NBC News’ Meet The Press aired an interview on Sunday morning between host Chuck Todd and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence. As with his most recent morning show appearances, yet again Pence's top priority seemed to be defending Trump’s immigration proposals, which have shifted and changed in recent weeks from deporting each and every undocumented immigrant in the United States, to prioritizing the deportation of what he sometimes calls “criminal aliens.”
It’s still a truly hard-line policy proposal, one he’s implausibly promising to accomplish within the first hour of his first day as president, mobilizing state, local, and federal law enforcement to deport millions. But it’s also a stark and startling change from his initial position, of rounding up and kicking out all the country’s undocumented (estimated to be around 11 million people) via a “deportation force,” and the inconsistency has moved journalists and media outlets to pepper the Trump campaign with requests for clarification.
Hot on the heels of Trump’s visit to Mexico on Wednesday, followed by a anti-immigration speech that night, it comes as little surprise that Todd started off by pressing Pence on Trump’s inconsistency. But, just like in Pence’s interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper last Sunday, he wouldn’t even grant Todd that much.
Pence denied there was any inconsistency in the face of Todd’s strenuous insistence. Todd asked Pence if he could “clear up” some of the campaign’s “muddiness” on the issue, and Pence replied that there was nothing muddy at all.
“Well, that may be the way you see it. Looking at this, some 10,000 people in Arizona last week, it wasn't the way they see it. As I travel across this country, campaigning with Donald Trump and for Donald Trump, I think people hear him loud and clear. And he's been completely consistent on this point.”
Todd balked at this, and interrupted Pence as he remarked that Trump “put illegal immigration at the very center of the national debate.” While he didn’t dispute that point, Todd made it plain that Trump had indeed been inconsistent on this issue, seemingly softening his position as the general election looms.
Taking a different tact, Todd confronted Pence with the recent defection of a number of high-ranking Latino Trump-backers, who were so incensed by the candidate’s vitriolic speech on Wednesday night that they abandoned him altogether. Specifically, because they felt “misled” by his draconian gyrations on deportations. At least, that’s how Jacob Monty, formerly a member of Trump’s Hispanic Advisory Council, characterized his decision earlier this week.
Pence’s answer was, suffice to say, not very straightforward:
“I was campaigning in Idaho, and a Mexican-American who came to this country legally, with his family, came up to me wearing a Trump/Pence shirt, shook my hand, and said, ‘tell Donald Trump we support him 100 percent.’ People who have come to this country legally, stood in line, played by the rules, in the Latino and the Hispanic community, just like every other American, long to have a president that says ‘we are a nation of laws,’ and that we're going to uphold and enforce these laws.”
He went on to accuse the media of being overly focused on the fates of those estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, insisting that Trump’s Wednesday night speech in Arizona was more concerned with “the more than 300 million people who are citizens of this country and are here legally in this country.”
Perhaps sensing Pence’s utter unwillingness to directly answer to the Trump campaign’s policy shift on deportations, Todd asked him whether this was going to be an open question for the duration of the campaign, whether it was “fair to say that you're not going to answer this question about the 11 to 15 million?”“I think Donald Trump's been completely consistent. And I think he did answer the question,” Pence replied.
Todd also pressed Pence on the recent addition of Steve Bannon as campaign CEO, and the widespread reports that he’s taking advice from former Fox News chief Roger Ailes—a pair of men with a litany of troubling allegations against them.
In court filings from Bannon's divorce, his ex-wife accused him of both physical abuse and antisemitism, while Ailes stepped down from his post at Fox amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment and predatory behavior. Pence initially defended Bannon, pointing out that he’d “denied all these allegations.”
Todd then asked the question more pointedly: “Does [Trump] ignore troubling allegations against people who work for him?” Pence clearly had no interest in giving an in-depth answer, saying only that he trusted Trump to assemble his team:
“I trust Donald Trump to assemble a team around him in this campaign, as he has, and will continue to. You'll continue to see people added to the campaign. What's really remarkable for me having joined this campaign just six weeks ago, is the fact that this campaign has always been propelled by a movement of the American people. I mean where, in Hillary Clinton, there's a thousand employees and experts and pollsters. And frankly, there were people in the Republican primary who had a significant apparatus, as well.”
Pence also touched on Trump’s ongoing refusal to release his tax returns, which the candidate insists is due to them being under audit. For the record, there’s no concrete evidence (besides Trump’s say-so) that his recent returns are actually under audit, and he and his campaign have also steadfastly refused to release returns from previous years (from 2002 to 2008) which his tax lawyers have confirmed are not under audit.
But Trump and company have steadfastly insisted that the tax returns will be released whenever the alleged audit is over with. Pence reiterated that on Sunday, along with a promise to release his own tax returns―an awkward situation, really, if Trump isn’t willing to show the public any of his own.“Donald Trump and I are both going to release our tax returns. I'll release mine in the next week,” Pence said. “Donald Trump will release his tax returns at the completion of an audit.”
Pence also laid into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over recently released FBI documents relating to the investigation of her email practices while Secretary of State, claiming that the disclosures have proven her to be “the most dishonest candidate for the presidency of the United States since Richard Nixon.”
As in so many Sunday morning interviews before, Pence was forced to try to tie up loose ends, all while trying to swivel the spotlight onto Clinton's record instead. The extent to which he didn't directly or clearly respond to many of Todd's questions lays bare the dilemma, however. The top of the ticket is volatile and unpredictable enough that not only do his surrogates (and in this case, his running mate) have to speak in his defense, and clean up his previous statements, they also have to leave him breathing room if he decides to change things up again.