Here at The Plum Line we try to avoid getting distracted by trivial micro-controversies, especially when there are so many consequential things going on every day. But sometimes, one of those seemingly silly stories contains a broader lesson. So it is with Melania Trump’s jacket.

In case you haven’t heard, on Thursday the first lady traveled to Texas to visit a facility housing detained immigrant children, and when she boarded the plane, she was wearing a jacket (quickly identified by Internet sleuths as surprisingly inexpensive) with the words “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” graffitied on the back. Which is not quite the message you want to send when you’re traveling to a photo op meant to demonstrate your compassion for children who have been torn from their parents’ arms; it’s more petulant teenager than nurturing national mom.

“It’s a jacket,” her staffers explained. “There was no hidden message.” I have no reason to believe that isn’t true. Maybe she just grabbed it without thinking much about what was written on the back. She certainly wasn’t trying to insult the kids. But it’s yet another example — small, but revealing — of how incompetent this White House is, in the midst of a larger story of its incompetence that could be scarring thousands of children for life.

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When I saw the pictures of the first lady on the tarmac, my first thought was: How many White House staffers did she walk past wearing that jacket? Did none of them think to say, “Pardon me, ma’am, but people might take that the wrong way”? Doesn’t anyone there know what they’re doing?

Trained political operatives actually spend a good deal of time thinking about how to properly manage people’s feelings. Make sure that the candidate thanks the mayor and the local party chair at the beginning of his speech. Does that donor’s husband want to stand on the dais? Let’s arrange a conference call with the volunteers to keep them excited. How is this or that portion of our base going to react to our new policy? And when you’re talking about the first lady, you know she’ll be photographed every moment she appears in public. It’s absurd that they allowed this to happen.

Absurd, yet perhaps not surprising. Right now, the Trump administration is holding at least 2,300 immigrant children whom it claims it is trying to reunite with their parents. Yet they seem to have no idea how to go about it, resulting in chaos as advocates and attorneys try to help these families. No one in the administration even seems to know what their policy is:

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President Trump’s executive order to halt family separations unleashed confusion in Washington and at the Mexico border Thursday, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it would stop referring such cases for prosecution and migrant parents arrived at courthouses in Texas and Arizona wearing handcuffs only to be led away without facing charges.
After a senior Customs and Border Protection official told The Washington Post that the agency would freeze criminal referrals for migrant parents who cross illegally with children, Justice Department officials insisted that their “zero tolerance” policy remained in force and that U.S. attorneys would continue to prosecute those entering the United States unlawfully.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before: The White House decides on a new policy without the process of review that was standard practice in prior administrations, no one seems to know how it’s supposed to work, and the result is a mad dash to figure it out while everything gets progressively more chaotic.

The problem, as it so often does, starts at the top. Donald Trump actually thought that being president of the United States would be less work than running a midsize real estate and brand licensing firm. And it wasn’t just his inexperience; more than any other president in memory, he’s impulsive, erratic and mercurial. To handle that, you’d want an especially competent White House, where people have the ability to deal with the unexpected orders issuing from the Oval Office.

What we have instead is just the opposite. Trump arrived in Washington without a cadre of experienced policy and political hands alongside him, as nearly every president who has worked his way up through the ranks of politics does. While he could have drawn on the government-in-exile each party maintains when it’s out of power, he was less able to do that than he might have been. He put a premium on personal loyalty, to the point where personnel have to be vetted to see whether they’ve ever said anything uncomplimentary about Trump. After a dramatic primary in which much of the party establishment opposed him, that excluded a good portion of potential appointees.

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Perhaps more importantly, much of the Republican professional class decided early on that they didn’t want to sully their reputations by working for this president, believing that they would only wind up humiliated, discredited or both. So instead of having the Republican A Team behind him, Trump wound up with the B Team, or maybe the C Team.

Every White House experiences turnover, since the jobs are so difficult and stressful. But it has been unusually high in this White House. As just one vivid example, Trump has had five different communication directors since getting elected; the job is currently vacant.

We see the results every day in ways large and small, whether it’s an immigration policy that no one can figure out how to implement, or official documents that go out riddled with typos. There may be times when liberals say, “Good, I’m glad they don’t have their act together,” but the work that the White House does can have profound effects on the lives of human beings. And when they don’t know what they’re doing, the results can be catastrophic.

That’s what we’re seeing right now on the border. It’s a crisis born of malevolence, made worse by incompetence. And every day, those families are paying the price.

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