First lady Melania Trump arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Thursday, June 21, 2018, after visiting the Upbring New Hope Children Center run by the Lutheran Social Services of the South in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Image Credit: AP

It was the jacket that launched a thousand tweets. Boarding Air Force One on her way back from visiting a Texas detention centre, where unaccompanied children of the current immigration debate are housed, United States first lady Melania Trump wore a jacket that had “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” emblazoned on the back. Many speculated, as they have of Melania’s fashion choices in the past, whether the jacket was meant to send a subliminal message.

Could it have been a coded allusion to her contempt for her husband? Was it, as the president himself claimed on Twitter, an attempt to tell off the media?

My sense is that it was neither, and that it wasn’t saying anything else either. More likely, it was, as her spokesperson claimed, just a jacket, but that makes it all the more questionable.

Anyone who closely followed the first lady’s border visit on Thursday would have noticed that Melania does appear to care about the fate of the children she was visiting. It was not a strictly congratulatory trip. The questions Melania asked indicated genuine concern, not indifference, such as how often the children were permitted to call their parents.

Melania’s statement last week, urging the administration to govern “with heart” — an uncharacteristic foray into the policy sandbox — sent the same message. And that was on top of the lobbying Melania reportedly did behind the scenes to encourage her husband to end the practice of separating parents from their children at the border.

But to chalk up Melania’s sartorial misstep to an inconsequential oversight would also be misguided. What first ladies do and say in public, as my research on presidential spouses consistently shows, matters very much. Spouses are the most effective public messengers presidential administrations have, and Melania is no exception to this.

Like past first ladies, she is more popular than the president, and she seems to have a greater ability to influence public opinion of her husband among political independents and members of the opposite party, even when compared to key surrogates like President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and Vice-President Mike Pence.

Those advantages come from the flexibility first ladies are afforded by their role, which allows them to stay out of partisan debates and restrict their public appearances, all the while benefiting from unfettered access to presidents and perceived closeness to them.

But these advantages also impose great responsibility. Melania’s visit to the border on Thursday was the best shot the administration had at putting a compassionate face on a highly divisive and controversial policy. It also fit nicely with Melania’s personal story as an immigrant and her expressed interest in the well-being of children, which she formalised with her platform “Be Best”. Cohesiveness in political communications is everything.

And that is what made jacket-gate such an unfortunate, frustrating and avoidable stumble. For someone who has been involved in the fashion industry and the public eye for decades, Melania, like her husband, can be surprisingly careless about her public image at times. This would be surprising in any presidential spouse, and it’s no less so coming from one who’s a former model. If anything, the words on her jacket seem to speak to a lack of interest in the role she fills.

She has also learnt, since being in the White House, what public actions draw positive attention and which draw negative attention. The white hat she wore to greet the French president was met with widespread awe and delight, and the phrase “Melania Trump hat” garnered more online search results than several top news stories combined that week. Yet, when she wore stilettos aboard Air Force One to visit Hurricane Harvey victims, her choice was met with castigation.

When most first ladies make a public gaffe, they tighten up their operation, become more willing to be managed by staff, and make sure not to make the same mistake again. That is exactly what we saw after Michelle Obama remarked that she was “proud” of her country for the first time in her adult life on the 2008 campaign trail, for example. To the great benefit of the Barack Obama administration, Michelle Obama’s public appearances and statements throughout her time in office were highly targeted, polished and vetted by experienced staff.

But Melania has made mistakes aplenty, starting with one too big to even be called a gaffe, the plagiarism scandal that surrounded her remarks at the Republican National Committee in 2016 (and then, another plagiarism allegation, that coincided with her “Be Best” announcement earlier this year).

In the modern era, the East Wing has developed into an intensely strategic and media-conscious operation that serves to garner positive press coverage for the president and his policy agenda. But Melania’s East Wing has not yet hit its stride in this regard, despite its abundant potential to do so. Under the current administration, the West Wing’s communications have, of course, been similarly clumsy, but as history teaches, the first ladies and their staff typically have the opportunity to be better.

— Washington Post

Lauren A. Wright is a lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today.