Donald Trump launched his campaign popularity with a hard line on immigration, not limited to The Wall.

It struck a chord with the electorate, as I noted in a guest column at National Review on July 13, 2015, Trump’s Lesson: Voters Are Furious about Illegal Immigration:

…. something happened on the way to the denunciations and purges [of Trump]. Kate Steinle was murdered in San Francisco, a sanctuary city. Steinle was killed in broad daylight on a popular pedestrian pier in a business and tourist district, by an illegal immigrant with a long criminal record who had been deported five times and recently was released from custody….

In the wake of the murder of Kate Steinle, many Republican candidates have denounced the sanctuary-cities agenda. There is talk of withholding funding from cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. But who among the Republican candidates has stood side by side with the families who have lost loved ones to illegal-immigrant criminals?

Trump did….”

Since then, immigration has continued to be the rocket fuel in Trump’s campaign.

Senator Jeff Session’s recent endorsement likely helped solidify that public perception of Trump as the hardest liner on the subject, even if substantively Trump has taken many different positions in just the last few years.

But what if Trump is not a hard liner on immigration. What if his stance is just the opening demand/offer in a negotiation, a la The Art of the Deal, in which he ends up more Marco Rubio than Marco Rubio?

Buzzfeed’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith dropped a potential bombshell this morning, Donald Trump Secretly Told The New York Times What He Really Thinks About Immigration:

The New York Times is sitting on an audio recording that some of its staff believes could deal a serious blow to Donald Trump, who, in an off-the-record meeting with the newspaper, called into question whether he would stand by his own immigration views.

Trump visited the paper’s Manhattan headquarters on Tuesday, Jan. 5, as part of a round of editorial board meetings that — as is traditional — the Democratic candidates for president and some of the Republicans attended. The meetings, conducted partly on the record and partly off the record in a 13th-floor conference room, give candidates a chance to make their pitch for the paper’s endorsement….

On Saturday, columnist Gail Collins, one of the attendees at the meeting (which also included editor-in-chief Dean Baquet), floated a bit of speculation in her column:

The most optimistic analysis of Trump as a presidential candidate is that he just doesn’t believe in positions, except the ones you adopt for strategic purposes when you’re making a deal. So you obviously can’t explain how you’re going to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, because it’s going to be the first bid in some future monster negotiation session.

Sources familiar with the recording and transcript — which have reached near-mythical status at the Times — tell me that the second sentence is a bit more than speculation. It reflects, instead, something Trump said about the flexibility of his hardline anti-immigration stance.

The NY Times refuses to discuss what was said unless Trump agrees to release the transcript, since it was off the record.

A bombshell? Or a stink bomb?

Regardless, it has opened up demands that Trump tell the NY Times to release the transcript.

On the stump today, Marco Rubio demanded Trump release the transcript:

What’s his famous issue? He is going to build a wall and be tough on Mexico, but he doesn’t tell you that he hires illegal immigrants to work on Trump Towers. He doesn’t tell you about he gave an interview to The New York Times. He met with their editorial board and apparently told them what he really believes about immigration, what sounds like what he told them was different than what he is telling you but it was off the record. So now The New York Times can’t release the audio of that interview. Donald Trump can fix that today. Donald Trump should ask The New York Times to release the audio of his interview with him so we can see exactly what it is he truly believes about this issue that he has made the cornerstone of his campaign.

Ted Cruz did the same:

Speaking to reporters in San Antonio, Texas, Ted Cruz called for the tape to be made public.

“Apparently there is a secret tape that the New York Times editorial board has of Donald Trump saying that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying on immigration, saying that all of his promises to secure the border are not real and if he’s president he doesn’t intend to do what he said,” Cruz said.

“I call on Donald: ask the New York Times to release the tape and do so today before the Super Tuesday primary,” Cruz said.

The Texas senator, who is trailing Trump in the polls despite an early win in Iowa, said releasing the tapes would clear up whether, in fact, Trump made the comments.

“If Donald didn’t say that to the New York Times then he deserves to have that cleared up and releasing the tape can clear it up,” Cruz said.

“The alternative is that it is true.”

The timing is curious:

I don’t know that the other candidates have the media power to put real pressure on Trump on this issue.

Lou Dobbs already is suggesting that The Times violated its ethics, presumably by leaking the existence of the recording.

It might be too little, too late, even if there is a bombshell hidden at Times headquarters.

BONUS QUESTION: If Trump turned out to be a lot softer on immigration than he has portrayed, would his supporters care?