By Laurie Kellman
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump isn’t making it easy for top supporters and advisers, from his running mate on down, to defend him or explain some campaign positions.
Across the Sunday news shows, a parade of Trump stand-ins, led by vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, couldn’t say whether Trump was sticking with or changing a central promise to boot the roughly 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally, with the help of a “deportation force.” And they didn’t bother defending his initial response Saturday to the killing of a mother as she walked her baby on a Chicago street.
Questioned on whether it’s a problem that the GOP presidential nominee has left key details on immigration policy unclear so late in the election, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus demurred: “I just don’t speak for Donald Trump.”
It was a striking look at Trump’s leadership of a team he had said would help drive him to victory in the Nov. 8 election.
The very purpose of surrogates is to speak for and back up their presidential nominee. But Team Trump has struggled to do so even as they stayed tightly together on the details they know: Trump will issue more details on the immigration plan soon, the policy will be humane and despite his clear wavering, he’s been “consistent” on the issue. Any discussion of inconsistencies or potentially unpresidential tweeting, Pence and others suggested, reflected media focus on the wrong issue.
The right issue, they said, was whether Democrat Hillary Clinton crossed ethical lines during her tenure as secretary of state by talking with people outside the government who had contributed to her family’s philanthropy foundation. Priebus’ counterpart at the Democratic National Committee, Donna Brazile, said there’s no evidence of that. Clinton on Sunday was raising campaign money in the Hamptons, a vacation spot for the wealthy on Long Island.
Asked whether the “deportation force” proposal Trump laid out in November is still in place, Pence replied: “Well, what you heard him describe there, in his usual plainspoken, American way, was a mechanism, not a policy.”
Added Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway: “The softening is more approach than policy,” adding that on immigration, Trump “wants to find a fair and humane way.”
“He is not talking about a deportation force,” she observed.
The Indiana governor, Conway and other surrogates said the main tenets of Trump’s immigration plan still will include building a wall along the southern U.S. border and making Mexico pay for it, no path to legalization or citizenship for people here illegally and stronger border enforcement. Pence also did not answer whether the campaign believes, as Trump has said, that children born to people who are in the U.S. illegally are not U.S. citizens. That, he said, “is a subject for the future.”
Native-born children of immigrants, even those living illegally in the U.S., have been automatically considered American citizens since the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868.
Trump has focused lately on deporting people who are in the U.S. illegally and who have committed crimes. But who Trump considers a criminal remained unclear Sunday.
“Those are the things that Donald Trump is going to answer,” Priebus said.
Other Trump stand-ins, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, spoke similarly.
Recent polls indicate Clinton is ahead in some of the most competitive and pivotal states. The first presidential debate is set for Sept. 26.
Trump in recent days has suggested he might be “softening” on the deportation force and that he might be open to allowing at least some immigrants in the country illegally to stay, as long as they pay taxes.
But by Thursday, he was ruling out any kind of legal status — “unless they leave the country and come back,” he told CNN.
His surrogates on Sunday refused to comment on Trump’s reaction to the fatal shooting of NBA star Dwyane Wade’s cousin Friday, as she pushed her baby in a stroller in Chicago.
Trump’s first tweet about the shooting ended this way: “Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!”
A few hours later, he followed up with a tweet offering condolences to Wade and his family.
Asked whether the initial tweet was presidential or appropriate, GOP officials and campaign advisers instead talked about reducing crime or said they were pleased Trump followed up with a tweet of condolence and empathy.
Christie said the media “focus on process … instead of the message.” He said the killing of someone pushing a stroller “is unacceptable in an American city” and that “the level of violence in Chicago is unacceptable.”
Pence appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Priebus was on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Christie was interviewed on ABC’s “This Week” and Conway was on Fox and she and Brazile appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”