columnist Byron York. He seems to be trying harder this time – no major gaffes for days now.

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