The fight over the Trump administration’s family-separation policy has cast a bright new light on the political roles played by the members of the president’s own family.
That light has not always been flattering for the two most prominent women in President Trump’s life, who took decidedly different approaches in trying to grapple with the fallout over the administration’s policy.
The president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, tweeted her gratitude to her father after he signed an executive order Wednesday intended to put a stop (perhaps temporarily) to the family-separation policy that he had implemented. But much of her practical work on the matter has been done far from public view.
First lady Melania Trump, meanwhile, put out a statement on her concerns with the approach of separating children from their parents during deportation proceedings and traveled to the border Thursday to meet with a group of minors.
A close aide to the president said that both the first lady and the first daughter had an impact on his decision to issue his executive order, which would keep families together but, potentially, result in the indefinite detention of those families.
But exerting that influence has come with a cost and sometimes been accompanied by self-inflicted wounds.
As she traveled to Texas on Thursday, Melania Trump’s sartorial choice of a jacket asking “I Don’t Really Care, Do U?” set off howls of criticism that she was tone deaf at best and a modern day Marie Antoinette at worst.
As that micro-saga played out, Ivanka Trump was taking lumps of her own, seeing her image as a moderating influence once more replaced by an image of someone who had little influence at all.
Those close to Ivanka Trump say she is keenly aware of the criticisms directed at her. She is also determined to maintain the image of a moderating force in a White House often driven by the passions of its right-wing base. But according to associates, the first daughter has also been defending her work on the family-separation policy to those outside the White House, insisting that she is more effective at swaying her father by doing so privately.
The first lady has also found herself on the defensive, with her spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham insisting on Thursday that there was “no hidden message” behind her jacket and that the reason she took a hastily organized trip to detention centers in Texas was, “She wanted to see everything for herself.”
Though their approaches differed, both women have had the effect of pushing the president toward an accommodation on the issue of detained immigrant children, those close to the president say. The question is whether that effect will be long-lasting. So far, indications are mixed.
The administration’s zero-tolerance enforcement approach toward illegal immigration remains in place. Even its temporary solution to the problem rests on altering current law to allow for immigrant minors to be detained indefinitely, albeit with their families. Moreover, the White House still hasn’t said how, or whether, it plans to reunite families that have already been separated.
It’s not clear that either Ivanka or Melania Trump has the ability to achieve any meaningful results on those fronts, though the latter has professed her desire to see it happen and the former addressed it on Twitter Thursday.
“She supports family reunification,” Grisham said of the first lady. “She thinks that it’s important that children stay with their families.”
Every White House must contend with the complex roles played by the first family. Oftentimes, relatives are sounding boards for the president. Sometimes, they can cause headaches or controversy. Occasionally, they are tasked with specific policy or political functions. Inevitably, their involvement creates some level of friction with the rest of the White House staff.
“Family members will always weigh in, and it’s not something you can control,” said Katie Packer, the deputy campaign manager for the Romney for President campaign. “It is most likely to happen when you’re not around. They don’t come in during business hours. That’s not to say it is not valuable advice.”
Where the Trump White House differs from those past is the extent to which the family is so ingrained in the daily operations. They play the policy roles and the diplomatic ones, they helm the political operations and serve as the most outward-facing surrogates. But whereas some, like Trump’s eldest son, Don Jr., seem perfectly happy to reflect the president’s id, others, mainly his eldest daughter, seem to struggle with this dynamic.
For the first daughter, who is a senior adviser to the president, the challenge has routinely been balancing public expectations of her role as a moderating influence with what she considers to be a more effective means of operating. Those close to her say Ivanka recognized early in the administration that her influence was best wielded privately.
But her calculation was born out of caution. She also feared that she would be unlikely to win over those who already opposed the Trump administration, and that a lurch left on any issue risked alienating the voters who put her and her father in the White House—and colleagues who share those voters’ views.
The result has been a retreat. Ivanka continues to talk to her father privately. But the losses have piled up—from climate change to women’s rights to presidential tone and tactics—and her portfolio and ambitions have both been scaled back.
For Melania Trump, this week has brought the opposite. After having been literally absent from public view for weeks, the first lady has emerged as a public face of moderation for her husband’s hardened immigration policies. And while sources close to Melania Trump say she was genuinely moved by imagines and audio of distraught children separated from their parents at the border, her very public advocacy has also raised her profile considerably.
The trip to the border was thrown together with uncharacteristic haste. “She likes to plan out moves,” said one source familiar with the first lady’s work. “She rarely engages in [West Wing] policy so the fact that she even weighed in was big.”
But with Melania’s rising influence comes the cost of additional public scrutiny. And the fracas over her jacket clearly irked aides who sought a show of compassion amid the firestorm of controversy engulfing the White House this week.
“Today’s visit w the children in Texas impacted FLOTUS greatly,” Grisham tweeted on Thursday afternoon. “If media would spend their time and energy on her actions & efforts to help kids—rather than speculate & focus on her wardrobe—we could get so much accomplished on behalf of children.”
By Thursday evening, the president had flatly contradicted the idea that the jacket had been unintentional. The text on the back, he tweeted, “refers to the Fake News Media. Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!”