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Trump’s problem: Screwing up the details

FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Des Moines, Iowa. Trump promises on Twitter that he'll make a major speech on illegal immigration on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, carrying his self-declared "immigration week" into a second. Trump appears unable to make a decision on what his policy on his signature issue ought to be, an odd place for a candidate 10 weeks before Election Day and a dark harbinger of indecision for a potential president. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Des Moines, Iowa. He promises a major speech on illegal immigration on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Donald Trump and his aides used to say that voters didn’t care about the nitty-gritty of policy details. But now those details are tripping up his campaign.

For more than a week now, as he’s tried to shine the spotlight on his rival, Trump has appeared to wrestle with one of his signature proposals: A pledge to expel everyone living in the U.S. illegally with the help of a “deportation force.”

At a Fox News town hall taping last week, in the face of pressing questions, the GOP nominee proceeded to poll the audience at length on the fate of an estimated 11 million people. It was a stunning display of indecision from a candidate who has asked voters to put enormous faith in his gut instincts.

Trump is now planning a major speech Wednesday, during which he’s expected to finally clarify his stance. Supporters are hoping for a strong, decisive showing. But the episode underscores how little time his campaign has invested in outlining how he would accomplish his goals as president, especially when compared with the detailed plans of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. And for critics, many already disposed to vote against him, his wavering on what has been his signature issue seems like a warning that he’s unable to handle a central element of any president’s job — making decisions.

“It’s just puzzling,” said Lanhee Chen, who has served as a policy adviser to several Republican presidential candidates. “This is the issue on which he rose to prominence in the primary and the issue on which he continues to stake much of his campaign.”

From the start, Trump has never been the kind of candidate to pore over thick policy books.

Indeed, he has mocked Clinton on the subject.

“She’s got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day. Nothing’s ever going to happen. It’s just a waste of paper,” he told Time Magazine in June. “My voters don’t care and the public doesn’t care. They know you’re going to do a good job once you’re there.”

To date, Trump’s campaign has posted just seven policy proposals on his website, totaling just over 9,000 words. There are 38 on Clinton’s “issues” page, ranging from efforts to cure Alzheimer’s disease to Wall Street and criminal justice reform, and her campaign boasts that it has now released 65 policy fact sheets, totaling 112,735 words.

“I’ve laid out the best I could, the specific plans and ideas that I want to pursue as your president because I have this old-fashioned idea,” Clinton said during a recent speech in Colorado. “When you run for president, you ought to tell people what you want to do as their president.”

Trump’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has said she’s pushing her boss to get more specific. Yet his positions on a host of issues remain vague at best.

For example, while Trump has slammed the Common Core education standards and touts the benefits of local control of education, he has no formal, detailed plans for improving public schools. He talks about student loan debt and the increasing costs of higher education, but has yet to propose solutions. He has teased plans to make childcare more affordable, but has missed his own deadline for unveiling them.

Trump’s supporters say questions about his recent waffling on the deportation question are overblown. His running mate, Mike Pence, describes him as “a CEO at work” as he consults with various stakeholders.

“You see someone who is engaging the American people, listening to the American people,” Pence told CNN on Sunday. “He is hearing from all sides.”

But Chen, the Republican policy adviser, said a President Trump arriving at the White House without detailed plans could be limited in how much he might achieve, since a new president’s power is at its apex early on.

“If you’re not able to hit the ground running, chances are you’re going to run into serious resistance if you sit there studying something for the first 100 days,” he said.


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