One Way to Get Through to Trump? Children

Being around young people seems to bring out a hard-nosed president’s compassionate side—up to a point.

President Trump at the 2018 White House Easter Egg roll
President Trump greets children at the 2018 White House Easter Egg roll. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

If President Trump decides to launch military strikes on Syria, following the most recent gas attacks by the Assad regime, it’s a good bet that children will be central to his rationale.

In a tweet on Sunday, he mentioned young victims of the attacks:

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said, “The images, especially of suffering children, have shocked the conscience of the entire civilized world.”

Of course, leaders often use brutality against young people as justification for their policies—who can be against the children? And he might have other reasons to act, including a burgeoning domestic political liability created by the FBI raid on his attorney Michael Cohen. Presidents have often used quick, decisive, and splashy but limited military actions as a distraction from less positive stateside news.

Yet Trump’s approach has undergone an abrupt reversal, from demanding that aides devise an early exit strategy from Syria last week to rattling his saber in Damascus’s direction. The change of heart echoes an episode last year, right down to the president reacting to victimization of children. At that time, Trump, having complained about the prospects for America getting sucked into a war in Syria, suddenly decided to launch a round of airstrikes against Assad-regime targets after a gas attack in Khan Shaykhun.

In interviews and public appearances to explain the shift, he consistently returned to one reason for his sudden resolve: images of children suffering from the effects of the gas attack.

“I think it’s a disgrace. I think it’s an affront to humanity. Inconceivable that somebody could do that,” Trump told The New York Times. “Those kids were so beautiful. To look at those scenes of those beautiful children being carried out.” He discussed the slaughter of children during an interview with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo, too.

At a press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Trump said, “It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies—babies, little babies—with a chemical gas that is so lethal—people were shocked to hear what gas it was—that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”

During a press conference with the secretary-general of NATO, Trump said something similar. “The vicious slaughter of innocent civilians with chemical weapons, including the barbaric killing of small and helpless children and babies, must be forcefully rejected by any nation that values human life,” he said, adding, “Everybody in this room saw it all too many times over the last three or four days—young children dying, babies dying, fathers holding children in their arms that were dead. Dead children—there can’t be a worse sight, and it shouldn’t be allowed. That’s a butcher. That’s a butcher.”

This language is striking because it was so far removed from anything the president had said about foreign policy during the campaign or in his presidency up to this point. The language of moral revulsion and horror, and of humanitarian intervention, was precisely what Trump had rejected. Now here he was, sounding like a street-corner Samantha Power.

That these images would move Trump to speak in such an uncharacteristic way is fascinating. The president’s inability to display empathy, or simple lack of interest in doing so, has been the subject of lengthy discussion. He values strength and bluster over softness and compassion. Thus it’s all the more peculiar that children seem to sometimes sway Trump to views, and displays of emotion, far removed from his typical demeanor.

Trump seems to dote on his granddaughter Arabella, daughter of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. She’s even crashed interviews with the Times. That’s not altogether surprising, although Trump has sometimes dealt coldly even with family members.

But one of the more peculiarly human moments of Trump’s presidency came when he welcomed the children of reporters into the Oval Office for a Halloween celebration. Trump being Trump, he made a couple of tonally awkward comments. “I cannot believe the media produced such beautiful children,” he quipped. “How the media did this, I don't know.” Speaking about candy, he told one girl, “You have no weight problems, that's the good news.” Watching video of the event, however, what’s striking is how comparatively at ease Trump seems, having a good time, chatting with the children, and playing patriarch. It’s a level of relaxation and fun he has almost never publicly demonstrated since taking office.

This apparent softness for children has potential policy implications beyond airstrikes in Syria. Take DACA. Trump canceled the Obama-era program that gave legal status to “Dreamers,” unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, but he has vacillated on what should come next, sometimes demanding that Congress act and at other times insisting it’s too late. The language Trump uses tends to offer a hint of where he’s leaning at any moment.

In his first and only full press conference of his presidency, shortly after being inaugurated, Trump sounded a much more conciliatory note than he had during the campaign, when he promised to quickly axe DACA:

To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids, in many cases—not in all cases. In some of the cases they’re having DACA and they’re gang members and they’re drug dealers too. But you have some absolutely incredible kids—I would say mostly—they were brought here in such a way—it’s a very, very tough subject. We are going to deal with DACA with heart. I have to deal with a lot of politicians, don’t forget, and I have to convince them that what I’m saying is right. And I appreciate your understanding on that. But the DACA situation is a very, very—it’s a very difficult thing for me. Because, you know, I love these kids. I love kids. I have kids and grandkids.

It took Trump until September to actually rescind the program. But he continued to call for Congress to pass a law to replace DACA, even as he did little to force his GOP allies to act. In January 2018, he told The Wall Street Journal, “It wasn’t their fault, their parents came in, it wasn’t their fault,” though he added, “They’ve been here a long time, they’re no longer children, you know. People talk of them as children, I mean some are 41 years old and older.”

By Easter weekend, when Trump was declaring “NO MORE DACA DEAL,” the language about children had disappeared from his discussions of the policy. Instead, he talked about how “a lot of people are coming in because they want to take advantage of DACA.”

Trump has also spoken repeatedly about children in discussing the opioid crisis and his calls for tougher border security, often buttressing his policy arguments with anecdotes about the pain of parents who have lost children.

At the Republican National Convention in 2016, for example, Trump recalled Sarah Root, who was killed when an unauthorized immigrant driving drunk struck her. “I’ve met Sarah’s beautiful family,” Trump said. “But to this administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting.”

The administration has faltered in taking concrete steps on opioids—appointing Kellyanne Conway, a political professional, to lead its efforts, and mostly making threats about executing drug dealers—but the president has seemed unusually engaged and passionate when talking about the crisis in public settings.

“We see America’s heart in the parents who won’t accept addiction as the fate of their children,” he said last month. “We will defeat this crisis, we will protect our beautiful children, and we will ensure that tomorrow is better, brighter, stronger, and greater than ever before.” During public appearances, he has called the parents of opioid-overdose victims to speak and be recognized. “Come on up here. Tell us about your boy,” Trump invited Jim and Jean Mozer at an event in New Hampshire in March.

Perhaps the most vivid demonstration of the possibilities and limitations of children to motivate Trump is his reaction to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Shortly after the shooting, the president hosted students and parents at the White House. He came out of that meeting uncommonly motivated. A few days later, he was lambasting members of Congress for being “afraid of the NRA” and not pushing to increase the minimum age for buying as semiautomatic rifle to 21. Trump’s comments briefly turned the gun debate on its head. But over the ensuing days, Trump met with the NRA, and he got further away from his encounter with the children, he backed away from his advocacy for tougher gun controls. Cases involving kids seem to genuinely sway the president’s views—but one thing the children cannot do is lengthen his short attention span.