Why you should care

President Donald Trump’s border two-step reframes the political debate.

The Donald Dossier: Cutting Through This Week’s Noisy NewsThe Donald Dossier: Cutting Through This Week’s Noisy News With What You Need to Know

The economy was cratering in January 1992 when President George H.W. Bush mistakenly read his stage directions aloud to a New Hampshire crowd, with a sentence that would live in political infamy. “Message: I care.”

When it comes to migrant children, the message from the Trump administration has been even more careless. A blizzard of contradictory and often false words led to Donald Trump issuing an executive order Wednesday designed to get TV producers to move on to the next shiny thing. That turned out to be Melania Trump’s jacket, donned as she departed on her “Message: I care” tour to the southern border Thursday. Written on the back of the first lady’s coat? The words: “I really don’t care. Do u?”

As with many of Trump’s moves, they seem designed to provoke overreaction among the news media and liberals. Mission accomplished. The family separations were so beyond the pale — and the sounds of screaming children so chilling — that Trump was forced to act. Yet the order merely reframed the debate. Children will now be detained with their families, in violation of an Obama-era court order. It dares Democrats to get behind a lawsuit that could reinstate the odious separations. Though enforcement agencies scrambled to explain how they were going to implement the order, it appeared to do nothing to reunite families already torn apart. It follows an oft-seen Trump pattern, says Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer: “Throw out something really controversial. Back down on that, but leave pretty dramatic, drastic steps in place.”

As for the jacket, the president nonsensically claimed it was a dig at the news media. Why not?

The debate over immigration is often a debate over humanity itself. Trump’s words — “infest” or “animals” — dehumanize. The insta-famous Getty image of the wailing child restores reality. While cracking the door open under pressure, the administration attempted to massage those images in recent days, allowing the news media into facilities for boys but not girls — and certainly not the “tender age” facilities for very young children.

And yet the Category 5 media storm has helped illuminate many sins of the Obama administration, when young immigrants were abused or drugged, according to lawsuits. For those eager to cry double standard, there’s ample fodder. But the basic fact is that Trump’s “zero tolerance” prosecution policy at the border created this conundrum, and it remains.

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A 2-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.–Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas.

Source John Moore/Getty

Family separations are hideously unpopular, but Trump fans could take heart in another set of intriguing poll results out this week. Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of Democrats were more motivated to vote than usual, compared to 50 percent of Republicans. Wave elections require a much wider split. The results show that even as liberals march in the streets, Trump’s base remains engaged.

Congressional Republicans — who failed to find consensus on immigration once again this week — would much rather talk about the zooming economy. But the president long ago decided culture wars are his political jackpot. Immigration is one issue he’s not inclined to handle with care.

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