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‘Every man and woman for themselves’: White House offers discordant messages on migrant separation policy

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 6/23/2018 Mary Jordan, Josh Dawsey
Mike Pence wearing a suit and tie © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post

Melania Trump wore a jacket emblazoned with the message “I really don’t care, do u?” while trying to show she cared by visiting migrant children.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had said the administration’s family separation policy would serve as a deterrent to illegal immigration, insisted this week that “we never really intended to” split children from their parents.

And President Trump, after saying only Congress could reverse the policy, did it himself by executive order Wednesday. Then, after pounding Congress to pass an immigration bill, Trump changed course again Friday, tweeting that “Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration” until after the November elections.

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Even for a White House that often struggles with consistent messaging, the last several days offered an extraordinary mash-up of contradictory messages. Rather than quell the political crisis on the Southwest border, the conflicting comments from administration officials only added to the sense of chaos.

“You are seeing something well beyond the lack of messaging discipline,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a former White House communications director who worked in both the Obama and Clinton administrations. “Instead this has devolved into every man and woman for themselves.”

White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.

From the outside, it appeared as if Trump and those around him were most focused on protecting their own reputations and brands, said Republican strategist and Trump critic Mike Murphy — a stark contrast to the “professional messaging machine” that usually drives a White House announcement, he said.

Ivanka Trump, a presidential adviser with a portfolio focused on women and children, had been conspicuously quiet as the uproar grew. She finally broke her silence on the separations policy by tweeting Friday that “Congress must now act + find a lasting solution that is consistent with our shared values;the same values that so many come here seeking as they endeavor to create a better life for their families.”

Her father, along with telling Congress not to act now, used decidedly different rhetoric. He surrounded himself Friday with relatives of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants, saying the dead were “permanently separated” from their loved ones. Trump often muses publicly about the importance of projecting strength and continues to talk about how “tough” his policies are.

“We cannot allow our Country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief, hoping it will help them in the elections,” the president tweeted.

The inconsistent talking points following Trump’s executive order came after administration officials offered wildly contradictory statements about the origin of the separation policy.

Earlier this week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen declared that “this administration did not create a policy of separating families at the border.” Yet in April, Sessions announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy for those caught crossing the Southwest border illegally, triggering the spike of children being taken from their parents.

White House dispatches often seem tailored to a specific media outlet and its audience. As influential conservative religious leaders were increasingly speaking out against the family separation policy, Sessions went on the Christian Broadcasting Network to say that “we never really intended” to split families, a contradiction of earlier statements. To CBN he said the administration would figure out “the most compassionate way possible” to enforce border protection.

White House advisers who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters said the chaotic messaging was due in part to Trump’s tendency to quickly alter his stance.

At first, Trump repeatedly and falsely blamed the policy on Democrats and said he could not change it via executive order — comments that were distributed by the Republican National Committee. Days later, the president signed the executive order.

White House officials are often leery of going on TV to represent the president’s position because it often changes so frequently, according to two former officials.

For example, as Trump was telling aides to write an executive order this week ending the detentions, others were trying to continue defending the administration’s policy.

“You can have talking points this morning, and by this afternoon, all the stories are saying you were out of the loop,” one former official said.

Compounding the problem is that daily communications team meetings have been disbanded because of the president’s fear of damaging leaks. Senior staff meetings have been slashed from daily to once a week.

Meanwhile, little consensus existed about which surrogates were best suited to deliver the administration’s message.

Internally, Sessions was a strident defender of the family separation policy. But Trump continues to resent the attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from oversight of the Russia investigation, advisers said.

The president has told several associates he does not even want to hear Session’s name — much less see him talking on television on behalf of the administration.

Trump likes the combative appearances made by White House adviser Stephen Miller, but other administration officials believe he is a polarizing figure and not the best face for the administration on immigration issues.

Meanwhile, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s strengths do not include politics or communications, even his closest allies in the White House say.

Melania Trump’s unusually public role in the crisis exemplified the White House messaging confusion.

The first lady, through her spokeswoman, made it clear that the Texas trip had been her idea, not her husband’s. Melania Trump also had been pushing the president to end the separation policy, her office said.

“How can I help these families reunite with their children as quickly as possible?” the first lady said during her visit to a center for migrant children in McAllen, Tex., on Thursday.

But her trip was overshadowed by the provocative words on the back of the $39 Zara jacket worn to and from Texas.

Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman, insisted it was just a jacket with “no hidden message.”

But later, the president insisted the message was quite intentional — it was a jab at the media, he tweeted.

Many at the White House were caught off guard. Several aides said that they had not known Melania was on her way to the border — let alone her fashion choice — until she was already in the air.

mary.jordan@washpost.com

josh.dawsey@washpost.com

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