Ivanka Trump, the untouchable

Above all.
Above all.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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Ivanka Trump was a star guest at this year’s Gridiron Dinner, the invitation-only white-tie tradition with roots in the late 1800s, that pairs the Washington bureau chiefs of the most prominent US news outlets with powerful politicians and White House officials.

The president’s daughter gently made fun of her father, and herself, in a short address March 2, riffing off of criticism that she ignored the great privilege she was born into when she said recently that people “want to work for what they get.”

“As if being Donald Trump’s daughter isn’t the hardest job in the world,” Trump said, to polite laughter. Her father, she concluded, was sorry to miss the dinner, because he likes to “poke fun at the media,” sugar-coating the open contempt from the president that appears to have inspired death threats to US newsrooms. As the dinner wound down, Ivanka and her husband, Jared, held court in the middle of the Renaissance Hotel ballroom, as a crowd gathered around them.

The day before, her older brother Donald Jr. attended a very different event across the Potomac. Trump’s firstborn son appeared on a panel with former newscaster Kimberly Guilfoyle (the two are a couple), Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., and his wife, Becky, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). They cracked jokes about transgender people and the global uprising against sexual harassment to a far-right-leaning audience that traditional conservatives say has taken over the Republican party.

Becky Falwell announced the birth of a new granddaughter, then declared triumphantly: “We’re raising her as a girl!” Her granddaughter is “not going to have a choice,” she said.

My boys “always had guns in their hand,” her husband added, meaning boys will be boys.

“Hashtag MeToo,” Donald Jr. chimed in with a huge grin, sparking a ripple of delight in the audience. After the #MeToo movement illustrated how widespread sexual abuse is, sparked in part by the election of his accused sexual predator father, co-opting the hashtag to brag about shooting things was Donald Jr. at his trolling best.

Later Donald Jr. retweeted a video of himself proclaiming that Saturdays were “for the boys!” from a men’s media account infamous for harassment and misogyny.

Ivanka and her brother play to opposite ends of the political spectrum in America, and they’re being treated differently in return. Most notably, as multiple federal and congressional investigations target her father, her brothers, and her husband, Ivanka has remained seemingly unscathed.

Her carefully marketed image, savvy outreach to Republicans in Congress, and the belief that she is her father’s favorite are sheltering her, multiple congressional and legal experts told Quartz.

There’s an acknowledgement in DC that “she’s been treated with kid gloves, and she really doesn’t deserve to be,” one Washington attorney, a veteran congressional aide who is advising investigative committees, told Quartz. Democrats have been reluctant to go after Ivanka openly because they’re afraid it will backfire. There’s concern the public will recoil at the image of a photogenic mother of young children under examination, and Trump and his supporters in Congress would go ballistic.

It’s not that “Democrats are too scared to take on Ivanka,” added another congressional aide—it’s a sense that “Republicans will go to war to protect her.”

Ivanka is viewed as a caring mother and supporter of family-related causes, even as her father’s administration pushes cutting child-welfare benefits, eases drinking water protections, and separates immigrant families at the US border. (Next week, the president will propose spending $100 million for a global women’s fund for which she has been the driving force.)

The apparent investigative stillness around Ivanka is a potent reminder that the probes into Donald Trump’s actions are as much about politics as they are about questions of following the law.

Ivanka, seen everywhere

Of Trump’s five children, Ivanka, 37, and Donald Jr., 41, are the most prominent public presences. Eric, 35, often a Fox News guest, has been satirized as a Cheerios-eating sidekick on Saturday Night Live but has otherwise maintained a relatively low profile. Tiffany, 25, mostly shows up for big speeches. (Youngest son Barron, not yet 13, has largely been kept out of the spotlight.)

Ivanka has been at the center of Donald Trump’s business, his reality-TV run, and his presidency in ways that Donald Jr. has not. She’s also been inside the White House in an official capacity and present at some of the most controversial moments of his presidency.

As an “executive vice president of development and acquisitions” at the Trump Organization, Ivanka played a key role in some of its most contentious deals. A WNYC-ProPublica report said she gave false sales figures for projects in Mexico’s Baja California; Panama City, Panama; Toronto, and New York’s SoHo neighborhood (the Trump Organization did not respond to questions, the WNYC-ProPublica team wrote, and the White House did not comment). Ivanka was the senior Trump Organization official on a hotel project in Baku, Azerbaijan, and tied to a family with a reputation for corruption and links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen told Congress Ivanka and Donald Jr. were briefed about 10 times on the Trump Tower Moscow project during the 2016 presidential campaign. She was also involved in negotiating high-priced hotel rooms for the inauguration that are now under investigation.

Questions about Ivanka’s business activities didn’t stop when she became an unpaid advisor to the president after he took office in 2017.

Although Ivanka took a “leave of absence” from her fashion company and the Trump Organization before the inauguration, Kellyanne Conway pushed Ivanka’s fashion line from the White House in the early weeks of the presidency. (Ivanka ultimately shut her fashion brand in July of 2018). She received multiple trademarks from Beijing as China and the US negotiated a trade deal, including five earlier this year for sunglasses and child-care centers; used a personal email server for White House business; was reportedly on location when Trump grappled with a statement about Donald Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with Russians at Trump Tower in New York; failed to adequately fill out security-clearance documents, and then—in the face of news reports to the contrary—denied her father had anything to do with her or her husband’s security clearances.

This week, new stories stated that Trump personally pushed for Ivanka and Jared to get security clearances, over objections from White House officials. The White House has refused to comment on reports about security clearances; a spokesman for Ivanka Trump’s ethics lawyer did not respond to questions related to this article.

Questions for Donald Trump Jr. and 80 others

Special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s office is believed to be investigating Donald Jr.’s Trump Tower 2016 meeting with several Russians, his discussions with Cohen about Trump Tower Moscow, and a second Trump Tower meeting over foreign offers to help with his father’s campaign. But he has not been called in for questioning. Some believe that means he’s a target of the investigation itself.

Donald Jr. has already testified in closed-door sessions to the House Intelligence Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee and is part of the list of 81 people and groups the House Judiciary Committee is seeking information from. Eric Trump and Jared Kushner are listed, too. Ivanka has not been named, however.

“She’s not on the initial list, that’s all we can say,”  Jerrold Nadler, the House Judiciary committee chair, said on March 4.

When a powerful congressional Democrat held a background briefing on House investigations in February, he chose his words very carefully when asked whether Ivanka would be brought before Congress. She may very well have relevant information, he said, but “we have made no decision as to Ivanka Trump.”

Despite his deep connections to the far-right base that supports his father, Donald Jr. is viewed as mostly expendable on Capitol Hill, congressional aides say. Democrats don’t have trepidation about connecting him to probes of alleged presidential misdeeds.

Testifying before the House Oversight Committee last week, Cohen said that his old boss believed his namesake son has the “worst judgment of anyone in the world.” Many congressional Republicans share that negative opinion of Donald Jr.’s “intelligence and judgment,” one aide said. While some may excuse his behavior, “most of them aren’t motivated to expend political capital protecting him.” 

Ivanka’s family-friendly policy move

In contrast, Ivanka is viewed as a valuable link to the president, someone who has insight and influence on his thinking. She has also championed a voter-pleasing idea in Congress—paid family leave—that Republicans have come to embrace alongside Democrats who have long supported it.

Last month, she met with Republicans senators to discuss the idea, pushing an issue that could be one of the few bipartisan successes this congressional session. Longtime backers of the concept say she’s been genuinely valuable in bringing it to the forefront.

“She is the only reason that childcare is even on the White House platform of policy ideas,” said Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar in economic policy at conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. Ivanka Trump “has been the biggest campaigner on these issues” in the administration.

The White House reached out to Mathur and her colleagues after AEI published a report on paid-parental leave, inviting them to a meeting with Ivanka and her team, she said. “It was totally clear to us that she is very committed to the issues, and she knows a lot,” Mathur said. “Her team is very keen to have this policy be something that the Trump White House actually does pass.”

“This is the first time that we’re seeing a few GOP proposals on paid-parental leave,” she added.

Now that there is a Republican “competition of ideas” on the subject. It’s a healthy dynamic, Mathur said, one that makes her optimistic a bill will pass.

Ivanka walks a thin line

Key to Ivanka’s personal success in Washington has been her own carefully curated image, one that relies on restrained and tasteful posts on social media, and appearances at more traditional, bipartisan events like the Gridiron Dinner.

Those entrees into Washington “society,” such as it is, aren’t always welcome. After Ivanka and her husband  attended the funeral of Arizona senator John McCain—whom her father had mocked as less than a hero because his was a prisoner of war in Vietnam—McCain’s daughter Meghan expressed her surprise.

“A funeral is sort of obviously sacred time and I thought that my family had made it clear, at least I had, that the Trumps are unwelcome around me,” she said.

That misstep aside, Ivanka has navigated the fine line of defending her father while carving out a space inside the White House and creating a new public persona at the same time. Her role as “first daughter” means she, rather than veteran public servants, has been dispatched to represent the US  at events like February’s Munich Security Conference.

Her Instagram (4.7 million followers) and Twitter (6.3 million) accounts are a carefully curated wonderland of well-lit, flattering photographs of the first daughter on high profile panels, or surrounded by children, factory workers, and her own offspring. On Instagram, the self-described “Wife, mother, sister, daughter” is pictured in Mississippi talking about “new solutions” for America’s childcare needs and touting “women’s economic empowerment” while sitting next to the IMF’s Christine Lagarde in Munich.

Donald Jr.’s approach to social-media could be described as more like “shitposting.” On Twitter (3.4 million followers) and Instagram (1.6 million followers) he spreads racist memes, retweet white supremacists, snipe at his father’s enemies, and shows off his hunting skills and MAGA fashion choices.

Whether Ivanka’s reputation and her work on childcare can continue to protect her from congressional probes remains to be seen. The co-hosts of ABC-TV’s daytime chat show The View, including Meghan McCain, focused on her comments last week.

“Props to Abby for catching her in her first public lie,” trumpeted McCain on March 1, referencing an interview co-host Abby Huntsman did with Ivanka in February, in which the president’s daughter said her father has “no involvement pertaining to my clearance or my husband’s clearance.”

Co-host Joy Behar—no great pal of McCain’s—happily joined in.

“Who are you going to believe,” she asked, “The New York Times or the daughter of a criminal enterprise?”