Remember that moment during the three bitter presidential debates last autumn when each candidate was asked to say something nice about the other? Quick as a flash, Hillary Clinton responded, neatly dodging the essence of the question: “His children, they’re incredibly able and devoted.”
In fact, at least in the light of what’s happening right now, she could have been referring to just one of them. Donald Jr and Eric are running the Trump Organisation, in a feeble attempt to show the 45th President has entirely divorced himself from the management of his property and branding empire. Tiffany, aged 23, doesn’t really feature, and 10-year-old Barron is far too young to be the object of Hillary’s lavish praise. Which leaves Ivanka.
Judging by what you read these days in the US media, Ivanka – who unlike her husband Jared Kushner is not even a listed adviser of her father – has become a liberal beacon in the White House, counterweight to the Breitbart school of hard-right revolutionaries led by Steve Bannon.
Whether you should believe what you read is another matter. No president is more adept in the art of image management than this one. And if you adhere to the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory of life, remember that with its jumble of competing power centres this White House has so far been the leakiest and least disciplined of any in memory.
But there’s no escaping Ivanka. She’s said to have softened Dad’s views on women’s rights. In tandem with Kushner, she is supposed to have scuppered a tough planned measure that would have reduced protection for the LGBT community. She was, it is claimed, a prime mover behind the gentler Trump on display to Congress the other night. Some reports suggest she was heavily involved in writing the speech itself.
And there on the front page of The New York Times on Friday was an article about a White House split over the Paris climate agreement. Bannon, the dark “America First” iconoclast, wants the US to pull out, it said, quoting unnamed officials. But Bannon is being fiercely opposed, not only by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson but also by the first daughter, both concerned at the damage that might be inflicted on America’s prestige and global diplomatic standing.
Whether this liberal mole has actually had much impact on events may be debated. The LGBT executive order may never have been destined to reach her father’s desk anyway. As for the speech to Congress, every pundit in the land was urging Trump to moderate his tone and act more “presidential”.
And as for climate change, it may be that Trump does not formally pull the plug on Paris during an announcement expected next week on rolling back key Obama provisions cutting emissions from coal plants. But those provisions underpin the US commitment. Revoking them would in practice signify that Washington has turned its back on the accords, to which 194 nations have signed up. But Ivanka, we are led to believe, is on the right side of the barricades.
And real or not, that should be no surprise. To a large extent, Ivanka and her husband are a double act. For years, Donald Trump identified if anything as a Democrat, and some of that must have rubbed off on his daughter. Jared Kushner too came from a Democrat-leaning background, and in New York, friends say, the couple after their marriage in 2009 moved in a broadly liberal milieu.
In her case, the affinities were obvious. Ever polished and poised and an accomplished businesswoman to boot, she was and remains good friends with Chelsea Clinton. Most lingering doubts as to where she saw herself on the political map were dispelled by her speech to the Republican convention last summer.
“Like many of my fellow millennials, I do not consider myself categorically Republican or Democrat,” 35-year-old Ivanka began. “I vote based on what is right, for my family and my country. Sometimes it’s a tough choice.” As an exercise in branding, it was brilliant, and a Republican Party lost in an identity crisis cheered her to the rafters. It didn’t do her father any harm either.
But Kushner, whose own family made a fortune in real estate, soon became family to Trump in his own right. He offered absolute loyalty, while his father-in-in law came to appreciate the soft-spoken Kushner’s discretion (he’s given just one press interview in a couple of years), his good judgement and his ability to get on with people.
But not until the campaign, it seems, did the son-in-law experience true political conversion. Kushner started out in charge of Trump’s shoestring digital operations. By its end, he was de facto campaign manager, and during the transition a major influence in many of the President-elect’s most important personnel decisions. Now he’s one of those power centres in the White House, privy to virtually every conversation that matters – and, by dint of his Jewish faith (to which Ivanka converted at marriage) and the trust Trump places in him, apparently in charge of US policy in the Middle East as well. And just like his wife, he tends to be seen as a voice of moderation.
So here we are in the age of Ivanka. Maybe it won’t last long, and sceptics will claim that for all the nice fuzzy feelings she may inspire in the rest of us, what the White House actually decides reflects the views of Bannon – or worse, that the daughter’s appointed role is merely to win over independents to the Trump cause.
But maybe not. Family and family loyalty have always been the glue that binds Trumpworld. The Trump Organisation is a private company, subject to minimum disclosure rules. Deferring to a troublesome board, long formal conferring with appointed senior executives is not the Trump way. If he trusts anything, it’s family – which is why Ivanka could yet prove the most powerful first daughter in US history.