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Trump's Ann Coulter conundrum

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He seemed to be the strongest advocate for restricting immigration among the Republicans running for president. (Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Invision/AP)

Ann Coulter is angry, Never Trump conservatives are jubilant.

The syndicated columnist and author of In Trump We Trust supported Trump while many other conservative writers were opposing him because he seemed to be the strongest advocate for restricting immigration among the Republicans running for president.

Now, President Trump is hinting at a deal with congressional Democrats over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act — which Trump described as one of "President Obama's two illegal executive amnesties" during the campaign — that won't include the border wall.

"Looks like [former White House strategist Steve] Bannon got it wrong," Coulter complained. "That shadowy force trying to nullify the 2016 election ... is" Trump himself.

Meanwhile, many who denied that the Gang of Eight and other previous "comprehensive immigration reform" bills were amnesty are now crowing that the more modest proposal being discussed by Trump is amnesty. What gives?

It was always a gamble for the populist right to assume that Trump's nationalistic instincts —which were always balanced by more centrist impulses and associations — could be translated into policy.

There were also always ample reasons to doubt that Trump was a principled immigration restrictionist like Coulter, Bannon, or Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

All that said, the final outcome here is far from clear. Many immigration hawks were already linking DACA concessions not to the wall, but to other measures reducing incentives for future illegal immigration, like the E-verify and curbing chain migration. And while the wall may not be part of a DACA deal, it remains a live issue in upcoming GOP spending bills.

"It doesn't have to be here but they can't obstruct the wall if it's in a budget or anything else," Trump said the morning after his fateful dinner with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"DACA now and the wall very soon, but the wall will happen," the president repeated later in the day.

But there are a lot of details that have yet to be worked out that could determine whether a deal could actually pass Congress, with or without the wall. Democrats have said they are willing to make concessions on border security to protect DACA recipients, while they continue to tout proposals that don't go as far on enforcement as many Republicans want and legalize a larger population of undocumented immigrants than DACA currently protects.

Leading congressional immigration hawks like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., want to pair DACA legalization with the RAISE Act, a bill Trump endorsed at the White House last month and top policy adviser Stephen Miller defended at length to the press corps. Can they succeed at getting any of those provisions into an immigration bill without losing too many Democratic votes?

Trump's unpredictability on policy details in general and immigration specifically isn't the only challenge restrictionist conservatives face. With Republicans divided on the issue, they haven't really driven the legislative agenda since an unsuccessful attempt to cut immigration in the 1990s. Trump still remains their best White House ally in years, but will that be enough given Democratic involvement and the composition of the Republican congressional leadership?

Moderate immigration restrictionists make a nuanced case that revolves around numbers and time, cultural assimilation and wage pressures, social cohesion and national security. They have opposed all the major amnesty bills — defined as giving legal status to illegal immigrants outside the normal immigration channels — since the failure of the 1986 amnesty/enforcement deal.

Yet all those bills would have legalized the vast majority of illegal immigrants in the United States and while they sometimes contained generous funding for border security, they rarely included or emphasized the measures restrictionists viewed as being most effective, especially in terms of interior enforcement. They also generally increased overall immigration numbers.

Faced with hypothetical legislation where the amnesty-to-enforcement ratio was more favorable, to be implemented by an administration in which they have at least some allies, and which would not increase immigration in total, many moderate restrictionists would be willing to take that deal.

Their political base, however, might not. Among rank-and-file immigration hawks, much of the focus is on fairness, law and order, and legality versus illegality. For them, the wall may resonate more than abolishing the diversity visa lottery or technical discussions about the "right" number of immigrants admitted annually.

A deal that legalized 800,000 mostly assimilated people and contained tougher enforcement provisions than the Gang of Eight and similar bills without increasing immigration would be much more hawkish than anything that seemed possible in the Bush or Obama administrations.

That's not a guarantee Coulter or many of her readers would take it.