Donald Trump's combination of a snap visit to Mexico with his much anticipated, and previously delayed, speech on immigration policy in Phoenix last night sent conflicting signals to a public already bewildered by the changes in tone and emphasis on immigration policy coming from the Republican nominee in recent weeks. This is not to say the confusion won't work to Trump's advantage: No matter how you slice it, yesterday was a good day for Trump's campaign if he and its managers know how to exploit it.
The core argument against Trump has been that he is unfit. But, he did not look unfit in the pictures from Los Pinos, the presidential residence in Mexico City. He looked downright presidential. We know the tableau: Flag or seal of the host country, or of both countries, in the background, the twin lecterns with microphones, the eager press corps. But, there was Trump, apparently holding his own. The subsequent dust up over whether or not Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto did or did not tell Trump that Mexico would not be paying for the new border wall is less important than the photo. Pictures are worth a thousand words, right? Besides, in a choice between believing a foreign president who failed to challenge Trump when they were standing next to each other, and believing Trump, I suspect any undecided voters will believe Trump.
Peña Nieto was never going to be on my Christmas card list anyway but, really, what was he thinking? Why did he throw what obviously had the potential to be a good photo op for Trump towards the previously struggling candidate? Peña Nieto must answer to the people of Mexico for this, and I think we know what his answer will be.
Of course, the Trump campaign seems incapable of capitalizing on a good photo op. Normally, a presidential campaign would treat a visit to a foreign country as the kind of defining event that requires careful preparation, surrogates addressing the visit for days in advance, careful media preparation with op-eds placed in advance, detailed crafting of precisely the exact message, and a plan to exploit the message during and after the visit. I remember in December of 2003, flying from Little Rock to Washington to accompany General Wesley Clark to an editorial board meeting at The New Republic, for which I had written over the years. It was a Saturday, and that evening, Gen. Clark was flying to the Hague where he was slated to testify against Slododan Milosevic, the mastermind of the crimes against humanity in the Balkans. The New Republic was a natural sounding board for the visit given the magazine's strong support for U.S. intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s. The campaign spent weeks preparing for the visit as we hoped it would really elevate the general above the rest of the field, with a little more than a month before the first primary.
All that planning went for nothing. The next morning, when Gen. Clark arrived in the Netherlands, the news broke that U.S. forces had captured Saddam Hussein. I can still remember waking up that morning in the hotel room, turning on the TV in anticipation of seeing photos of Gen. Clark arriving at Schipol only to see pictures of a bearded Hussein having his teeth checked by U.S. military medical personnel.
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We should resist post hoc propter hoc analysis: All that planning may have been for naught, but would we really want a president who flies off at the drop of a hat, with little preparation, for a meeting with a world leader? I do not trust people who trust their gut, and neither should anybody else. The lack of preparation was evident in the awkward news conference after the meeting, with Peña Nieto and Trump dancing around each other's statements, getting in subtle digs but maintaining a sense of decorum. That does not hurt Trump. Again, many voters will only see the pictures, and the pictures showed Trump and the president of a country he has demeaned for many months apparently getting along, if not like old friends, certainly within the bounds of diplomatic decency. The image, if not the reality, helped make Trump appear like a plausible president.
Trump's speech on immigration policy, however, did not help him expand his reach into those voters who are already reluctant to support him. After two weeks of signaling a softening on the issue of immigration, he reverted to form, decided to dance with the girl that brought him, which in this case is the hardcore, racist and quasi-racist GOP base, and delivered a 10-point plan that was heavy on dark and ominous renderings of America besieged by immigrants, and light on hope and promise, to say nothing of being light as a feather on policy specifics. Unsurprisingly, white supremacists were tweeting their praise for the speech before the clock struck midnight!
The plan itself, if such it can be called, was a pastiche of previous locutions now dressed up in pseudo-policy drag. He did not talk about a deportation force, but he did talk about tripling the number of ICE agents. He pledged "zero tolerance" for "criminal aliens" and claimed there were two million such aliens in the country, a claim I suspect will justify a new standard at The Washington Post's fact checker of five Pinocchios! Trump spoke of the "countless Americans" killed by "illegals" and cited five instances, all of them tragic I am sure, but there is hardly an epidemic warranting the adjective "countless." At the end of the speech, he brought out family members of those killed by "illegals," but it was emotional exploitation at its crudest and I suspect it fell flat.
Trump made it clear that "the core issue" is not the needs of the 11 million undocumented immigrants (and then speculated about the real number -- "it could be 30 million! We don't know"), and asserted that the "only issue in the immigration debate is the well-being of the American people." I hope the next interviewer will ask him in what meaningful sense of the word the Dreamers are not part of "the American people." He pledged to "turn off the jobs and benefits magnet," although the courts might have something to say about that. He fretted about the billions spent on immigration, even while his proposals amounted to billions more. Trump completely punted on the issue of what to do with those who do not get caught in an ICE dragnet: During the primaries, he called for mass deportation, and last night it was hard to know what he was calling for except "a new commission," the oldest political trick in the book for avoiding a tough issue.
Still, the tone of the speech was tough, even nasty. At the Democratic convention, the mothers of victims of gun violence also appeared on stage, but so did representatives of the police. It is inconceivable that Trump would have brought out a Latino last night: The person would have risked being lynched by that crowd that cheered and jeered on cue, warming to the anger Trump conveyed and applauding his simplistic and simplistically diabolical attribution of all the nation's ills to the "problem" of immigration.
It is not hard to surmise that Trump realized if he tried to jettison his signature issue, or even soften it too much, he would look just like another politician, flip flopping as needed; in doing so, the Trump brand would be damaged, and that insofar as he believes -- and has been confirmed so far in his belief -- politics are now more about image and personality than about expertise and policy, he needed to stick to his guns on both building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and making Mexico pay for it. The Ann Coulter crowd won the debate within the Trump HQ. Certainly, he and his team decided that they needed to appear tough above all else, and we will see if that works. Who can say that there will not be some public trauma in the coming weeks that will make his public image of toughness seem not only attractive but necessary, and not only to those who lack a college degree but to those who hold one? I think it was a mistake for Trump not to soften further on the issue of immigration, but yesterday was a good day for him and there is no denying it.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]