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Story highlights

"There's no path to legalization unless they leave the country," Trump said

But he declined to clarify whether he would forcibly deport all of the undocumented immigrants in the US

(CNN) —  

Donald Trump ruled out Thursday a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants in the United States, walking back comments he made earlier this week in which he appeared open to the idea.

But the Republican nominee declined in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper to clarify whether he would still forcibly deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US – a major tenet of his immigration platform – after he suggested this week he was “softening” on the idea.

“There’s no path to legalization unless they leave the country,” Trump said after an event in Manchester, New Hampshire. “When they come back in, then they can start paying taxes, but there is no path to legalization unless they leave the country and then come back.”

Trump said that on his first day in office, he would authorize law enforcement to actively deport “bad dudes,” such as those who have committed crimes, which he said numbered “probably millions.” But he declined to flatly say whether he would round up other undocumented immigrants, stressing that once the initial deportations occur, “then we can talk.”

“There is a very good chance the answer could be yes,” Trump said when asked if he would deport those who have lived here peacefully but without papers. “We’re going to see what happens.”

Trump’s comments are the latest turn in a now-daily recalibration of his position on immigration, which Trump said he would crystallize in a speech next week. During the primary, Trump advocated unequivocally for deporting undocumented immigrants, and the shifts he has hinted at would be a highly-scrutinized flip on a trademark issue.

Trump had said earlier this week that he would be open to a “softening” on immigration, and made a series of comments that indicated a path to legalization was likely as long as they paid taxes accumulated from their time living here illegally. Yet Trump now seems to be reverting to his original plan – one derided as a “touchback” policy in which those without proper papers must return home before re-entering the country.

Yet it was now unclear to what length Trump would go to execute those deportations.

“It’s a process. You can’t take 11 at one time and just say ‘boom, you’re gone,’” he told Cooper, floating the idea that as many as 30 million people could be living here illegally, a projection well beyond most analysts’ figures. “I don’t think it’s a softening. I’ve had people say it’s a hardening, actually.”

On Wednesday, Trump suggested he would allow exceptions to let some undocumented immigrants to stay in the US, vowing he wouldn’t grant them citizenship but telling Fox News, “there’s no amnesty, but we work with them.”

Trump continued: “No citizenship. Let me go a step further – they’ll pay back-taxes, they have to pay taxes, there’s no amnesty, as such, there’s no amnesty, but we work with them,” Trump told Sean Hannity when asked if he would allow for exceptions to his long-held position.

At the same event with Hannity, Trump, who over the weekend met with Hispanic advisers, said about his immigration policies: “There could certainly be a softening because we’re not looking to hurt people.”

Clinton’s campaign called Trump’s plan “dangerous” in a statement Thursday night.

“He may try to disguise his plans by throwing in words like “humane” or ” fair,” but the reality remains that Trump’s agenda echoes the extreme right’s will – one that is fueling a dangerous movement of hatred across the country,” Clinton spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said.

Calls Clinton a ‘bigot’

Trump also defended calling Clinton a “bigot,” arguing that her policies are a personal reflection because she knows they are destined to fail minority communities.

Trump and Clinton are each portraying the other as discriminatory toward African-Americans, with Trump charging on Wednesday evening that the candidate herself was hateful. Pushed by Cooper if Trump meant to make a personal argument about Clinton as opposed to a policy argument, Trump doubled down.

“She is a bigot,” he said. “She is selling them down the tubes because she’s not doing anything for those communities. She talks a good game. But she doesn’t do anything.”

Asked if he believed Clinton personally hated black people, Trump claimed: “Her policies are bigoted because she knows they’re not going to work.”

Says he’s not familiar with the ‘alt-right’

As Clinton tarred him with representing the “alt-right” at a speech in Reno, Nevada, Trump offered his own pushbacks, saying he was not acquainted with the fringe world that Clinton said had essentially merged with his campaign.

“There’s no ‘alt-right’ or ‘alt-left.’ All I’m embracing is common sense,” Trump said. “We’re bringing love.”

Asked about his controversial new campaign chief, Steve Bannon, who had praised the movement when at Breitbart News, Trump drew some distance: “I don’t know what Steve said. All I can tell you: I can only speak for myself.”

Plans to visit several African-American churches

And as Trump makes his most overt pitch to African-Americans, Trump said he himself plans to visit several black churches in the next two weeks, including one trip to Detroit.

“I can fix the inner cities,” Trump said. “(Clinton) can’t.”