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He meandered through all that territory and to both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border to land back where he started on a signature issue. His anger-tinged speech Wednesday night in Phoenix carried high expectations of a new tone and fresh policies but brought little of either.
If anything, despite a mostly friendly foray to Mexico City earlier in the day, Trump's newly articulated policies indicate a substantial strengthening of his commitment to rooting out illegal immigration, as well as ridding the United States of undocumented immigrants.
"Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation," he declared. "Otherwise, we don't have a country."
Even by Trumpian standards, Wednesday's events capped a dizzying policy journey. The day's frenzy started with a surprise visit with the president of Mexico, where Trump was courteous and even complimentary toward his hosts.
He seemed like a downright conventional politician as he talked of a "constructive conversation" and "shared goals." Gone, for a few hours, was the Mexico he has portrayed over the past year and a half as a menacing enemy — siphoning American jobs and wages, taking advantage of free-trade agreements and sending rapists and drugs across a porous border.
The notion of Mexico's paying for a border wall is so closely associated with the campaign that Trump no longer has to say it at rallies; he lets the crowd say it for him. But Wednesday he told reporters after his meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto, "We did not discuss payment of the wall."
Within hours, it became clear from both sides that the wall did come up in their private chat — raised by Pena Nieto by way of a reminder that Mexico would not pay for it. It seemed Trump might be forced to give a tad on a signature issue.
That is, until Wednesday night in Arizona.
"We will build a great wall along the southern border, and Mexico will pay for the wall," Trump said. "They don't know it yet."
What even his allies didn't know was how firmly he would reinforce his previous positions on illegal immigration. He vowed not just a wall but also big boosts to border patrol forces, stepped-up enforcement and a cancellation of Barack Obama's executive actions that sought leniency for many undocumented immigrants.
Trump promised "zero tolerance for criminal aliens" and "extreme vetting." He even joked that his new policies could result in the deportation of Hillary Clinton.
His visit to Mexico and his apparent new tone initially seemed to rattle the Clinton camp. She hasn't responded to an invitation to visit Pena Nieto, and she blasted Trump's visit as "a photo op" in pointing out that diplomacy requires "consistency and reliability."
Trump, in the end, was more consistent than his political enemies were ready to give him credit for. That raises political challenges for Democrats, with Trump more than ever tapping into the anger and emotions that surround debates over immigration, integration and national security.
"We won't get another opportunity. It will be too late," Trump warned.
Trump has long said he's capable of changing, and he has proved that point over time. But on a core issue that vaulted him to prominence — that powered his unlikely rise through the primaries and to the nomination — he has shown that he's sticking with what got him this far.