Donald Trump made his first significant moves as the nation’s president-elect Sunday, naming two campaign insiders with sharply contrasting approaches as his top White House aides while also signaling that he will seek to promptly deport up to 3 million immigrants with “criminal records” who are in the U.S. illegally.
The rapid-fire developments highlighted the challenges Trump faces in reconciling the rhetoric that helped propel him to victory with how he is prepared to govern.
Trump, in an interview broadcast Sunday night on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” appeared to adjust expectations for how he will implement immigration policy, one of his signature election themes. Though he backed prompt deportations for those in the U.S. illegally who also have criminal records, Trump also said he will defer the far wider exclusions he called for during the campaign until “after the border is secure.”
“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records … probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate,” Trump said.
“After the border is secure, and after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination” on whether to deport others, he said.
Trump’s estimate of how many immigrants have criminal records exceeds what others have found. About 820,000 people in the U.S. illegally have criminal convictions, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, a group that is funded by Fortune 500 companies, major foundations and the U.S. and more than a dozen foreign governments.
In an immigration policy speech in August, Trump said about 2 million “criminal aliens” lived in the U.S., a calculation made by the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit group that seeks to lower immigration levels. The organization said it was citing a Department of Homeland Security report that counted 1.9 million “removable criminal aliens.” That cohort, however, includes people who are legal permanent residents or have temporary visas.
Trump did not provide a timetable for when this second phase of determinations might unfold. Asked about his oft-repeated pledge to secure the U.S.-Mexico border by building a wall, Trump said that he would consider sections of fencing, as preferred by some members of Congress. About 650 or so miles of fencing is already in place along the border.
As for another pledge he made during the campaign — to seek prosecution of Hillary Clinton related to her handling of sensitive government information — Trump said, “I’m going to think about it. … She did some bad things.” Yet Trump also seemed reluctant to follow through against his vanquished rival and, by extension, former President Bill Clinton.
“I don’t want to hurt them,” Trump said. “I don’t want to hurt them. They’re — they’re good people.”
In a related vein, Trump said he did not yet know whether he would seek the resignation of FBI Director James Comey, whose public comments about aspects of the investigation of the emails ignited controversy in the campaign’s late stages.
“I haven’t made up my mind,” Trump said. “I respect him a lot. … This is a tough time for him, and I would like to talk to him” before deciding.
Trump was less equivocal in commenting on his running refusal to release any of his federal income-tax returns. He will make returns public, Trump said, “at the appropriate time.”
“Nobody cares,” Trump said, adding, “Obviously, the public didn’t care because I won the election very easily. So they don’t care. I never thought they did care.”
Trump’s comments on immigration were echoed Sunday by other Republican leaders. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin said to CNN, “We’re focused on securing the border. … We’re not planning on erecting a deportation force.”
Newt Gingrich, who served as House speaker in the 1990s and who is assisting Trump’s transition, told the CBS that the deportation of immigrants in the country illegally who have criminal pasts would be the new administration’s priority.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a close Trump ally whom the president-elect may appoint as U.S. attorney general, said his administration “would have to be very careful” regarding immigration from terrorism-prone regions of the Middle East.
“I think this is going to be a country-by-country decision,” Giuliani told CNN, saying that much will depend on the extent to which each country cooperates in sharing information.
One clear exception, Giuliani suggested, would be prospective immigrants from Syria, because of the possibility that terrorists might be planted among refugees.
“We would be foolish to allow these people to come into the United States,” Giuliani said, adding that U.S. authorities “already have 1,000 investigations of radical Islamic terrorists in the United States.”
Under Obama administration policy, Syrian refugees applying for asylum in the U.S. undergo an 18- to 24-month vetting process, some of the most stringent examinations the government says it conducts in considering whom to allow in the country.