A trio of telegenic, under-40 women—Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, senior counselor Hope Hicks and first daughter Ivanka Trump—spent the campaign’s closing days mostly unmasked, literally and figuratively, working to revive Trump’s standing with female voters, a demographic that could decide the election, while doing more than their fair share of damage control—which often seems to end up as a woman’s job in Trumpworld.
“I see them as very effective,” said Matthew Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and president of the Potomac Strategy Group. “They are compelling communicators, and not over the top, and character witnesses who provide a different level of credibility. It’s a softer sell. Suburban women can probably identify more with Ivanka than they can with Jason Miller or Peter Navarro.”
In other words, these three women are about as normal as you get in Trumpworld. They don’t hail from fringe groups but from mainstream institutions. They didn’t yell at MAGA rallies about locking up Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer or about how corrupt the Bidens are (one of Don Jr.’s go-to topics). That relative restraint has made them some of Trump’s most valuable surrogates, that much more potent because they have often attracted less critical scrutiny than their male counterparts.
Despite or perhaps because of the Trump team’s efforts to keep Hunter Biden in the headlines, the first daughter has received little additional scrutiny since The New Yorker detailed her 2017 work on a real estate project in Azerbaijan with local partners who had alleged ties to the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a designated terrorist organization.
In 2016, Ivanka was quite effective with her style of spin that conveniently sidestepped anything controversial. She carved out an eponymous niche courting the Ivanka Voter, the white women who helped deliver Trump the presidency. Having come out last week as an unapologetically anti-abortion conservative, she may prove an even more potent force this year now that she doesn’t have to masquerade as a liberal or moderating force.
While Hunter has been laying low, Ivanka has been on the campaign trail reciting her father’s real and alleged accomplishments calmly and smoothly. She comes off as very credible, believable, and likable. She’s quite effective at humanizing the president, poking fun at his dancing skills and portraying him as a tough but loving father who has “empowered” her. The whole effect, if you didn’t know or care about the facts, is heartwarming: How bad could my dad be? Look at how well I turned out.
Listening to her at a recent campaign stop in Charlotte, North Carolina, a state where coronavirus cases are on the rise, voters heard about how the country is on a great trajectory thanks to her dad’s work handling the global pandemic—and a coronavirus vaccine is practically ready to go.
Donald’s daughter is hardly the only woman on his team tasked with damage control. It was 32-year-old McEnany, not 61-year-old Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who made a cameo after Trump blew off 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl. McEnany waltzes into the room as if nothing has happened. She smiles at Stahl and graciously delivers a heavy book consisting of the administration’s health-care proposal, adroitly pulling off a high-wire act women are constantly performing in the Trump administration: acting like everything is fine and that this is all totally normal.
But perhaps there is no greater protector of the Trump brand or trusted aide than the 32-year-old Hicks, a senior counselor to the president who is often described in press reports as a magnanimous and honest broker. But this is, well, politics.
In the spring, as Trump was taking heat for his slow response to the global pandemic he called a “hoax” and said would miraculously disappear in the warmer weather, he kept asking why Mike Pence, the head of the coronavirus task force, wasn’t getting the same negative press. On May 2, The New York Times reported that unnamed administration officials acknowledged that time had been squandered but were mystified that Pence had escaped blame for the slow response. One person advancing that narrative was Hicks, according to a former Trump adviser who was told this by two people who work directly with the vice president. “This kind of thing plays into Trump’s worst sensibilities,” the former Trump adviser told me. (When asked about this claim, the White House told The Daily Beast: “One anonymous source claims to know the identity of another anonymous source? There is no truth to that claim or the substance of the reporting cribbed from the New York Times 6 month old reporting.”)
The claim tracks with a report at the end of June claiming Hicks and McEnany, among others, argued against drawing more attention to the surging coronavirus crisis because they wanted to keep the “White House focused on the path forward and the nascent economic recovery without scaring too much of the country about a virus resurgence when infections are rising at different paces in different regions.” Meanwhile, the virus continued to set daily records for cases and hospitalizations.
What remains confounding about this trio is that more of the Trump ick factor hasn’t stuck to them. Hicks, despite appearing maskless at a large church gathering—the kind of superspreader event that has contributed to a national uptick in coronavirus cases—has mostly gotten a free pass from the press. Ivanka still makes headlines like this one: While Her Father Talks About ‘Idiot’ Scientists, Ivanka Trump Talks Ice Cream. That is another way of saying that the First Daughter has her own style in creating an alternative, often misleading, narrative about the Trump administration’s record. Ivanka’s political superpower remains that she can still, after everything, generate positive coverage.
But how successful these women have been in their efforts to protect Trump’s image and get him to 270 electoral votes remains to be seen.
One public relations stunt, reportedly conceived by Ivanka and Hicks, was Trump’s infamous Bible photo opp. Sam Nunberg believes that botched event accounted for the president’s ensuing 6-point drop in the national polls. “Anyone who told the president to have protesters booted out of Lafayette Park so he could wave the Bible in front of the church bears direct responsibility for the predicament his re-election is now in,” Nunberg said, adding: “I doubt there will be any more corporate welfare for Hope,” referring to the seven-figure salary she earned working as a Fox News executive between her stints at the White House.
And that’s the thing. All three women will at some point have to leave Trumpworld and re-enter mainstream society sooner or later, and quite possibly in a matter of weeks. “They are all convinced that the president is worth putting their reputation on the line for,” said Mackowiak, a gamble, he says, which is far from certain. In the meantime, the optics for Trump are good; he looks better when there are poised, attractive young women by his side. The same can’t be said of the women.