The Memo: Trump caves after negative images, pressure from family

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE performed a rare U-turn on Wednesday amid criticism from all sides over the separation of children from their parents at the border. 

The verdict from people in and around the White House was that the pressure had become just too much to withstand — including from his own family members.

A White House official told The Hill on Wednesday that first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump beefs up impeachment defense with Dershowitz, Starr Trump welcomes LSU to the White House: 'Go Tigers' The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial MORE had been “sharing her opinion with her husband for several days” on the matter. 

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The official said the first lady had been doing so “feeling it important to do all he can to keep families together whether through legislative action or something on his own.”


The president’s elder daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpOvernight Energy: Study finds 'forever chemicals' in more locations | Trump officials approve Keystone XL pipeline right-of-way | Warren asks banks for climate plans Gore praises Greta Thunberg after meeting: 'Nobody speaks truth to power as she does' Ivanka Trump refuses to criticize Greta Thunberg: 'She's elevated awareness' MORE, tweeted thanks to her father after he signed the executive order, praising him for “taking critical action ending family separation at our border.”

The president is famously loath to buckle under fire. But the crisis had intensified sharply in recent days, as normally reliable Trump allies criticized the administration and media coverage focused on emotionally potent images of distressed children.

Former White House communications director Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciScaramucci: 'Trump fatigue' could help Bloomberg beat Trump if he wins Democratic nomination Will Republicans continue to engage in willful blindness? Scaramucci: Trump sees Bloomberg as threat MORE told The Hill that the president had been led into a no-win situation by some advisers. 

“Once women and children are involved, and you are on the wrong side of that, it’s over,” Scaramucci said. 

When asked about the fact that the president had not retreated amid previous controversies, such as the travel ban that was announced at the start of his presidency, Scaramucci replied, “The travel ban didn’t come with the visuals and the audio recording.”

A Republican strategist with ties to the White House also highlighted Trump’s sensitivity to media coverage, and cable television in particular, to explain the change of direction.

“Trump has an amazing mastery over television programming and imagery,” this source said. “He understands … that images speak much louder than words. Having children crying on television and him being to blame for it? After a while he knows that is unsustainable.”

The president himself noted while signing the executive order aimed at allowing families to stay together that he “didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”

But Trump was also at pains to paint his retreat as more of a tactical withdrawal. 

He emphasized repeatedly that he wanted to maintain strong border security. The new executive order does nothing to change the “zero tolerance” approach that led to the separations in the first place.

That approach, announced by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsLawmaker wants Chinese news outlet to register as foreign agent Trump-aligned group launches ad campaign hitting Doug Jones on impeachment ICE subpoenas Denver law enforcement: report MORE in April, in essence calls for the prosecution of anyone suspected of entering the United States illegally. According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 2,300 children were separated from their parents between May 5 and June 9.

“We’re keeping families together, and this will solve that problem,” Trump said at the executive order signing in the Oval Office. “At the same time, we are keeping a very powerful border and it continues to be a zero tolerance. We have zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally.”

Those remarks could reflect concern that Trump’s base, attracted to him during his 2016 presidential campaign in part because of his hawkishness on immigration, could be critical of any weakening in that position.

The currents around the immigration issue are turbulent even in the president’s own orbit. 

Hard-liners including Sessions, senior adviser Stephen Miller and outside figures like former chief strategist Stephen Bannon were staunch advocates of the zero tolerance policy. 

Asked about the morality of the administration’s stance during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Bannon responded, “The morality is the law. They are criminals when they come across illegally.” 

The sense that the entire episode has been damaging to the president has reopened fissures in Trump’s orbit between more relatively moderate figures and their hard-line counterparts.

One former White House official lamented that the issue is “the travel ban all over again with the only difference being that the White House was actually forced to wave the white flag and retreat on their policy.”

This source added: “Trump never does that and is no doubt furious he had to cave. The question is, does Stephen Miller, the architect of both of those spectacles, pay a price this time?”

But another GOP operative complained not about the position endorsed by Miller and others but about the president’s backsliding. The operative described the decision to sign the executive order as a “disaster.”

Other staunch conservatives seemed willing to extend some leeway to the president. 

Asked about the executive order, conservative commentator Ann Coulter responded by email: “As long as he doesn’t release them into the country to complete their crime, it’s no problem. Well — it’s a problem for the illegals, 90% of whom are not related to the adults who brought them illegally across thousands of miles to the U.S. border.”

Scaramucci, for his part, did not target any particular figure but argued that the president had been badly served by those who were parroting what they assumed to be Trump’s own views.

“The people around the president need to tell him what he needs to hear, not what they think he wants to hear,” the former communications director said.

There are a number of outstanding questions, even after Trump signed the executive order. 

One is what will happen to children who have already been detained. Another is whether the executive order will set off further legal battles, since it seems to run contrary to a consent decree that stipulates that the federal government cannot hold children in immigration detention for longer than 20 days.

For liberals and other critics of the president, the controversy represents a new low in the Trump era. House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSekulow indicates White House not interested in motion to dismiss impeachment articles Overnight Health Care: Trump restores funding for Texas program that bars Planned Parenthood | Trump to attend March for Life | PhRMA spent record on 2019 lobbying Key House committee chairman to meet with Mnuchin on infrastructure next week MORE (D-Calif.) had called the separations “barbaric.”

It remains an open question how much lasting damage Trump has suffered as a result, however.

The GOP strategist with ties to the White House insisted the answer was likely “very little.”

“I’m not trying to be crass at all. It’s a very traumatic and dramatic issue,” the strategist added. “But next week, we will be on to another topic, and this will be long forgotten. By November, this will feel like it happened last year.”

Trump and those close to him will be hoping that proves right, and that their self-inflicted political wound heals fast.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.