Trump, officials say Melania and Ivanka pressed him to change family separation policy
First lady Melania Trump spent more than an hour Thursday at a shelter in Texas where migrant children were being held, escalating her public opposition to the separation of undocumented families at the border and utilizing the pulpit of her position that she has so far used much less than some of her recent predecessors.
“She wanted to see everything for herself…. She supports family reunification. She thinks that it’s important that children stay with their families,” Stephanie Grisham, Melania Trump’s communications director, told reporters traveling with first lady.
The visit followed President Trump signing an executive order Wednesday that directed the Department of Homeland Security to begin detaining families together instead of separating parents and children. The president is still urging Congress to act, though lawmakers appear to be at an impasse on current legislative options.
“My wife, our first lady, is down now at the border because it really bothered her to be looking at this and to seeing it, as it bothered me, as it bothered everybody at this table,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting Thursday. “We're all bothered by it.”
Melania Trump traveled to the border with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, planning to visit a Border Patrol processing center and a children’s shelter. She met with staff at Upbring New Hope Children’s Shelter, a facility in McAllen housing 60 children, most of whom came to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors. The Border Patrol visit was canceled due to flooding.
Grisham said the trip was “100 percent” the first lady’s decision and she wanted thank law enforcement and social service providers, offer support, and learn more about existing efforts to reunite children and their families. The trip was planned before President Trump signed the order.
“She wants to see what’s happening for herself and she wants to lend her support, executive order or not,” Grisham said. “The executive order certainly is helping pave the way a little bit, but there’s still a lot to be done.”
A jacket Melania wore during the trip with “I really don’t care. Do you?” scrawled on the back sparked questions on Thursday afternoon, but Grisham insisted there was no “hidden message” intended. She stopped short of criticizing the president’s immigration enforcement policy, saying the first lady supports following the law but she wants families to be reunited.
The separations occurred because the Trump administration recently adopted a “zero tolerance” approach to illegal border crossings, prosecuting everyone caught trying to get across. Officials argued current laws and court rulings prevented them from detaining children with parents and required them to be separated, but Wednesday’s executive order attempts to sidestep those limits.
Melania issued a statement over the weekend calling for “both sides of the aisle” to come together on immigration reform. She was criticized by some for echoing the president’s claim that Democrats bore responsibility for fixing the problem.
“She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart,” Grisham said Sunday.
President Trump has also credited Ivanka Trump, his daughter and adviser, with impressing upon him how urgently family separations needed to be addressed. House Republicans who met with Trump on Tuesday night said he told them she discussed the issue with him.
"He mentioned that his daughter Ivanka had encouraged him to end this and he said he does recognize that it needs to end, that the images are painful," Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., told NPR. "He discussed the optics and the policy itself and I think he's not comfortable with either."
Ivanka also reportedly spoke to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, about the issue after meeting with her father Tuesday.
“Ivanka feels very strongly,” President Trump said as he signed the order Wednesday. “My wife feels very strongly about it. I feel very strongly about it. I think anybody with a heart would feel very strongly about it. We don’t like to see families separated. At the same time, we don’t want people coming into our country illegally. This takes care of the problem.”
Ivanka Trump remained silent on the subject publicly until after the president signed the order, tweeting her thanks to him for “taking critical action ending family separation at our border.”
It is impossible to know exactly what spurred President Trump to act Wednesday after claiming for several days that only Congress could fix the problem. In addition to his wife and daughter, he faced immense pressure from Republicans and the media to end family separations.
“I’m willing to believe they helped,” said Myra Gutin, author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century” and “Barbara Bush: First Lady of Literacy” and a professor at Rider University. “Certainly, he’s been listening to Ivanka on other issues. Melania, it’s a little less clear. I would have said I didn’t think she had much input, but maybe because of her own status as a former immigrant and because this involved children, she really seemed to have gotten some traction.”
Beyond the question of what influenced President Trump to sign the order, clarity was still lacking Thursday about how much the executive action actually changed.
Trump stressed that the zero tolerance policy that resulted in every parent crossing the border illegally being detained and prosecuted would continue. They would now just be held with their children while awaiting adjudication. In addition, administration officials said Wednesday no special effort would be made to reunite the families of children already separated from their parents.
Officials acknowledged the order may very well be illegal, as it appears to violate a 1997 court settlement that prohibits detaining children for more than 20 days. If the order is overturned, the families would still be separated if their case is not resolved within three weeks. If it is upheld, parents and children could remain in custody indefinitely, a scenario critics are already saying would be unacceptable.
If the first lady did sway the president on the subject, historians say it would not be unusual for wives of presidents, but it would be an uncommon occurrence in this White House.
“She has no job description except tradition and what her predecessors have done,” said Stacy Cordery, author of “Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker,” a professor at Iowa State University, and bibliographer of the National First Ladies’ Library. “But first ladies before her have made it very plain that when they have opinions they make them known to their husband.”
Gutin pointed to the examples of Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton as being especially outspoken and willing to exert their power. For much of the first year of Trump’s presidency, though, she said Melania was “an enigma,” not moving into the White House immediately and only laying out a policy platform last month.
“This is not out of the ordinary at all,” she said. “The only thing out of the ordinary is this the first time we see Melania trying to influence the president.”
First ladies have historically prodded their husbands publicly and privately on matters of personal importance with varying degrees of success. Cordery noted that recent first ladies have moved their husbands on issues like equal rights, environmentalism, and ethical diplomacy.
“We’ve had a series particularly of 20th century presidents who say, ‘Yes, I listen to my wife’ or ‘she’s an important sounding board for me,’” she said.
Until this point, Melania Trump has rarely spoken out at all and even more rarely been openly critical of her husband. According to Cordery, the Texas visit Thursday could send a few different messages.
“This could be construed as quite a challenge to [Trump’s] policies, because showing up at the epicenter and asking how she can reunite families is not subtle,” she said. It may also be a sign that Melania is growing into her role and understanding how first ladies can be agents of change, or she may not be thinking of any of those factors at all.
The president’s policy on family separations generated public opposition not only from the current first lady but all four living former first ladies too.
“We see them turn up at funerals, of course, but for the most part traditionally presidents and first ladies neither criticize the current occupants of those positions nor show explicit support,” Cordery said.
Ivanka Trump presents a more complicated case historically. In recent administrations, the presidents’ children have generally been younger and have not been members of the White House staff.
“I would say Ivanka is being held to the standard she herself iterated for us early in the administration…,” Cordery said. “Ivanka, I think, has been hoisted on her own petard.”
The image Ivanka Trump has cultivated as a quiet moderating force fighting for families and the one critics have conjured of a tone-deaf and oblivious collaborator have come into conflict often during her father’s first 18 months in office. Anytime President Trump takes an action perceived to be harmful to families, women, or vulnerable communities, questions promptly surface about what Ivanka is doing and why she failed to prevent it.
“She’s tried, apparently, but even when she makes one step forward, he tends to a week later take two steps backward,” Cordery said.
Ivanka has maintained that her public silence should not be interpreted as indifference. She believes making her views known to the president in private is often more effective than dissenting publicly, and given the president’s tendency to lash out against those who disagree with him, she may be right.
“We know he doesn’t respond well to public criticism,” Cordery said.
That answer has failed to satisfy many of Ivanka’s detractors, though. A “Saturday Night Live” skit last year branded Ivanka as “complicit” in her father’s agenda.
“I don’t know what it means to be complicit,” she responded in an interview with CBS News, “but you know, I hope time will prove that I have done a good job and, much more importantly, that my father’s administration is the success that I know it will be.”
Ivanka’s social media activity has also drawn intense scrutiny in recent weeks, as users contrasted her cheerful Instagram family photos with parents being ripped from their children at the border. It was one such post that led TBS host Samantha Bee to demand she do something about her father’s immigration policies and declare her a “feckless c***,” a comment she later apologized for.
“As a rule, presidential children don’t have that access to presidential decision-making,” Gutin said. “I think it was Ivanka herself who said she was going to try to influence the president on women’s issues.”