Is Donald Trump considering wavering on a key campaign promise?
That's what several news reports published over the weekend suggest. And while the Trump campaign issued a statement denying any shift on immigration policy, top surrogates and campaign operatives hinted that a change just might be on its way.
The issue: what to do with the estimated 11 million immigrants already living in the United States illegally.
Since he entered the presidential race last year, Trump insisted they would have to be expelled from the country, despite the logistical and humanitarian questions a mass deportation would present.
"You're going to have a deportation force, and you're going to do it humanely," he told MSNBC in November 2015.
But this weekend, Buzzfeed reported that during a meeting with a Hispanic advisory council, Trump hinted he wasn't totally attached to that proposal. People who attended the meeting told the website that Trump asked for suggestions on a "humane and efficient" way to address people already living in the country illegally. Other news outlets confirmed the conversations.
Univision went one step further, reporting that Trump will roll out a new immigration plan Thursday in Colorado "that will include finding a way to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants."
That's something the campaign immediately pushed back on. "Mr. Trump said nothing today that he hasn't said many times before, including in his convention speech," said Trump campaign staffer Steven Cheung in a statement provided to NPR.
And yet, when asked on CNN the next day whether Trump's immigration policies would include that promised "deportation force," Trump's new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, responded, "To be determined."
On CBS News' Face the Nation, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions said Trump is "wrestling with how to do that," referring to removing people in the country illegally.
"He did not make a firm commitment yesterday or at the meeting the other day about what he will do with that," Sessions said. "But he did listen, and he's talking about it."
A major shift on immigration policy would be the clearest signal yet that, faced with widening deficits in most national and state-level polls, the Trump campaign is now making a concerted effort to appeal to moderate and independent voters.
But a shift would carry major political risks, too. Immigration is a key issue — if not the key issue — for many of Trump's fiercest supporters. And it's been a hallmark of Trump's campaign since day one, when he warned that people entering the country from Mexico were "bringing drugs; they're bringing crime; they're rapists."
Trump has also framed himself as a no-apologies "truth" teller, who will push for what he thinks is best regardless of the political consequences. Walking back from a high-profile promise could undermine that image.
Trump's campaign never provided details about what that deportation force would look like or how it would track down and expel people in the country illegally. But Trump stuck to the promise.
"We have no choice if we're going to run our country properly and if we're going to be a country," he said in a December debate.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich questioned Trump's proposal during that forum, saying, "Come on, folks. We all know you can't pick them up and ship them across — back across the border. It's a silly argument. It's not an adult argument. It makes no sense."
Trump responded by citing a controversial Eisenhower administration initiative called "Operation Wetback," which deported up to 1.5 million immigrants who were living in the United States illegally.
Trump's response to terrorism has centered on immigration as well. After the mass shootings at Orlando's Pulse nightclub in June, Trump reiterated his call for a temporary ban on all Muslims immigrating to the United States. That's despite the fact that the shooter was born in New York City.
"The only reason the killer was in America in the first place is because we allowed his family to come here," Trump said in his first speech after the attacks. "That is a fact — and a fact we need to talk about."
At nearly every campaign rally, supporters chant "Build that wall! Build that wall!" referencing Trump's promise to erect a wall along the entirety of the United States-Mexico border.
"We will build a wall, don't you worry," Trump assured the crowd Friday evening at a Michigan rally.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Donald Trump might be reversing himself on a key campaign issue, and that issue is immigration. Several reports suggest he is considering backing away from his repeated promise to deport all 11 million people who live in the United States illegally. Trump's new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, was on CNN Sunday. Here's how she answered anchor Dana Bash when asked if Trump is shifting his position on deportation.
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KELLYANNE CONWAY: To be determined.
MCEVERS: NPR political reporter Scott Detrow has been following this, and he is with us now. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So, all right, let's start out by backtracking just a little bit. What has Donald Trump's position been on illegal immigration up to now?
DETROW: Well, immigration is probably the defining issue of his campaign. You go to any rally. You'll hear the chance of build that wall from supporters. That's Trump's promise to build a wall on the entire U.S.-Mexico border.
DETROW: And he's been pretty hard line on what to do with people already here in the country illegally. He said he would have some sort of deportation force - that's Trump's words - to round up and deport people, and he's repeatedly defended that.
In a CNBC debate last year, John Kasich challenged him, saying that's totally unrealistic. Trump responded by referencing a controversial Eisenhower administration program that did round up and deport people who were in the U.S. illegally.
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DONALD TRUMP: They moved a million and a half people out. We have no choice.
MCEVERS: OK, so at the time, that's Trump saying, we have no choice. If that's the case, why might he be reconsidering this idea of mass deportation?
DETROW: Well, you look back over the last week, and we've seen several cases where Trump has tried to appeal to more moderate and independent voters, not just those core supporters who helped him win the primaries. You know, his campaign has brought in new leadership, and they're seeing the polls. He's down in nearly every national poll, most big swing state polls.
DETROW: And there have been a lot of humanitarian and logistical questions about a large-scale deportation campaign, and maybe the Trump campaign now realizes that. But there's a big political problem here for him. A lot of supporters really want this. They backed this idea, and his campaign is all about Donald Trump being this blunt truth-teller who doesn't care about the consequences. So if he really does backtrack on something like this, that kind of undercuts that I'm-here-to-tell-the-truth argument.
MCEVERS: One of those shakeups in the campaign of course is that Trump has a new campaign manager, and now there's this possible shift on a major issue. We heard a lot about Trump expressing regret for some of the statements he's made over the course of the campaign also. I mean what do you make of all these changes?
DETROW: I think - I mean there have clearly been strategic shifts here, but we need to put this in some perspective. Donald Trump is still attacking people online. This morning he personally insulted Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC. In recent days, Trump surrogates have been on TV, promoting rumors that Hillary Clinton is sick or frail. I mean there's absolutely no proof of that.
But we have seen these big changes, and I think the most notable one is the fact that Donald Trump is staying on script at every rally instead of riffing, and that's what's really gotten him in trouble over the course of the year. But by and large - still a very nontraditional campaign.
MCEVERS: We did get a look into that nontraditional campaign this weekend when the latest round of campaign finance reports came out. Did we learn anything new looking at these disclosures?
DETROW: Yeah so Donald Trump's campaign spent about $19 million in July. That's more than they've been spending month to month before, but Hillary Clinton's campaign spent two and a half times that amount. About half of what the Trump campaign is spending went to a web design company that hasn't done any political work before, though they have worked for some of Donald Trump's private companies. He did spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on his own companies again for air travel and for rental of events and office space.
There's still less than a hundred people on Donald Trump's staff, and something that a lot of people who looked through these reports pointed out - the campaign spent more on those make America great again hats than on payroll. So the bottom line is the campaign is outsourcing a lot of the typical campaign work, voter outreach, data analysis to the Republican National Committee.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Scott Detrow. Thank you very much.
DETROW: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.