Earlier today, Donald Trump traveled to Mexico City to meet with the Mexican president. This meeting was pretty spontaneous, as it was only announced yesterday, and it took many observers by surprise. It was a risky move for Trump, with plenty of opportunities for it to turn out badly. But Trump exceeded expectations, as he appeared afterwards and read a prepared statement, then took a few questions from the press.
The bar for the Mexican meeting was set pretty low -- all Trump really had to do was get out of it without a major gaffe of any sort. He cleared this low bar, appearing as statesman-like as he's yet managed on the campaign trail. The Mexican president didn't insult Trump in his statement, Trump didn't insult Mexico and Mexicans in his statement, and the only real news from the meeting was that they didn't actually discuss Trump's outrageous proposal that Mexico is going to pay to build his wall. Well, according to Trump, at least. Within hours, the Mexican president insisted that he had indeed told Trump in no uncertain terms that Mexico wasn't going to pay for any wall. But whatever the reality of what was said in private, the public part of the event itself seemed downright chummy between the two.
In the private meeting (which, for some reason, included Rudy Giuliani and Jeff Sessions), apparently the Mexican president laid out his concerns about continuing NAFTA and stopping the flow of guns and money into his country from America. Trump addressed his concerns about shutting the border down and updating NAFTA, and reaffirmed America's sovereign right to build a wall on its borders if it chooses to.
Both men, in their statements and demeanor, were diplomatic. This is perhaps the first time Trump has ever merited that description, but as I said, he did clear that bar in his public statement and his answers to the very few questions allowed. So the meeting was a clear winner for Trump, doing precisely what it was intended to, politically: present Trump as both presidential, and also as a tough negotiator with a foreign leader. Trump's appearance was meant to reassure suburban voters that a President Trump wouldn't be an embarrassing loose cannon on the world stage, and he may very well have provided a degree of this reassurance today.
I wrote all of the above before I watched his speech this evening, I should mention. Trump flew from Mexico City to Phoenix and gave a speech to a crowd of (according to CBS) "6,000-8,000 people." From the announced location of the speech, I couldn't help but wonder if it was held in the very same room I saw Bernie Sanders deliver a speech in, roughly one year ago (to a crowd of over 11,000 people).
Donald Trump began his speech tonight by promising it wouldn't "be a rally speech," but rather a policy speech. This may have been the intent, but it certainly turned into a rally-type speech several times over the course of the 70 minutes it lasted. Perhaps he was ad-libbing, or perhaps the written speech had lots of red-meat lines built in -- it was tough to tell, at times.
Trump's speech tonight was more coherent and detailed than anything he's said previously on the subject of immigration, but it had relatively few new items or ideas contained within it. He obviously has given up on "softening" his stance in any way -- something both he and his campaign have been struggling with for the past two weeks. Trump tried mightily to brush aside the entire question of what to do with the 11 million undocumented people already within America, both at the beginning and the end of the speech. Up front, he claimed that concerns about what to do with the 11 million were nothing more than a media conspiracy, because they refused to worry about the needs of American citizens. Trump promised not to worry about the needs of the 11 million at all, but rather to worry about the needs of Americans. He did toss in a line about treating them "with dignity," but essentially dodged the issue from the start.
Trump spent a lot of time detailing how horrendous the immigration situation is (in his eyes), with plenty of gory stories about "criminal aliens" killing and raping and committing horrendous crimes. At the end, he trotted out family members of crime victims, just in case anyone had missed the point. Trump bashed President Obama and Hillary Clinton for all he was worth, claiming at one point that Clinton would give all undocumented immigrants "Obamacare, Medicare, and Social Security," without a shred of actual proof. The crowd certainly didn't seem to mind.
The meat of Trump's speech was a 10-point plan for what he would do if elected. He promised to deport two million "criminal aliens" in "the first hour" after he took office, the most astonishing promise of the night. He had kind words, once again, for President Eisenhower's "Operation Wetback," even though he refrained from using the label. He reiterated his plan to suspend all immigration from certain regions and countries, and promised "extreme vetting" for anyone attempting to enter the U.S. from them. The rest of his points were familiar, starting with his big "build a great wall" applause line. Even though the Mexican president had already contradicted Trump's assertion that paying for the wall had not been discussed, Trump promised once again "they don't know it yet, but they're going to pay for it."
The speech had wonky overtones, at times -- including a dive into "287(g) partnerships" -- which Trump carefully read off the TelePrompTer, but it also had plenty of freewheeling lines for the crowd, mostly on the subject of how Obama and Clinton are responsible for all the country's ills.
Trump cleared up his shifting stance on the 11 million halfway through his list, promising to cancel all of Obama's executive orders. He again didn't specify what this meant in any detail, but it was clear that all the "dreamer" kids would once again be subject to deportation. Trump clearly stated "no one will be exempt or immune" from deportation among the 11 million. At the very end of the speech, there was some line about how people who were already here might get some sort of consideration -- but only after the border wall was built, all "criminal aliens" had been deported, and everything else pertaining to immigration had all been perfectly solved, forever. But this "softening" line was weak and a virtual orphan, since it was actually a contradiction of what he had said earlier. The short version of Trump's speech might have been: "11 million people will be deported, or they're going to have to leave on their own. Period."
Far from softening his stance, tonight Trump doubled down on it. After actually achieving "statesman-like" status earlier in the day, Trump reverted to form. Because he was reading from a prepared speech, the language he used was less insulting than he's previously used on the same subject, but his positions remained just as hardline as they've ever been.
Trump had a choice to make -- a choice he's been struggling with for weeks. He could make a play for Latino, independent, and suburban white voters by "tacking to the middle" and softening his stance on undocumented immigrants, or he could ignore the advice to pivot and reassure his core base that he wasn't going to change a thing. He chose the latter.
What this means with the voters will take some time to determine. My own guess is that any possible goodwill he might have created from his Mexican excursion was wiped out by his hardliner speech tonight. Anyone looking for a shift in Trump's basic position on the issue would have been disappointed, even if they only saw soundbites or clips of that speech. Trump clearly doesn't care about his standing with Latino voters, and he's also clearly not all that concerned about his standing with suburban women, either.
Trump keeps faking the media out, I will give him that. His team keeps fanning the flames of "Trump's going to pivot soon!" only to have Trump stomp all over the idea. There may have even been a power struggle within the Trump campaign over the past few weeks (perhaps we'll see a few more resignations?), but quite obviously the "let Trump be Trump" faction won. He may shore up his support in Arizona, but I kind of doubt the speech he gave tonight is going to help him in many other regions of the country. Trump started the day by doing something he hasn't yet managed -- appear presidential -- but his speech is almost guaranteed to overshadow his spontaneous trip to Mexico. What was clear by the end of the day is something that's been fairly plain to see all along: Trump is just not going to pivot. Ever.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant