She apparently attended meetings; to what end, we’ll never know beyond what suspicious “sources familiar with Ms. Trump’s thinking” told The New York Times. We know she was conveniently on vacation during national crises, that she embarrassed herself in front of world leaders. We know that she spoke in a whispery Stepford voice in interviews with Fox News and a deeper, Glenne Headly’s last line in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels voice at campaign rallies. We know that she was photographed often, and for those photographs she frequently wore sleeves so heinous that they may have violated the Geneva Conventions.
I admit that it’s not very feminist of me to critique the work of a woman by resorting to superficial observations. But it’s hard to engage substantively with a person whose work, time and time again, has proven to be nothing more than superficial. There is no substantive engagement to be had with window-dressing.
I also must admit today that I was wrong about Ivanka Trump. All this time, I’d been thinking of her as a deeply mediocre child of legacy wealth, a veritable American princess of unearned stature, who emerged from a four-year stint in the Trump White House with one sort of cool piece of legislation to show for it. In reality, she has emerged from her four-year stint in the Trump White House with nothing to show for it. I regret the error and have learned my lesson.
This week, a new Government Accountability Office report on the First Daughter’s signature legislative accomplishment was, to use government jargon, a bit of a mess.
The Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018 had noble intentions. Under the WEEE, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) was charged with helping administer a $265 million grant to support micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises globally. Half of the grants were supposed to go to businesses owned and controlled by women, and the other half to support the “very poor,” with some overlap expected between the two categories.
This act dovetailed with Ivanka’s brainchild “W-GDP,” which, according to Politico, was sold as a way to “codify gender analysis and deliver targeted finance across the women’s programs of 10 U.S. Government agencies.” In other words, make sure that some of our international aid money was helping female business owners.
Ivanka loved W-GDP. Or, at least, she loved giving herself credit for all its accomplishments. She tweeted about it 50 times and gave countless speeches touting its effectiveness. She celebrated the six-month and 12-month anniversaries of W-GDP with speeches in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. In November 2020 she called herself W-GDP’s “founder” and said that it was her advocacy that got the WEEE signed into law.
She claimed multiple times that W-GDP had reached “12 million women.” On July 30, 2018, Ivanka even implied that the $265 million program might hold the key to world peace, tweeting, “When women are empowered to reach their full economic potential, countries thrive and stability and peace prevail!”
W-GDP and its accompanying grant programs were the entire basis of Ivanka’s tenuous claim that she was somehow a champion of women. She may have been working for a man credibly accused of sexual assault and misconduct by dozens of women and done nothing to support the women who accused her coworkers of gender-based violence. She may have remained silent when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gutted protections for sexual assault survivors on college campuses.
She may have done nothing to promote access to comprehensive reproductive health care for women domestically or abroad (because, by the end of her father’s term, she was “proudly pro-life”). She may never have spoken out in favor of the regulation of pollutants that can harm child-bearing women more than any other demographic, or against the egregious Black maternal mortality rate in the United States, or against reproductive coercion of undocumented women by Trump officials. But at least she had the grant program, and its commensurate bragging rights. Free-market feminism.
But the GAO report auditing the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018, the legislative heft behind Ivanka’s hashtagging, found that the program was so poorly run that it’s not clear how many women it helped, who actually received money, and what the definition is of a business owned or controlled by women.
The embarrassing report made six harsh recommendations to USAID, among them “identify the total funding,” define what women-owned businesses are, and make sure that the data reported on the program is reliable in the future. In some cases, according to the report, money was distributed to programs that never reported on how the funds were used. In other cases, the program sent surveys about fund use to the wrong people, some of whom didn’t even work for the programs in question. In other cases, no follow-up surveys were sent to anybody at all.
For all the self-congratulatory PR she was doing on her own behalf, Ivanka may as well have been shoving $5 bills into Coke bottles throwing them into the ocean, shouting “help a woman!” after them as they crashed into the surf, before rushing off to a $1,000-a-plate “female empowerment” gala to give a speech about how much empowering she just did.
As the WEEE made its way through the House and Senate, media outlets printed what essentially amounted to unedited press releases about Ivanka Trump’s success as a global women’s empowerment pioneer. Fortune magazine implied that somehow Ivanka had saved the USAID program from planned cuts, misleadingly making it sound like Ivanka had convinced her father to increase global aid in the name of helping women, when in reality the program was designed to utilize funds that had already been allocated for foreign aid; the law simply earmarked a certain amount of money for “women’s empowerment.”
The Associated Press ran a glowing preview of the program’s launch, which was originally supposed to include appearances by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as representatives from the World Bank and Bank of America. “First daughter Ivanka Trump, a White House adviser who has made supporting women in business part of her portfolio, led the policy process over the past year and a half,” read the article. Before the WEEE was signed into law, conservative website The Daily Signal claimed that Ivanka’s success proved that the key to empowering women was “free market policies.” The program hadn’t even been launched yet.
That’s a lot of hullabaloo for a package of grants that—again, even if the program had turned out to be functional—would have comprised around two-thirds of 1 percent of the total foreign aid budget.
It’s not Ivanka’s fault entirely that her signature piece of legislation appears to be shit. She didn’t write the legislation. She wasn’t a program administrator. And a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from Lindsey Graham to Rep. Lois Frankel supported it. But it’s fair to hold a person accountable for the program’s failings, after that person milked publicity from the law like a greedy dairy farmer about to run afoul of PETA. Credit and blame are a package deal.
Ivanka’s “all of the credit and none of the work” approach to global women’s economic empowerment reminds me a bit of her father. Former president Donald was famous for hiring contractors to do work on his properties, and then, after the work was complete, stiffing them on the bill. He was famous for overpromising and underdelivering; the skyline of Atlantic City and the Republican health-care plan we were supposed to get in two weeks for about four years serves as a monument to that.
All Trumps seem to be fans of what the elder Trump characterized as “glitz” or “flash,” superficial touches designed to dazzle the audience enough that they don’t notice that there’s nothing below the surface. The Trump family is all launch party and no launch.
And all that makes Ivanka’s selling the WEEE like a pre-construction condo even more repellent. Did she even bother to look into how the program was supposed to work, or was she so hungry for publicity that she skipped over that part? All of the speeches around the world that Ivanka gave under the auspices of empowering women weren’t actually supposed to empower women-plural, they were supposed to enrich woman-singular: Ivanka. Ivanka Trump didn’t invent cloaking grift in feminist-lite language, but she sure put her own Trump flair on it. The WEEE sounds like the sound a rider makes on a roller coaster of bullshit.
Ivanka Trump has been hiding in Florida since leaving her fluffy white office in the White House in January. But if past is prologue, we can count on her reemerging onto the national or international stage at some point, trying once more to further the notion that she’s got the solutions to centuries of global female oppression. She doesn’t. She never has. She’s a salesman selling charity to well-intentioned suckers.