Seems plausible. What better place to make a campaign-killing admission than in a meeting with the New York Times — while you’re being recorded?
Number of Trump voters who’ll treat this as a game-ending scandal that justifies switching their support rather than a “GOPe” smear cooked up to damage him before Super Tuesday: Zero.
On Saturday, columnist Gail Collins, one of the attendees at the meeting (which also included editor-in-chief Dean Baquet), floated a bit of speculation in her column:
“The most optimistic analysis of Trump as a presidential candidate is that he just doesn’t believe in positions, except the ones you adopt for strategic purposes when you’re making a deal. So you obviously can’t explain how you’re going to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, because it’s going to be the first bid in some future monster negotiation session.”
Sources familiar with the recording and transcript — which have reached near-mythical status at the Times — tell me that the second sentence is a bit more than speculation. It reflects, instead, something Trump said about the flexibility of his hard-line anti-immigration stance…
I wasn’t able to obtain the recording, or the transcript, and don’t know exactly what Trump said. Neither Baquet, Collins, nor various editorial board members I reached would comment on an off-the-record conversation, which the Times essentially said they cannot release without approval from Trump, given the nature of the the off-the-record agreement.
I’m torn between thinking that he either said something vague about being willing to consider alternatives to mass deportation that BuzzFeed’s sources are wildly overhyping or that, given his fans’ loyalty to him, it wouldn’t matter even if he went full Lonesome Rhodes and told the Times he was only pretending to oppose open borders to appeal to conservative rubes. Let me remind you: It’s no secret that Trump isn’t the immigration hard-ass that he has a reputation for being. He’s said many times, on the record, that once his grand scheme of deporting all illegals has borne fruit, a process will be put in place to let “the good ones” come back in. Soundbites of him calling for a “path” for illegals have already found their way into Republican attack ads. There’s no shortage of material already out there if you want to question Trump’s commitment to driving a hard bargain on immigration enforcement. In fact, if it’s true per BuzzFeed’s sources that Trump said mass deportation would merely be his opening bid in negotiations over immigration, that’s not exactly a bombshell either for anyone who’s been paying attention. Byron York wrote about Trump’s negotiation philosophy three months ago and used immigration as an example:
Then Trump got to the heart of the matter. “The word compromise is absolutely fine. But if you are going to compromise, ask for about three times more than you want. You understand? So when you compromise, you get what you want.”
Perhaps deporting all illegal immigrants is the political version of asking for about three times more than you want.
Trump has repeated his deportation vow many times. But few have noted that when Trump rolled out his written immigration plan, posted on his campaign website, there was nothing about mass deportation. In addition to Trump’s famous “beautiful wall,” the plan had a lot of mainstream conservative proposals about securing the border and tightening interior enforcement.
Assuming BuzzFeed’s sources aren’t full of it, that’s probably what he told the Times, more or less. He’ll demand total deportation, Democrats will come back at him with some much lesser number — violent criminals only, say — and then they’ll work towards a common number from there. How many Trump fans would revolt if that’s how things played out, with beefier enforcement measures at the border but a more limited number of deportations?
Not many, I’m guessing. It’s common to hear from disgruntled Trump critics that his supporters, who’ve been sold endless grandiose promises about new jobs and no more illegals and a 10-foot-high wall and the destruction of ISIS, etc, will be consistently disappointed in the actual results if/when he becomes president. Similarly, heaven forbid that they find out before the primaries are over that his plans for immigration involve dealmaking, not some sort of executive edict by which illegals are forcibly placed on buses and driven back to Mexico. I don’t think that’s how the psychology of this works, though. The psychology, as you’ve seen from many rank-and-file Democrats over most of the last eight years, works more like this: Trump is obviously the best leader America can hope for, therefore any policy he pursues in office must have its merits. That’s how the anti-war left ended up with an “anti-war” president who intervened in Libya, doubled down in Afghanistan, and became known for his aggressive use of drone strikes. There was no left-wing revolt over that (although you’re surely seeing some delayed discontent in Berniemania). There’ll be no populist revolt when Trump inevitably disappoints either. There’s a million ways he can sell disappointing results to his base: “This is just the first stage!” “The Republican establishment stabbed him in the back!” “It’s still more than Rubio would have gotten us!” That’s Trump’s true genius, after all — salesmanship. How hard would it be for a sales genius to sell a mediocre outcome to an audience that’s already formed a cult of personality around him? If, as Trump himself is known to say, they’d forgive him for murdering someone, they’ll forgive him for getting half a loaf, or a quarter of a loaf, or an eighth of a loaf on illegals. When you invest emotionally as heavily in a politician’s messianism as Obama fans have invested in O and Trump fans have invested in Trump, you’ll go a long way psychologically to protect your investment. That’s always been a big asset to Obama. It’ll be an asset to Trump too.
Now that BuzzFeed’s created a mystery around what Trump said, though, his best move is to simply ask the Times to release the audio and spin it accordingly. If he holds off, he’ll have the same sort of problem he has right now with his income taxes, leaving people free to speculate about just how bad things might be. Besides, Rubio and Cruz can and would argue that Trump-supporting border hawks have more of an incentive than anyone else to want the tapes out. If they’re serious about the border, they need to know who they’re trusting here. Assuming Trump’s innocent, the tapes will reveal nothing and he’ll be able to crow that he’s beaten the media yet again in an attempt to take him down. As I say, there’s nothing in there that he can’t spin away successfully — especially when his main competition for the nomination is the guy who wrote the Gang of Eight bill. Even a compromised Trump would still have more border-hawk cred than Rubio. Exit quotation:
Cruz calls for Trump to ask NYT to release the tape: pic.twitter.com/fz69gDp4XD
— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) February 29, 2016
Update: Via Dave Weigel, turns out York followed up with Trump in an interview about his negotiation philosophy. This exchange was published just eight days after the super-secret chat with the Times:
So I look at deporting all illegal immigrants. I look at a temporary ban of Muslims coming to the United States. They get a lot of attention. Are they opening positions in a negotiation?
I’m not saying there can’t be some give and take, but at some point we have to look at these things. You look at the radical Islamic terrorism and you look at what’s going on, we have to take a serious look. There’s tremendous hatred. You look at illegal immigration and all that’s taking place with respect to illegal immigration, whether it’s the crime or the economy, I mean, it affects many different elements. It doesn’t mean I’m hard and fast 100 percent, but we to get a lot of what I’m asking for, or we’re not going to have a country any more.
So they are opening positions?
They are very strong positions. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to negotiate a little bit, but I guess there will always be some negotiation. But they are very strong positions, and I would adhere to those positions very strongly. That doesn’t mean that at some point we won’t talk a little bit about some negotiation. Who wouldn’t do that?
So there you go. If and when the NYT audio is released, I bet it looks a lot like that.