At the state-of-the-art Moody Theater in Austin, Texas, shortly after 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Sean Hannity rested his eyes on Donald Trump.
At that moment, the boisterous crowd was booing a mention of Jeb Bush—a sad weakling, invoked to exemplify the silliness of ever questioning Trump. A slow smile crept across Hannity’s lips. His eyes stayed fixed on Trump’s. He didn’t blink, and he didn’t look away.
Then Trump made a statement that basically co-signed Jeb Bush’s immigration ethos.
At the evening’s immigration event, Trump didn’t just flip-flop on the immigration position he put forward last summer; he flip-flopped on mass deportations multiple times over the course of his own one-hour town hall (roughly one-third of which was commercial breaks).
For Trump’s devoted supporters and ideological fellow-travelers, his vacillating stance won’t mean much. But for everyone else, it’s a reminder of the post-fact nature of his campaign—and of the reality that entertaining multiple positions on an issue that is life-and-death for many people no longer disqualifies one from being taken seriously as a contender for the presidency.
As a preface, it’s important to note that Trump isn’t alone in being all over the map on immigration. Over the course of her political career, Hillary Clintonhas held a veritable cornucopia of views on deportations —at first she was fine with them; then she wanted it to be slightly harder to deport children; then she wanted children to be deported, but not too many of them; then she decided that only adult undocumented immigrants convicted of violent crimes should be sent back to their home countries. She’s contained multitudes.
But Trump, in just one hour of cable news, somehow topped that. Hannity teed him off by asking about what President Trump would do with the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.
“You seem to, in the last week, be revisiting the issue of sending everybody back that is here illegally,” Hannity said. “Tell us where you stand on that.”
“We want to follow the laws,” Trump replied, glowering. “You know, we have very strong laws, we have very strong laws in this country. And I don’t know if you know, but Bush and even Obama sends people back. Now, we can be more aggressive in that, but we want to follow the laws.
“If you start going around trying to make new laws in this country, it’s a process that’s brutal,” he added.
So: No new laws, maybe. Also consider being “more aggressive.” Maybe. Not an answer. But OK.
“We’ve got some great people in this country,” he then said. “They shouldn’t be here, they’re still great people.”
That descriptor, by the way—“great people”—is the highest of Trump’s praises. It is usually reserved for police officers and attendees of Trump rallies. Now, apparently, it also applies to undocumented immigrants.
“But we’ve got some really really bad gang members,” Trump continued, “and some horrible people.”
“Start with them,” Hannity said helpfully.
“Those people are going out Day 1,” Trump replied. “They’re going to be the first order—they’re going out Day 1.”
Then Hannity asked about law-abiding, hard-working, home-owning undocumented immigrants.
“What about them? Do they have to go back or would you reconsider that?” Hannity asked.
“We are going to follow the laws of the country,” Trump replied.
“They have to go back?” Hannity followed up.
“We’re going to see who people are, we’re going to see how they’ve done,” Trump replied.
Then he expounded on that: “There certainly can be a softening,” he said. “Because we’re not looking to hurt people, we want people, we have some great people in this country, we have some great, great people in this country. So but we’re gonna follow the laws of this country.”
So: President Trump would prioritize deporting undocumented immigrants convicted of violent crimes and would be open to “softening” and, maybe, letting others stay. That’s basically Jeb Bush’s stance: that some undocumented immigrants are dangerous and violent, and they need to be deported, and that others are decent, hard-working people who can offer a lot to American society, and they should stick around.
It’s a view that polls well, and that is easy to defend. Clinton holds it. Obama does too. That said, it’s a view Trump fast abandoned. A few minutes later, Hannity brought up the topic of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. legally but then stayed longer than their visas allowed.
So Hannity queried: What to do?
“You have to get ’em out,” Trump said flatly. “You have to get ’em out.”
That is a very simple, clear policy statement: deport all visa overstays. But here’s the thing: Upward of 40 percent of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. fit into that category (the data isn’t great, but PolitiFact says it’s a safe guess). That’s roughly 4.4 million people—some of whom are likely “great people!”—whom Trump would want deported, and pronto. So now we’re back to an unequivocal endorsement of mass deportation, regardless of home ownership or employment status or whatever else.
At this point, you may be thinking that Trump doesn’t have a very good grasp on what his own immigration policy actually is. You would not be alone in that sentiment. Mark Krikorian, who heads the Center for Immigration Studies—a group that advocates for stricter immigration laws, and whose research Trump frequently cites—said he thinks Trump doesn’t really know what he wants vis-à-vis immigration. He trusts Trump, he added, as long as the candidate has the support of Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and a stalwart opponent of any leniency for undocumented immigrants without a dramatic increase in border security.
Krikorian said he likes the immigration policy proposal Trump released on his website last summer, which Sessions’s team helped him formulate.
“It’s pretty detailed,” Krikorian said. “It’s just that he’s never read it.”