“I really don’t care, do u?” So first lady Melania Trump advertised, in large letters on the back of a jacket made superfluous by the muggy summer weather, as she traveled to and from visiting migrant children at a Texas shelter.
It was impossible to divine with certainty what Trump was trying to communicate, except to know that the huffy official response — “There was no hidden message,” her communications director insisted — was obviously untrue, unless in the sense that the message was not hidden at all but emblazoned on the back of the jacket.
When you leave the house, you may grab whatever ratty sweatshirt is at hand. Not Melania Trump, former fashion model. The last news-making jacket that she wore was a $51,000 floral appliqué number from Dolce & Gabbana. Did the first lady have this one, off the rack from Zara for $39, stashed in her closet, awaiting the perfect moment?
In any event, the #ItsJustAJacket claim, and the accompanying lecture to the media to “spend their time & energy on her actions & efforts to help kids — rather than speculate & focus on her wardrobe” — was, as things tend to be in Trumpworld, quickly contradicted by the president, who advised that the nonexistent message was actually a middle finger to “the Fake News Media.” The first lady, he said, “has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!”
Yeah, right. It was a message to the traveling press — just one that required two tries and presidential interpretation to deliver.
But the more interesting, and more answerable, question may be why Melania Trump’s self-proclaimed insouciance felt so unnerving. I think it has to do with our national craving for a sense that someone, anyone, in this depraved administration retains some moral compass and basic human decency. If not Melania Trump , then who? If not now, when?
Donald Trump is unsuited for many aspects of the presidency, none so much as the president’s role as healer in chief. We are suffering from the national trauma of hearing the cries of children separated from their parents, possibly permanently. But this president cannot alleviate that trauma; he is the one who chose to inflict it.
Consider the reputational and political damage that accrued to President George W. Bush with his incompetent and seemingly unfeeling — recall the famous airplane flyby — response to Hurricane Katrina. But Katrina was an act of God. The crying children are an act of Trump.
And so this administration must outsource its compassion. To some extent, this is convenient for the president, too. Trump does tough and leaves the soft stuff to the women around him. Hence his eagerness to announce, as he backtracked from his lock-’em-up approach, that Melania Trump — “My wife feels very strongly about it” — and his daughter Ivanka Trump had implored him to do so.
“The dilemma is that if you’re weak . . . if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people,” Trump said Wednesday. “And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. . . . Perhaps I would rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.”
He would rather be strong — the Trump presidency in a nutshell.
Which leaves us with Melania Trump. Is it possible that she meant to say that she didn’t give a hoot about the children? But she didn’t seem like someone who was being dispatched to Texas under duress — more like someone who was signaling, as best she could, that she did not back this immoral program.
Convict Melania Trump of selfish complicity, maybe — certainly of a relentless failure of self-awareness with her #BeBest insistence that she cares about combating cyberbullying. Say that she issued a pre-reversal statement notable for its mealy-mouthed evenhandedness: We must follow “all laws” but also govern “with heart”; she “hates to see children separated” but thinks “both sides of the aisle” should come together.
Still, that was more than Certain Others could choke out. (Ivanka Trump, that means you, as my colleague Karen Tumulty noted.) And a sitting first lady was never going to go full Laura Bush, comparing her husband’s policies to the internment of U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent.
Perhaps this is too kind to Melania Trump, and it is more accurate to understand her as calculating collaborator than prisoner in a gold-encrusted cage. Yet one of the astonishing aspects of the family- separation debacle has been that no administration official — not a single one — had enough of a moral compass to quit in protest.
And so we are reduced to grasping at the crumbs of compassion tossed by Melania Trump. If she really doesn’t care, no one in this benighted administration does. Which may well be true but does not make it any less tragic.