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WH scrambles to contain fallout, confusion over policy change

CNN's Boris Sanchez reports.

Posted: Jun 22, 2018 2:21 PM
Updated: Jun 22, 2018 2:23 PM

You care, but does the President?

Anytime a commander in chief faces that question, it's a sure sign that something is wrong.

But Donald Trump and his administration are finding their humanity under scrutiny in the harrowing saga of kids separated from their parents after illegally crossing the southern border.

The administration's handling of the crisis lacked many things: coherence, competence and a duty to the truth over a crisis the President caused and blamed on others.

RELATED: Embattled DHS chief wins Trump's praise after testy White House briefing

But there was something even more fundamental missing: compassion.

In essence, this human drama, lifted out of its Washington frame of warring politicians and dueling spin, is about kids who don't know where their parents are, adrift in a strange land.

"The children arrive, quickly asking, where is Mama, Papa? When can I see them again?" Donna Abbott, director of Bethany Christian Services Refugee and Immigrant Program told HLN's S.E. Cupp on Thursday, explaining the trauma of family separations.

But from the start, no one in the administration has shown that they really appreciate the emotional dimension of a story that has gripped the nation for days.

When Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was briefing reporters Monday, for instance, her policy answers did not seem to match the emotion of the moment.

In one of the more extraordinary moments of any recent presidency, first lady Melania Trump left for a visit to the border Thursday wearing a jacket with a graffiti-style message on the back that read, "I REALLY DON'T CARE. DO U?"

In the ensuing media storm, her office insisted she was not making a political statement -- as speculation flew she was jabbing her husband's policies. The President later claimed she was taking a shot at the "fake news" media.

Yet the reason the slogan caused such a stir was the possibility that it was supposed to encapsulate the ethos of the administration.

And the administration's determination to make the moment a new front in its war with the media came across as another clumsy distraction from the human tragedies unfolding before the nation's eyes.

History's verdict

It's still unclear whether the last few days will hurt the President in the long term. It could possibly test Trump's view that he is bulletproof among his loyal base of supporters or prove to be a weak seam in his signature hardline immigration policy. And the separations issue is not the first time a President who prides himself on a strongman's image has seemed to lack compassion. His trips to hurricane disaster zones last year were jarring at times. And his constant jabs at Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is battling brain cancer, strike many in Washington as callous.

None of that seriously eroded his political position.

Yet it seems certain that the imagery and the feelings stirred will linger long after this political fight has been replaced in the mad whirl of Trump era headlines -- more than other rumbles of his presidency.

For much of his political career so far, Trump's lack of obvious compassion and tough rhetoric has been a selling point. It's been attractive to voters who believe the border has not been properly enforced and think that elite Washington politicians have been too meek to keep them and their culture safe. The most interesting intangible about the separations controversy is whether the emotive element of bereft children changes that equation. By reversing his policy, Trump may be revealing that he is not sure what the answer will be.

When they are over, presidencies are often defined in the public mind by snapshots in time: Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall, George W. Bush on a pile of rubble after 9/11 and John Kennedy asking Americans to ask themselves what they could do for their country.

The danger for Trump is that the last few days will form one of his snapshots. It may prove impossible to shield the President's legacy from pictures of kids in cages, crying toddlers and his own false assertions there was nothing he could do when he caused the uproar.

Pundits often overuse the analogy of Hurricane Katrina, when Bush peered down from Air Force One on the inundated Gulf Coast in 2005 as stranded Americans died on the streets of New Orleans, deserted by their government.

Back then, a president failed to understand the depth of feeling as a nation that sees itself as a beacon of compassion watched searing television pictures of human suffering.

While the events of the last week are of a smaller scale, it feels like another moment when swelling national feeling took a president off guard.

PR disaster

Belatedly, the White House has realized it has a public relations nightmare on its hands. Sources told CNN the President was convinced of the need to reverse his claim that he could not stop the family separations by heartrending audio and video of bereft children.

Then the first lady headed to the border to assess the situation for herself.

"I'd ... like to ask you how I can help to these children to reunite with their families as quickly as possible," she told medical staff at a children's shelter.

On Twitter, Ivanka Trump thanked her father for stopping the practice of separations his own administration had introduced and she called on Congress to find "a lasting solution that is consistent with our shared values."

Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster, said Trump understood the importance of horrifying imagery.

"I would imagine that the White House would want Melania to go down there and provide some positive visuals ... to try to make it seem as though they care about the outcome and the welfare of these kids," Anderson told CNN's Jake Tapper.

Yet the visit did seem a little contrived, featuring a facility that looked like a brightly decorated schoolroom that was far more welcoming than cages holding some kids in groups or the ordeal of more than 200 other children who were bused to New York.

Ivanka Trump's tweet, meanwhile, seemed oddly detached -- as if she were just an outside observer rather than a member of the administration that enforced the "zero tolerance" policy that led to the separations.

Efforts to show compassion toward the children might also have come too late to change the narrative.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions protested on Thursday in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that "the American people don't like the idea that we are separating families. We never really intended to do that."

Earlier, the President confessed at a Cabinet meeting that "it bothered me, as it bothered everybody at this table. We are all bothered by it."

But judging by its own statements, the administration used family separation as leverage to stop more migrants coming over the border and to try to jam Congress into fixing the issue -- in bills that would achieve many of Trump's immigration policy goals.

Earlier in June, White House chief of staff John Kelly said in an NPR interview that family separation was seen as a "tough deterrent" to illegal migration.

And Sessions said on May 9, the day the new policy was publicized: "If you don't want your child to be separated, then don't bring them across the border illegally."

There's not much the administration can do to correct those missteps now.

But a lack of compassion was also evident in its failure so far to tell Americans how it plans to reunite 2,300 children and their parents who were separated after crossing the border before Trump reversed the policy.

Trump has spent the last two years dehumanizing undocumented migrants, and using immigration as a base-cementing strategy.

The danger for him now is that the last few weeks may come to be seen as the moment when the human consequences of his approach became clear -- and rebounded against him.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 726600

Reported Deaths: 13379
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion992781737
Lake53359964
Allen40387675
St. Joseph35449550
Hamilton35440408
Elkhart28376439
Tippecanoe22336217
Vanderburgh22271396
Porter18637306
Johnson17876377
Hendricks17154314
Clark12919191
Madison12574339
Vigo12426245
Monroe11845169
LaPorte11773210
Delaware10615185
Howard9859215
Kosciusko9366117
Hancock8239140
Bartholomew8042155
Warrick7766155
Floyd7645177
Grant7019174
Wayne7018199
Boone6669101
Morgan6547139
Dubois6148117
Marshall6000111
Dearborn578577
Cass5780105
Henry5681102
Noble558283
Jackson500472
Shelby489496
Lawrence4492120
Gibson434391
Harrison434271
Clinton426853
DeKalb425284
Montgomery423388
Whitley394439
Huntington387480
Steuben382957
Miami380266
Knox371890
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Carroll188120
Perry182637
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Brown101541
Crawford99114
Benton98414
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Switzerland7848
Union70710
Ohio56211
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Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1080121

Reported Deaths: 19344
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1254981392
Cuyahoga1115202107
Hamilton798171200
Montgomery512711012
Summit46997933
Lucas41982782
Butler38273580
Stark32190907
Lorain24910480
Warren24249297
Mahoning21474586
Lake20586368
Clermont19727238
Delaware18496131
Licking16396210
Fairfield16144199
Trumbull15996466
Medina15233262
Greene15027244
Clark13960297
Wood13056188
Portage12806201
Allen11609231
Richland11308198
Miami10659215
Muskingum8795132
Wayne8777210
Columbiana8756229
Pickaway8547121
Marion8511135
Tuscarawas8467243
Erie7859154
Hancock6900126
Ross6835152
Ashtabula6777169
Geauga6665148
Scioto6398101
Belmont5856167
Union570047
Lawrence5542102
Jefferson5511151
Huron5422119
Darke5344122
Sandusky5330120
Seneca5268121
Athens518258
Washington5148109
Auglaize488484
Mercer480185
Shelby468593
Knox4479110
Madison435461
Putnam4268100
Ashland421289
Fulton420969
Defiance418997
Crawford3965106
Brown392957
Logan381176
Preble379098
Clinton370561
Ottawa366279
Highland353861
Williams338075
Champaign330458
Guernsey315453
Jackson312051
Perry294550
Morrow283839
Fayette281449
Hardin270364
Henry268166
Coshocton264258
Holmes2590101
Van Wert242863
Pike237433
Adams237052
Gallia235048
Wyandot230654
Hocking215162
Carroll191247
Paulding172440
Meigs144639
Noble133337
Monroe131942
Morgan108323
Harrison107537
Vinton82415
Unassigned02
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We'll start Friday off dry, but the chance of rain returns. Scattered showers will be possible by late morning until the evening.
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