Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Trump

Story highlights

  • Trump has 'manicured his message'
  • He says one thing here, another thing there

(CNN)Who is the real Donald Trump? Often, that depends on when you catch him.

As the campaign hits the home stretch, the task of trying to nail down Trump and some of his increasingly muddy policy proposals is taking on added urgency -- and growing difficulty.
He has proven himself to be a more artful candidate than many observers believed, especially as his poll numbers corkscrewed in mid-summer, with the ability to jarringly alter the substance and tone of his rhetoric to accommodate more moderate audiences. Polls now show a tight race nationally, even as Trump lags in some key swing states.
    While politicians of all stripes have been "playing to the crowds" for centuries, Trump's willingness to manicure his message undercuts his promise to eschew "political correctness" and speak his mind, come what may.
    Here's what the Two Trumps look like:

    The Wall

    After a meeting with Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto last week, Trump delivered a well-mannered statement, calling the Mexican people "spectacular" while describing his invitation as "a great, great honor."
    On the issue of the wall he's vowed to build on the US-Mexico border, Trump said:
    "We recognize and respect the right of either country to build a physical barrier or wall on any of its borders to stop the illegal movement of people, drugs and weapons. Cooperation toward achieving the shared objective, and it will be shared, of safety for all citizens is paramount to both the United States and Mexico."
    But later that same day, away from the international press and back in the cauldron with his raucous supporters in Phoenix, Trump struck a more strident tone:
    "We will build a great wall along the southern border. And Mexico will pay for the wall. One hundred percent. They don't know it yet, but they're going to pay for it. ... On day one, we will begin working on an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall."


    How Trump discusses his plan for the forced removal of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants -- and whether he intends to launch a "deportation force" at all -- also seems to vary depending on the audience.
    In his Phoenix speech, the nominee made it clear that no undocumented immigrants were safe:
    "Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation. That is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise we don't have a country."
    But in televised interviews both in the days before and after, Trump has hinted at a "softening."
    During a Fox News event hosted by Sean Hannity on August 24, he offered this more tempered message:
    "Now, everybody agrees we get the bad ones out. But when I go through and I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject -- and I've had very strong people come up to me, really great, great people come up to me -- and they've said, 'Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person who's been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it's so tough, Mr. Trump,' I have it all the time. It's a very, very hard thing."

    African-American voters

    Trump has struggled to crack the mid-single digits with African-American voters, polls show. But his renewed pitch to the community can sound very different depending on the audience.
    This is Trump speaking, in theory, to African-American voters last month in a room mostly full of white supporters in Dimondale, Michigan:
    Trump to African-Americans: What do you have to lose?
    Trump to African-Americans: What do you have to lose?


      Trump to African-Americans: What do you have to lose?


    Trump to African-Americans: What do you have to lose? 01:16
    "What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump? I say it again, What do you have to lose? You're living in poverty; your schools are no good; you have no jobs; 58% of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?"
    A few weeks later, at a largely African-American church in Detroit -- with people of color on stage and in the pews -- Trump sounded a much different appeal:
    "We talk past each other and not to each other. And those who seek office do not do enough to step into the community and learn what's going on. I'm here today to learn, so that we can together remedy injustice in any form, and so that we can also remedy economics so that the African-American community can benefit economically through jobs and income and so many other different ways."

    The media

    It's no secret that Trump has a love-hate relationship with the press. But even if his language can be wild, his timing is often cleverly calibrated -- as we saw this past holiday weekend:
    On Saturday, a shot at CNN:
    "@CNN is so disgusting in their bias, but they are having a hard time promoting Crooked Hillary in light of the new e-mail scandals."
    A day later, it was The New York Times' turn:
    "Wow, the failing @nytimes has not reported properly on Crooked's FBI release. They are at the back of the pack - no longer a credible source"
    But on Labor Day, he offered this assessment of the journalists picked to moderate the fall presidential debates:
    "I like them. I respect the moderators. I do respect them. It's interesting."
    CNN's Brian Stelter also reported Wednesday that Trump was ending his controversial "blacklisting" of some media organizations.

    Letting Trump be Trump

    Sometimes saying things with little or no regard for how those words might strike the broader population can be politically counterproductive, Trump observed about a week after hiring Breitbart executive Steve Bannon and elevating pollster Kellyanne Conway to campaign manager.
    Here's how he explained his new attempts at self-discipline to The New York Times on August 23:
    "I have been staying on message more now because, ultimately, I'm finding that I do better with voters, do better in the polls, when I'm on message."
    But just a few days earlier, speaking to an audience of supporters -- as opposed to reporters on a phone call -- he seemed to denounce that kind of tactical thinking:
    "But one thing I can promise you is this: I will always tell you the truth. I speak the truth for all of you, and for everyone in this country who doesn't have a voice."