Ivanka Trump’s White House Bind
How can Donald Trump’s favorite child advise her father, protect her personal brand, and keep the United States from looking like a banana republic?
Over 77 weeks, it’s accumulated over 10,400 “likes” on Instagram: a picture of Ivanka Trump standing at a lectern in the lobby of Trump Tower, before a row of American flags. With her blond hair swept into a studious bun, her statuesque frame draped in a white shift dress and her stilettos poking into a sky blue carpet, she is a vision of almost otherworldly poise and power, the kind of woman who might play the president of the United States in a movie about an alien invasion set in a dystopian future.
And in a sense, the image was alien on the day it posted—June 16, 2015—when Donald Trump entered the presidential race he would ultimately win. Until then, Ivanka’s social media was primarily an outlet for her burgeoning lifestyle brand, all pastel pink and blue memes with inspirational quotes and chic—but modestly priced!—clothing advertisements. But throughout the next 18 months of a campaign, an election night victory, and a presidential transition to the White House, it would become something much more complicated, and so would she.
The blurb accompanying the image captures the exact moment everything began to change: “My father has always taught me to think big. Today, he set his sights higher than ever before. I was incredibly honored to introduce him as he made a pretty monumental announcement—see my speech on IvankaTrump.com (link in profile). @realdonaldtrump #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.”
Ivanka transformed, in a single speech, from harmless celebrity spawn to political tool: To her father’s fans, she was a living example of the true effectiveness of their candidate; to his detractors, she was a cynical actor, disguising harmful political views with Marcia Brady pleasantness.
The question now for the incoming first daughter is how she can be all things to all people—to the president-elect most importantly—without ruining her personal brand, violating conflict of interest laws, or maneuvering in an area so gray that the United States begins to look like a banana republic.
“I think they want to maintain the appearance of propriety,” Richard Painter, who served as the White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush, told me.
“The issue is, what does the president-elect want his daughter to do? She can do whatever she wants in her business, and she can market her last name,” he said, “but he has control over what her interactions are with the administration. It’s fine with transition, where everything’s a little ambiguous. My concern is, he said the kids would run the business, and then the kids are getting involved in the administration. I would like a clear message about what the kids are going to do.”
Ivanka, who didn’t respond to an interview request, has been a mild public curiosity for almost as long as she’s been alive. She is blond and pretty, like a Disney princess, and as a teenager, she put that to use modeling, as many daughters of privilege do. But Ivanka would ultimately prove that she wasn’t like other rich kids, at least not exactly. She avoided the DUIs, rehab stints, and tabloid scandals that plagued her peers. When she appeared in a documentary, Born Rich, about children of billionaires, she was the only self-aware and likable narrator. And then she went out and got a real job, albeit working for her famous father.
In 2007, when she was 25, she appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman in her official capacity as the vice president of development and acquisitions for the Trump Organization, walking out to “Rich Girl” by Hall and Oates, a joke at her expense that she didn’t acknowledge. “It seems like a very pivotal, crucial role in the organization,” Letterman told her of her title. “It sounds very important,” she said, “but at the end of the day my father always reminds us—although we don’t need to be reminded—that it’s him, and then everyone else.”
Ivanka wanted that natural order to change.
According to those with knowledge of her thinking, her plan was to become a cross between Martha Stewart and Sheryl Sandberg—a modern day guru for millennial women who want to have it all: professional success and a beautiful family, all while looking fit and glamorous 24 hours a day, effortlessly.
She wanted to be a mogul in her own right, removed from her father’s towering presence, one as trusted and beloved by American women as Oprah Winfrey. But unlike Oprah, or even the mother of the modern lifestyle brand, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ivanka was going about the business smarter: by providing the products a woman would need to achieve her way of life, not just by giving her guidance and directing her to other sellers. She developed a clothing line and a shoe line. She was so committed to her brand that her own engagement ring, from her now-husband Jared Kushner, another child of real estate fortune, is not Tiffany or Cartier, but Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry.
“She’s probably as calculating as her husband,” one source, who previously worked with Ivanka, told me. “Not in an antifeminist way—she’s fucking smart.”
She didn’t anticipate a detour to the White House, but then who did? Throughout the primary and the general election campaigns, her father’s new role as a politician didn’t change Ivanka’s behavior as a saleswoman much. In between posts from Republican debates and on the trail in Iowa, she continued to share selfies and glamour shots and well-lit vacation photos of her family. She advertised her shoes, often with the hashtag #workstyle, her clothes and her jewelry. Sometimes, she advertised all sorts of things at once. “It’s #NationalWaterMelonDay,” went one post, “and this fresh summer cocktail from the poolside bar at @trumpdoral is the perfect way to celebrate! Get the recipe on IvankaTrump.com (link in profile) and shop the ring at #neimanmarcus. #womenwhowork.” When she spoke during the Republican National Convention, wearing a pale pink dress, she advertised it on Twitter: “Shop Ivanka’s look from her RNC speech.” Available for $138 at Macy’s, it quickly sold out.
Trump himself had spent much of his campaign promoting his golf courses and hotels—including one down the street from the White House—often with Ivanka’s aid. It seemed, at some points, as if the entire thing was just a marketing exercise. But then he won, and the potential conflicts of interest came into sharp relief.
His children, he said, would run his business in what he called a “blind trust,” although a trust run by family members can’t, by definition, be blind. And then Ivanka tried to sell a $10,000 gold and diamond bangle after she wore it on 60 Minutes. And then Donald appointed those same children to his transition team. And then Ivanka sat in on a meeting with the prime minister of Japan, held in Trump Tower, while she was working out a deal involving the retailer Sanei International, whose parent company, The Development Bank of Japan, is owned by the Japanese government. And then Donald handed her the phone so she could talk to Nancy Pelosi. And then came the news that she and Jared were shopping for real estate in Washington, where they planned to move (more than could even be said for Melania, Trump’s own wife). Legal, sure, probably, but what on earth?
“She operates in a bubble of ‘can’t touch this,’” the source said. If she had concerns about the appearance of impropriety, “Don’t you think she would recuse herself from sitting down with the Japanese prime minister? No one is making her do that—she’s fully autonomous.”
Another source close to Ivanka took a more sympathetic view of her plight. “No one’s ever really been through this before. It’s sort of unprecedented circumstances… There is no specific model in terms of how to deal with this. The good news is that offers a lot of opportunities, but that also presents challenges in wanting to do the right thing, but finding the way to do it.”
Cashing in on a famous political name is not entirely new, of course. Billy Carter endorsed “Billy Beer” in 1977, the year his brother, Jimmy, was inaugurated as the 39th president. And Tony and Hugh Rodham, brothers of Hillary, did all sorts of weird shit, like growing hazelnuts in the Republic of Georgia, that caused headaches for President Clinton.
The difference is Ivanka’s level of influence with the president-elect. She has been her father’s most reliable political weapon, serving in the capacity of a political wife more than a daughter, selling him to factions of the American public that might otherwise find him unpalatable. He trusts her, according to his own testimony and sources with knowledge of their relationship, more than anyone. He groomed her to take over the family business, but now that business has changed, and it seems unlikely Trump will be able or willing to govern without her constant counsel.
“Where the conflict of interest rule kicks in is if you are a government employee, and that includes a special government employee,” Painter explained. “Then it would be a criminal offense to participate in any government matter that has a direct impact on your financial well being.”
If Ivanka were merely an informal adviser, or the head of a task force unrelated to her brand or her father’s business, she would most likely be able to get away with trading on her influence and using her connections however she saw fit. “She needs to be focusing on an area of policy that really has nothing to do with what she’s trying to sell,” Painter said.
The source close to Ivanka said she was conscious of the fact that she needs to exercise caution while keeping one foot in the world of her business and one foot in the nascent administration. “She knows it, she’s trying, she’s trying to address it. It’s a process,” the source said.
Late last month, Ivanka took the step of separating her personal social media accounts from those of her lifestyle brand, although the difference between the accounts is minimal and, immediately after that news was announced, she began sharing tweets from her lifestyle account promoting her products on her personal Twitter account.
“This is not a case,” the source said, “where it’s a clueless person.”