Ivanka Trump: the president's moral compass or just another mouthpiece?

Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington
Ivanka Trump has held her own views close and enthusiastically campaigned for her father even as his rhetoric sparked controversy. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

She holds no formal title in the White House but in just 50 days has become one of the most prominent public faces of the Trump administration.

Ivanka Trump has been assigned many unofficial roles while walking the halls of the West Wing. She has been called the de facto first lady and a calming influence against the more bombastic traits of her father. Officials in the White House hail her as the potential force behind policies to address women in the workplace.

Ivanka is no stranger to the spotlight, having evolved over the years from teenage model to Manhattan socialite and entrepreneur. But as she navigates the transition to holding a seat at the most powerful table in America, the elder daughter of Donald Trump is cultivating a reputation as a potential moral compass, creating at least the perception that she might be able to rein in some of the more extreme policies of the administration.

The question, observers say, is whether Ivanka can forge a path that ultimately proves impactful in shaping policy – or if she is relegated to window dressing her father’s hardline approach with a softer veneer.

“She’s the only person that I believe Donald Trump consistently listens to,” said Liz Mair, a Republican strategist. “I don’t think that there’s anybody in the world who substitutes for his daughter and her husband as a sort of proxy.”

The emerging dominance of Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner, who was appointed a senior adviser to the president, was evident before the new administration was even formed.

Just nine days after the election, there they sat, alongside the US president and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in Trump Tower at the president-elect’s first meeting with a foreign leader. The backlash was swift, particularly as reports surfaced that Ivanka was in the midst of closing a business deal for her clothing line in Japan.

The moment marked the first of many debates over whether her proximity to the Oval Office is designed to propel the brand she crafted long before swapping runway shows for the campaign trail.

She’s actually sitting in on high level meetings in ways that first ladies used to get attacked for doing

Kate Andersen Brower

But since then, amid the chaotic early stages of the Trump administration, Ivanka’s presence at high-level meetings has become almost expected. Last month, she beamed while seated behind the president’s Oval Office desk, her father on one side and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau on the other. She addressed a roundtable of female entrepreneurs and even accompanied her father to Delaware’s Dover air force base to honor the Navy Seal killed during a botched raid in Yemen.

“She’s being more than a first lady. She’s actually sitting in on high level meetings in ways that first ladies used to get attacked for doing,” said Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.

“In any other administration, something like this would be more remarkable.”

With Melania Trump choosing to reside primarily in New York so the youngest Trump child, Barron, can remain in his school, Ivanka has arguably become the most visible woman in the administration next to Kellyanne Conway. And while Conway, Trump’s senior counsel and former campaign manager, is a fixture on the networks, Ivanka has by contrast shied away from the press.

Carefully crafted leaks position her and Kushner as the moderating voices in an administration buoyed by rightwing nationalists. If reports are to be believed, the duo helped kill an anti-LGBT executive order and are persuading Trump to keep intact Barack Obama’s landmark accord to fight climate change.

But publicly, Ivanka has held her own views close and enthusiastically campaigned for her father even as his rhetoric sparked controversy over hostility toward immigrants, Muslims, women and other minorities.

Ivanka’s presence at high-level meetings has become almost expected. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“I don’t talk about my politics,” she told a Boston radio station last year when asked if she supported abortion rights, while adding: “I don’t feel like it’s my role.”

“I’m the daughter … I don’t think my politics are relevant to the discussion.”

The attempts to have it both ways have taken a toll.

Once gracing the covers of the country’s largest fashion and women’s lifestyle magazines, Ivanka is a staple no more as editors grapple with elevating a figure associated with one of the most polarizing presidents in modern history.

Retailers Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, citing a decline in sales, announced plans last month to drop Ivanka’s merchandise from their collections.

The decision ignited a firestorm within the White House, with the president using the bully pulpit of the White House to chastise Nordstrom in a series of tweets. Conway subsequently overstepped ethics rules by using a televised interview on Fox News to hawk Ivanka’s clothing line, while White House spokesman Sean Spicer used the podium of a press briefing to echo the president’s attacks on the retailers.

This week, there were indications that the administration’s pressure campaign paid dividends. Ivanka’s company reported record sales, although as a privately held business it is not obligated to disclose numbers.

Robert Passikoff, the president of BrandKeys, a brand research consultancy that examines consumer behavior, said the underlying narrative was that Ivanka’s brand had indeed taken a hit when taking the past 18 months in their totality.

“Retailers don’t generally make political decisions, no matter what the president tweets,” Passikoff said.

“Did her surrounding herself with politics help? I don’t think so,” he added. “I can’t attribute anything else. You essentially had a small fashion brand getting attention because of her father’s run for president.”

Cruel and unconstitutional policies ... are proof that Ivanka has no ability to mitigate her father’s extremism

Shannon Coulter

Critics said it was a bridge too far when Ivanka, despite positioning herself as an advocate for women, stood by her father amid the leaked Access Hollywood tapes from 2005 in which he bragged about sexual assault.

“Cruel and unconstitutional policies like the president’s Muslim ban, deportation of hardworking immigrants, and rescinding of basic protections for transgender students is proof positive that Ivanka has no ability whatsoever to mitigate her father’s extremism,” said Shannon Coulter, co-founder of GrabYourWallet, a movement to boycott Trump-branded products, including Ivanka’s.

“You’d have better luck trying to housebreak a hyena.”

There has nonetheless been a reticence on the part of political opponents to criticize Ivanka.

Anne Marie-Slaughter, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton and the president of the New America Foundation, reached out to the first daughter shortly after the election to discuss potential areas of cooperation around policies geared toward women. Former vice-president Al Gore, who campaigned for Clinton, accepted a meeting with the president facilitated by Ivanka centered on climate change.

Although a Cosmopolitan survey found Ivanka’s poll numbers have taken a hit, she remains considerably more favorable in the eyes of the public than her father.

Ivanka Trump is flanked by executives in a meeting with her father. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Even progressives concede that, while they believe her proposals on child care and family leave are designed to favor wealthy families, there is a sense that Ivanka can serve as an unlikely ally for more liberal causes.

“I think people hope she will temper some of the things that are happening across the administration that a lot of progressives are pushing back against,” said Katie Hamm, the vice-president for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress.

But she cautioned against giving Ivanka credit before it’s due: “I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of evidence that she’s doing that.”

Ivanka’s childcare proposal, Hamm added, left a lot to be desired for advocates of reducing the burden on low- and middle-income families. Framed around a tax deduction, she noted, the plan assumes families can afford to wait until the end of the year to reclaim the expensive cost of child care.

“The policies that have been put on the table, particularly around child care, very much reflect a family that looks like Ivanka Trump’s family,” Hamm said.

Indeed, less than two weeks after Ivanka and her husband were touted in the press as responsible for thwarting an anti-LGBT order, the president rescinded the Obama administration’s guidance protecting the use of bathrooms by transgender students. That Ivanka was reportedly behind the climate change meeting with Gore did not prevent the president from nominating Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who sued the Obama administration over its anti-global warming rules, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Last week, Ivanka and her husband were among the few traveling with the president when he made the unprecedented and unsubstantiated charge that Barack Obama had wiretapped his phones prior to the election. The incident, which blindsided White House staff, underscored that even those in the president’s inner circle are limited in their capacity to deter his unchecked inclinations.

Such realities “call into question Ivanka’s actual, real power”, said Anderson Brower, “and whether it is more for the purposes of having an intelligent woman and someone who’s known to be more liberal as the face of the administration … instead of having her actually have a seat at the table and a voice and influence on policy.”

“The verdict is out on how influential she is behind the scenes.”

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