What Exactly Is Ivanka Doing?
What is Ivanka Trump doing in the White House?
We know what she is literally doing. At this moment, she is in South Korea, where she led the U.S delegation to the Winter Olympics and briefed South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the administration’s new economic sanctions against North Korea. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the first daughter has “been part of the team” on North Korea receiving briefings and sensitive information.
But describing her duties is just another way of asking the question. Ivanka Trump is a senior adviser to the White House with an office, a staff, and a wide portfolio of issues, from education and veterans affairs to restructuring the federal bureaucracy and working with foreign leaders around the world. And her only qualification is that she’s the president’s daughter. If the Trump family were possessed of public spiritedness and a commitment to transparency, this might be a forgivable instance of nepotism. But those qualities, alas, are in short supply.
The extent to which Ivanka Trump has no particular expertise is staggering given her apparent responsibilities. Take her trip to South Korea. Trump has no experience in international diplomacy, nuclear proliferation, or the history of the Korean Peninsula. Likewise, she had no particular competency when she stood in for the president at a forum in Saudi Arabia on tackling expertise, or when she traveled to India to head the U.S delegation at a summit on global entrepreneurism.
Each of those would constitute a surprising and difficult assignment for someone whose resume consists of managing a small apparel line and appearing on The Apprentice. And while the same might be said for Donald Trump, who entered the White House with no experience in public service, he at least has the consent of the governed. Ivanka Trump, by contrast, did not appear on any ballot line and even appeared to rule out a prominent role in the White House. “I’m going to be a daughter,” she said in an interview just after the election. Now, the president’s oldest daughter receives sensitive intelligence information without a proper security clearance and does work that is typically the province of experienced officials.
Donald Trump isn’t the first president to place family members in high-level positions. John F. Kennedy nominated his brother, Robert Kennedy, to serve as attorney general, though that position required confirmation by the Senate, giving him an important stamp of legitimacy. More comparable are appointments by Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who hired their sons as White House aides: John Eisenhower served as assistant staff secretary, while James Roosevelt served as secretary to the president, in a role not unlike the modern-day chief of staff. But there are significant differences. The younger Eisenhower had served as an intelligence officer in World War II, relevant experience for a job involving document flow and classified information. And the younger Roosevelt was a longtime political deputy for his father, relevant experience for a highly political position.
What makes Ivanka Trump’s lack of knowledge and experience so galling is that she is trying to have it both ways, acting in a high-level role within the White House while presenting herself as just “a daughter” when pressed on sensitive questions about the president. On Sunday, in an interview with NBC News’ Peter Alexander, she was asked if she believes President Trump’s denials of sexual assault and misconduct. “I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he’s affirmatively stated there’s no truth to it,” said Ivanka Trump. “I don’t think that’s a question you would ask many other daughters.”
It simply isn’t true that media outlets wouldn’t ask other prominent daughters that question—Chelsea Clinton fielded it during two separate presidential elections, and that was without any permanent post in her father’s administration. Ivanka Trump isn’t just a daughter: She’s a senior White House official speaking to NBC News in her role as a senior White House official. To plead family when faced with a difficult question about her father is to demonstrate why we have nepotism laws to begin with. Either Trump is a representative of the White House, and thus should expect to be asked difficult questions about the president she serves, or she’s simply a relative of the president with no particular obligation to the public, in which case, she ought to resign her position in the administration.
Ivanka Trump is attempting a similar two-step with her business. Both she and her husband, White House adviser Jared Kushner, remain beneficiaries of their real estate and investment businesses, with stakes in properties like the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., a favorite spot of lobbyists and foreign governments attempting to curry favor with the administration. It’s a clear conflict of interest and only reinforces the extent to which Ivanka Trump seems to want power without accountability, the benefits of being close to the president of the United States without the obligations to the public she’s supposed to serve.
What is Ivanka Trump doing in the White House? It seems she’s following her father’s footsteps in using the privilege of high office to bolster her brand, with little concern for the actual tasks and responsibilities of governance.
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Jamelle Bouie is Slate’s chief political correspondent.