Donald J. Trump, who captured the Republican nomination with a hard-line approach to immigration, faced anger and disgust from across the political spectrum on Thursday after he indicated he might retreat from his vow to deport all 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally.
In a town hall-style appearance broadcast on Fox News on Wednesday night, Mr. Trump appeared to suggest that he would now be open to some kind of path to legal status, if not citizenship, for undocumented immigrants.
“No citizenship,” Mr. Trump said. “They’ll pay back taxes. They have to pay taxes,” he added. “There’s no amnesty, but we will work with them,” he said at another point.
Mr. Trump said that while his supporters wanted to “get the bad ones out,” he also had heard from voters who took a less absolutist view. “They’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person that has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and the family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump,’” he said.
Several times, Mr. Trump turned to the audience in what he told his host, Sean Hannity, was “like a poll.”
“Number one, we’ll say throw out. Number two, we work with them,” Mr. Trump said.
Liberals who support an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws expressed horror at the spectacle.
“It’s not a small issue. It’s 11 million people,” said Angie Kelley, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “He’s reducing a serious policy discussion to a pep-rally vote and cheering the loudest for your team. It’s insulting. It’s dangerous. It’s unprecedented.”
But for conservatives who have vocally opposed comprehensive immigration reform, and who had admired Mr. Trump’s calls for a border wall and mass deportations, Mr. Trump’s words sounded dismayingly similar to those of former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, whom Mr. Trump drove from the Republican primaries in large part by deriding him as weak on immigration.
In an interview with Rita Cosby of WABC radio, Mr. Bush called Mr. Trump’s shifting speech “abhorrent.”
“I don’t know what to believe about a guy who doesn’t believe in things,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Trump’s shifting locutions also prompted some conservatives to compare Mr. Trump to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in the Senate who led a failed attempt at immigration reform in 2013.
“For me, the two phrases that were the last straws were, ‘It’s not amnesty,’ and ‘back taxes,’” said Mark Krikorian, of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. “Those things are terms of art for the Gang of Eight-type crowd.”
“Betraying his base and making clear that, a year after he launched his campaign, he still doesn’t know really what he wants to do on immigration, is really the last straw, it seems to me,” Mr. Krikorian added of Mr. Trump.
For Mr. Trump, the new, moderate talk on immigration could help convince some on-the-fence voters, particularly whites, that he has more compassion for Hispanics and other minorities than his previous, hard-line positions would suggest.
But whatever the possible gains, Mr. Trump risks offending millions of conservatives. A first-time candidate, he made himself a hero of the Republican right wing in large part by casting himself as more hard-core on the immigration issue than any of his rivals. He vowed to build a wall, called immigrants “rapists,” promised to establish a “deportation force” and said every immigrant in the country illegally would be forced out.
That fired up a part of the Republican base that had been frustrated with the party leadership in Washington, whom they saw as too willing to compromise and negotiate with President Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats.
Mr. Trump’s most devoted supporters have ignored his many other inconsistencies. But if they perceive Mr. Trump to be backing away from what drew them to him in the first place, they could stay home.
Ann Coulter, the conservative author — who is promoting a new book titled “In Trump We Trust” — seemed almost apoplectic Wednesday night during Mr. Hannity’s broadcast with Mr. Trump.
In her book, Ms. Coulter writes that the only unforgivable sin Mr. Trump could commit would be to shift on immigration.
Watching as Mr. Trump appeared to do just that, Ms. Coulter erupted in a series of Twitter messages. “It’s not ‘amnesty.’ It’s ‘comprehensive immigration reform’!!!! Trump: ‘they have to pay taxes, there’s no amnesty,’” she wrote in one post.
(On his daily radio show, the conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh choked over his laughter at Ms. Coulter’s expense, noting the timing of what he called Mr. Trump’s “near flip-flop” on immigration. “Poor Ann!” he said. Ms. Coulter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
As aghast conservatives publicly warned Mr. Trump against any policy retreat — “Once you become an immigration enforcement hard-liner, there’s no going back!” the hard-line activist William Gheen told The Washington Times — Mr. Trump’s aides insisted that his policy proposals remained unchanged.
A spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, said on CNN that Mr. Trump was merely changing the “words” he was using, not the proposals themselves.
Democrats and immigration-overhaul advocates made the same point.
“Details matter, and we have seen no actual policy shift to date,” said Todd Schulte, the president of FWD.us, the immigration-reform group backed by the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Mr. Trump has frequently dangled vague phrases suggestive of policy shifts, only to accuse the news media of having wrongly interpreted them.
Still, Mr. Trump has been softening his language on immigration for several days, as he courts an electorate far less receptive to his harsher proposals, like for a wall along the Mexican border, than he faced in the primaries.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center, conducted from Aug. 9 through 16, found that while 91 percent of strong Trump supporters advocate building the wall, 61 percent of Americans are against it.
Mr. Trump has said he will give a speech on immigration next week in Arizona — an address originally set for this week, but that was delayed as he grappled with precisely what he would say.
Mr. Trump’s latest remarks would also appear to align him more closely to the policies pursued by Mr. Obama and endorsed by the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
His suggestion that he would deport only “the bad ones” while letting law-abiding, but undocumented, immigrants stay in the United States is quite similar to the approach announced by Mr. Obama in November of 2014, when he directed the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize its immigration enforcement on violent criminals and people who have repeatedly violated immigration laws by crossing the border multiple times.
In a Fox News interview Monday night, Mr. Trump praised Mr. Obama for having aggressively deported immigrants in the United States illegally during his tenure in office, a reality that has long angered immigrants and Latino activists. “Lots of people were brought out of the country with the existing laws.,” Mr. Trump said. “Well, I’m going to do the same thing.”
It is unclear what Mr. Trump meant by that. Many of the deportations during Mr. Obama’s tenure were conducted under a program that often abruptly separated longtime undocumented residents from spouses or children who are American citizens. In 2014, Mr. Obama pledged to shift away from that approach to focus more on criminals.
But Mr. Trump has not said that he has reversed his opposition to Mr. Obama’s programs that aim to keep families together by allowing some immigrants to remain in the United States and work legally.
The statement about payment of “back taxes” in Mr. Hannity’s Wednesday night broadcast is very similar to the president’s “deferred action” proposals, which would have required millions of immigrants in the country illegally to pay taxes, among other things, in exchange for legal protections.
At the White House, officials who have spent years trying to find ways to overhaul the nation’s immigration system declined to be drawn into an examination of Mr. Trump’s latest comments.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Thursday that the challenge for American voters as they consider the immigration positions of the two presidential candidates “is to listen carefully to the promises, agenda and priorities, as articulated by the two candidates.”
Mr. Earnest declined to say which of Mr. Trump’s immigration positions he believed voters should consider.
“That’s what makes that question more difficult than it otherwise would be,” Mr. Earnest said. “People are going to have to work through their own assessment of the situation. It means playing close attention to the extensive comments that both candidates have made on this issue.”