It’s been a very busy morning for one of the new high-profile names in the Donald Trump presidential campaign: veteran GOP strategist Kellyanne Conway, who joined Trump’s team as campaign manager this week. She’s been making the rounds on TV in the days since, culminating in appearances on two of the big Sunday morning interview shows, ABC’s This Week, and CNN’s State of the Union.
And she ended up making some news in both. In the ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos, she praised Trump’s “humility,” denied that he hurled personal insults, and made it clear that his expression of regret earlier this week didn’t come with any private apologies. And in her interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, she dropped a very newsworthy line about one of the GOP nominee’s most incendiary and most core issues: immigration.
Or, more specifically, how Trump plans to deport the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living within the United States. During his primary campaign, Trump said that he’d form a “deportation force,” to effectively round up and remove those millions of people from the United States.
Like so much of his rhetoric surrounding Latino immigration?much of it caustic, and, as demonstrated by his statements in his presidential announcement speech, racist?the choice of phrase and the harshness of the policy stirred up major fears among pro-immigration reform advocates. Along with Trump’s plans for a border wall, it’s one of the big issues of his campaign.
And yet, in recent days, there have been murmurs that Trump might be starting to waver, or might consider walking back some of his draconian immigration policies. That’s what BuzzFeed’s Adrian Carrasquillo reported on Friday, citing characterizations by members of Trump’s Hispanic advisory council.
So Bash was lined up perfectly to get the information straight from Conway. Early in their interview, she posed the question: Does Trump still want a deportation force? At first, Conway tried to completely duck answering directly, instead addressing the substance of the meeting referenced in the BuzzFeed report. If her response achieved anything, it was to show all the up-and-coming politicos, aides, and campaign surrogates out there how to filibuster an uncomfortable question:
“So, what Donald Trump said yesterday in that meeting differed very little from what he has said publicly Dana, including his convention speech last month in Cleveland. It’s that we need a quote fair, and quote humane way, of dealing with what is estimated to be about 11 million illegal immigrants in this country. That was part of the discussion, it was a very robust discussion. I’ve seen him very animated in meetings like this where he is learning, he’s taking notes, he’s asking questions, he’s receiving information, and the rest of the conversation frankly was about job creation, economic revitalization, the fact that small business growth among Hispanic and Latino Americans is on the rise, we talked about the inability to get access to capital for many of them, we talked about home ownership as being very important, religion and family being very important to Hispanics, it was a very long, very far-reaching conversation, but nothing was said yesterday that differs from what Mr. Trump said previously.”
Considering that Bash’s yes-no question was “does Donald Trump still support setting up a deportation force,” Conway’s response is a veritable master class in evasion. Bash didn’t let her off without a follow-up, however. She asked the question again, and drew out another pointed non-answer from Conway.
But the third time was the charm. “Will that plan include a deportation force, the kind that you just heard in that sound byte, and that he talked about during the Republican primaries?” Bash asked once again. Conway’s response: “To be determined.”
That wasn’t the only issue Conway discussed with Bash. Notably, Conway defended Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, citing an IRS audit as a valid reason why he can’t let the public see them. This contradicts her past statements as a pro-Ted Cruz surrogate during the GOP primaries. And, when Bash asked if Trump would release his past returns from 2002 to 2008 that aren’t under audit, Conway shot the idea down without much explanation. “No,” she said, “I would not,” before pivoting into praise for Trump’s tax plan.
She also spoke to the relationship between Trump and former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who left the channel amid allegations of sexual harassment and predatory behavior, saying the pair were “old friends.” While Conway denied that Ailes had any “formal or informal role with the campaign,” and denied that she’d ever been present in a meeting between Trump and Ailes, she did say that “Mr. Trump speaks to many people.”
Overall, Conway’s weekend media appearances highlighted some of the core challenges of defending Trump and trying to bolster his reputation—but also some of the on-camera savvy that’ll likely make her a more valuable presence than, say, former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort.
Rather than responding to a tough question by overtly attacking the media or hew interviewer, Conway tried to keep things rolling along at a fairly steady, even-keeled tone, clearly prioritizing being a positive face for the campaign above all else. Whether that’s enough to make a difference at this point, however, with so many state-level polls now forecasting a ruinous November for Trump, is an open question.