When Dad’s the president — a look inside Ivanka Trump’s complicated world

The Washington Post, 01.07.2017
Monica Hesse y Krissah Thompson

Ivanka Trump’s office: clean, white, quiet. A zone of punctual start times and promptly offered water bottles, and a conference table at which she conducts meetings. A short, winding walk away from her father’s Oval Office downstairs.

She does not necessarily appreciate daily schedules. Neither does her father. When Ivanka needs to see the president, she stops by. When he needs to see her, he calls. When he wants her opinion, he asks for it and she gives it, but without expectation that it will be followed.

She sees her role as not to persuade, but to inform and support: That much is clear to White House staffers and friends who have observed the first daughter’s early months in the White House. Anyone who has invested in her the ability to change her father clearly doesn’t understand the dynamic that has always governed their relationship and also the dynamic of a president and his staff. After all, she works for him.

The people are different. The decisions are different and the office is different,” Ivanka, an assistant to the president, said in a recent extended interview in her office, one of the few she’s granted.

But he is the same person and I am the same person. And we interact in the same way as we always have.”

One morning last week, she was one of the senior staff who convened around a long table in the White House’s Situation Room. On the agenda was solidifying her father’s remarks at the upcoming G-20, a global economic summit, particularly in a session relating to the economic empowerment of women.

“She’s been the advocate to put these things on the president’s agenda,” said a senior White House official who was in the meeting.

Ivanka argued that the administration’s message should focus on the barriers facing women: access to capital, access to markets — issues that were her personal interests before she maneuvered them onto her father’s official platform.

In the meeting, she was, as usual, collegial and thoughtful, thanking the mid-level staffers present for their research and work.

A few hours earlier, her father had already issued a few words on one woman. Just before 9 a.m. the president had gone on a Twitter bender, targeting MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski. He called her “crazy” and “low IQ.” He described her as coming to his Florida estate, “bleeding badly from a facelift.”

The media and political world exploded — another days-long uproar over a sexist remark by the impetuous @RealDonaldTrump. His words were again seen as tearing down the platform Ivanka says she is trying to build. People wondered: Who would dare tell him to stop undermining his office and damaging himself?

“Where are Jared and Ivanka right now?” Politico demanded.

Ivanka was discussing policy.

And then she went, presumably, back to her West Wing Office — small by CEO standards, big by White House ones — and to what has become the most complicated father-daughter dance in the history of American politics.

For Ivanka, moving to Washington has been a master’s course in the zigzagging political process. But there is no rule book for dealing with a president’s discombobulating tendency to overshadow everything she and everyone else in his administration is trying to do.

Her response to what she called “all the noise” has been to retreat into a cocoon of carefulness, to put her head down and work. “Every time I’m a little tired or frustrated — I remind myself that it’s the greatest privilege in the world to do this, to be in the White House,” she said.

President Trump walks with his daughter Ivanka Trump from the Oval Office to board the Marine One helicopter. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

She is learning to more carefully weigh the consequences of her opinions, which impact not the family business, but the country and the world. Unlike in business, where she felt comfortable exchanging off-the-cuff opinions with her father, she now tries not to respond too quickly. She waits until he has asked her opinion multiple times on the same issue, taking that as a cue to its importance, and then she reaches out to subject-matter experts to help her develop a reasoned position.

When she disagrees with her dad, she asks herself whether the issue was a campaign promise or not. If it was, she readily suppresses her own wishes. She believes that doing otherwise would undermine what the American people voted for. She asks herself why her opinion is more right than the 46 percent of the country who put her father in office.

Foremost, she presents him with information. She tells him what she thinks, and then lays out what the other side’s strongest arguments are. Then the president decides. As he always has.

My father trusts me to be an honest broker,” Ivanka said. “I don’t have a hidden agenda. I have a very clear agenda. He knows exactly where I stand, and I express why I care. There’s no secrecy about it.”

In a meeting with CEOs in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, she is her father’s mouthpiece, hosting business leaders who want to support his plan to boost workforce training. On a tour through a technical school in Wisconsin, she stayed at his shoulder, shaking hands and passing compliments to a man demonstrating an automated cutting machine. In a briefing with reporters, she constantly revises her notes with a felt-tip pen, but rarely needs to consult them as she speaks about the administration’s proposal for a workforce training program.

She said she’s pushing the administration’s “working-family agenda.” She uses the language of her father — “tremendous,” “incredible.”

“When you say daughter, when you say staffer — she is definitely not a staffer,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn), who has met with Ivanka multiple times in the 16 weeks since she took on a role as adviser to the president. “No question. That is not the case. I think it’s very much she is — I don’t want to use the word ‘peer,’ but she is a partner.”

Donald Trump has relied on his daughter’s advice since she began working for him as a vice president at the Trump Organization, the tempered Athena to his furious Zeus. She was 24.

She did not build her life thinking she was going into politics,” said a person close to Ivanka.

Over the course of a decade working for her dad, she grew accustomed to offering her opinion, sometimes off the cuff, on the family’s business portfolio: deals, properties, hotel openings and hotel design.

This is her portfolio now: Workforce development. Childcare tax credits and paid parental leave — issues that no American Congress has ever passed, and which have become Ivanka’s signature topics, and bellwethers for her success. Human trafficking. Last Tuesday, she stood by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a crowded State Department ceremony, honoring award recipients who have contributed to the study and eradication of trafficking.

When I have conversations with her, it’s really not about trying to influence the president,” said Corker, who was at the event and has counseled Ivanka on the issue. In meeting with Ivanka:

I feel like I’m dealing with the principal who is going to be carrying out these issues in the White House.

At the conclusion of their meetings, on occasion Ivanka has walked Corker downstairs to wander into the Oval Office and say “Hi” to the president. And, it was clear to the senator that Ivanka has real power in the White House over the subjects that are on her agenda.

She may not be able to sway her father’s opinions. But she is throwing her weight behind issues such as family leave — building coalitions and, if all miraculously aligns, she could see Congress pass legislation that she has helped to push.

Says her husband, Jared Kushner:

I think she’s very lucky in that she cares less about what people think and more about if she’s doing the right thing and will be able to get positive results. Ultimately that’s what has and will make her very successful.

Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner hold their son Theodore James Kushner during the congressional picnic on the South Lawn in June. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

At its heart this is a story about fathers and daughters, and what happens when one becomes president of the United States and the other follows him to the White House and tries to make heads or tails of it.

This is a story of a daughter who leaves her beloved New York. Moves her three children to D.C. Marvels at having a house with an actual back yard, and wonders if the paparazzi who post themselves in front of their new home are paid in 10-hour shifts, because they’re always there to photograph when her husband Jared leaves for work at 6 a.m., but then are always gone by 4 p.m.

This is a story that gets exceptional because it’s the Trumps, for whom life and career are always entwined with family: Ivanka as a child, building future Trump towers out of Lego sets, as one of her favorite stories goes. An older Ivanka, using the interoffice envelopes in the real Trump Tower to send her father positive press clippings about himself, as an acquaintance remembers. Season after season of “The Apprentice,” with the fates of D-list celebrities determined by the opinions of the two Trumps.

Then as now, when Ivanka presents her dad with information, she said she tells him what she thinks, and then tries to tell him the opposing arguments.

A lot of the way people try to get things done, or sell things in Washington, is they present facts that align with the outcome that they want the other person to come to,” she said. “In business it’s the same — they tell you the good facts about a company, not the bad facts. I don’t do that. I have never done that.

Maggie Cordish, a longtime friend whose husband now works in the Trump administration as an assistant to the president, said Ivanka “understands what a privilege it is to find herself in this position and to be able to move the needle on things she cares about. . . . She uprooted herself from New York to come down here to get things done.”

As she goes about her work, there is another oddity that is Ivanka-specific: the fact that she becomes a cipher into which people pour their own beliefs and aspirations, the fact that multiple people can sit in a room with her and each believe she is speaking directly to them.

Republican female lawmakers who have met with Ivanka spoke about her preparedness, and their excitement to have a representative from the White House who cared about issues they had worked on, in some cases, for years. Multiple male lawmakers spoke at length about her “elegance” and her “grace”; and then worried out loud that they seemed enamored of her.

In the eye of Democrats, Ivanka is forever moving one step forward and two steps back, forever caught up in her father’s unseemly dramas. Three months into her official role, observers who analyze her influence on Donald Trump are still doing so via a method of reading her tweets like tea leaves: Ivanka sends out support for refugees on World Refugee Day, against a father interminably stumping for a travel ban. Ivanka wishes her LGBT followers a happy Pride month, while her father eschewed Barack Obama’s tradition of issuing a proclamation. At times, she comes across as earnest, if slightly oblivious; at times it seems like she knows exactly what she is doing, which is goading her dad.

Ivanka, taken out of context, is rarely offensive. But Ivanka is all context — the context of her father. He is why people write about her, dissect her, fret over her. She is playing a flute in an orchestra. He is running around banging a gong in the background, making her look tone-deaf.

Trent Franks, a Republican congressman from Arizona, recently received an invitation from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for a meeting to brainstorm a pro-family tax code. A special participant — the “predicate” of the meeting, as Franks saw it — would be Ivanka Trump, the woman whose father had spent an election cycle gleefully referring to the meeting’s host as “Little Marco.”

Nine Republican lawmakers gathered around a table at which the first daughter spoke softly enough that other participants fell silent to hear her bring greetings from the president and talk about her desire for a child-care tax credit and paid family leave. The roundtable, and Ivanka’s behavior in it, was representative of how she has come to conduct business in Washington.

She was a very active listener,” said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), noting that Ivanka responded to each participant’s favored issue — an adoption tax credit, a caregiver tax credit — as if she had personally researched them.

“In every sincere way,” said Franks, “I left and felt like this was a meeting of consequence.”

Ivanka left and told Kushner — in one of the frenetic catch-ups that the couple holds, sometimes in his office, sometimes in the 11-11:20 p.m. timespan between when her husband gets home and when the two go to bed — that the meeting had been “really positive.”

Paid parental leave is on the administration’s proposed budget this year: a mandated six weeks for birth and adoptive parents. Ivanka knows proposed budgets never survive intact, an aide said, and that the proposal could struggle to find support from either Democrats, who don’t think it goes far enough, or from conservative Republicans, who disagree with a mandate at all.

I think there’s going to be a question of whether it gets there, but you know, she’s happy that people are talking about this — and again she’s working hard to build a coalition and understanding around the issue,” said a person close to Ivanka in the White House, who requested anonymity to speak openly.

While Ivanka did meet privately with her home state Senator, Kirsten E. Gillibrand, according to the Associated Press, her early public meetings have largely included Republicans on Capitol Hill, leaving some Democrats who have pressed the legislation for decades wondering about her strategy.

I appreciate what Ivanka Trump is doing to elevate the issue to make it part of the public discourse,” said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), a veteran advocate for family leave whose own proposed bill was analyzed alongside the Trump administration’s in a recent collaborative study by the liberal Brookings Institution and the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.

I haven’t met with her. I haven’t been asked to meet with her,” DeLauro adds.


I don’t want to be presumptuous, but since I have been engaged in these issues on the House side for such a long time I’d hope that I would be included in a discussion of these issues.”

When Donald Trump announced he would be pulling out of the global climate change agreement known as the Paris climate accord, it angered liberals who had put their hopes in Ivanka. She had personally met with Al Gore, and gotten Leonardo DiCaprio into a room with her father to talk about climate change. She telephoned business executives, encouraging them to reach out to her father and tell him to stay in the deal. He didn’t.

Is it possible she’s doing nothing to moderate her father?” asked exasperated HBO host John Oliver — and aides say she felt frustrated. She had done her job, as she saw it, exposing her father to a variety of ideas, but she couldn’t make her father commit to something he didn’t want to.

That is her typical approach. “I am not sort of trying to selectively curate information that will lead him to agree with me,” she said. “Debate is good.”

In other interviews, she has said she would never criticize her father in public. “Where I disagree with my father, he knows it,” she told CBS’s Gayle King in a televised interview in April. People who know her say that speaking out in public would be “inappropriate.”

At times it seems like the question of whether Ivanka could change her father’s mind misses the question of how much she wants to. Understanding her requires understanding them as a unit.

A childhood friend of Ivanka’s remembers a moment during the campaign. Ivanka was scheduled to come to California and be interviewed on stage for a Fortune magazine-sponsored summit on powerful women. The friend lived nearby, so Ivanka invited her to attend. “It was supposed to be more about her, and being a successful woman in business,” the friend recalls.

But it was hard for them not to turn it around to something like, ‘How do you define your father’s actions about X that day?’ ”

Day “X,” a quick Google search reveals, took place shortly after the president’s leaked “Access Hollywood” tape. Without preamble, the Fortune interviewer asked for Ivanka’s reaction.

“Way to warm up!” Ivanka said, laughing. “It’s lovely to be here in California.”

The friend, who asked to speak anonymously, remembered being nervous on Ivanka’s behalf, but then unsurprised at Ivanka’s easy response. Ivanka noted that her father had apologized and had always treated her with respect.


Ivanka Trump: A life in the spotlight

That ease could be traced to half a lifetime in the public eye: She started modeling as a teenager and spent nearly a decade on prime-time TV with her father. And she had become used to explaining his behavior.

The same thing happened in April in Germany: Ivanka was invited by Chancellor Angela Merkel to attend a summit on how to achieve equality for women. Ivanka showed up and was immediately asked to defend her father’s statements about women. The fact that Merkel announced Ivanka’s involvement with a World Bank fund for women-owned businesses was overshadowed by stories about whether some audience members had booed Ivanka’s rationalization of her dad’s behavior.

The same thing happened last week while she was in the Situation Room for the G-20 meeting. On Twitter, a flurry of commenters were blasting Ivanka to explain her father.

Ivanka is always asked to explain her father.

But, the childhood friend notes: In more than two decades of knowing Ivanka, she has never once heard her complain about that.

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