Ivanka Trump: ‘I will not be distracted by the noise’
Interview: Donald Trump’s daughter says she will continue pursue issues that matter to her
At sundown on August 12th, about 24 hours after neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville, wielding torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us”, Ivanka Trump was at President Donald Trump’s golf club in New Jersey, marking the end of the Jewish Sabbath. Back online after disconnecting their devices for Shabbat, Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner finally saw footage of the subsequent violence and the growing uproar over the president’s tepid condemnation of the white nationalists.
Overnight, the first daughter plotted her move. In the early hours of Sunday morning, she spoke out against the hate groups in a tweet. Separately, she advised her father to take a firmer stance against the neo-Nazi groups – something he did the following day.
On the Monday, Ivanka and Kushner departed for Vermont for a short holiday in the mountains. The trip did not go as planned. Within 24 hours, the president had reasserted in a press conference that “both sides” had been responsible for the violence, adding that “very fine” people had been on the side of the neo-Nazis.
In Vermont, Kushner got on the phone and tried to mitigate the situation. Ivanka, meanwhile, attempted to do what she had come on vacation to do: tune out. She cracked open a book. She did not watch her father’s press conference as it happened. A few days later, she saw a short documentary that Vice News had made about the white nationalists behind the march. In one scene, a neo-Nazi organiser addresses Ivanka and her husband directly, making a leering comment about the hideousness of the president “[Giving] his daughter to a Jew”.
For Ivanka, the documentary made Charlottesville hit home in a way that other White House controversies had not. “Seeing those images and hearing [Ivanka’s] name invoked later on obviously made it very personal,” someone familiar with her thinking told me. Still, she made no additional public comments.
It was a muted response to a difficult incident and highlighted some of the continuing misconceptions about Ivanka Trump, one of the most powerful first children in White House history. Eight months into the new administration, she and her husband have found themselves caught up in the maelstrom of leaks, staff shake-ups and infighting that has erupted since her father entered the White House. But the assumptions made by many that the first daughter possesses a special ability to control her father, or that there would come a breaking point at which she would distance herself from his presidency, do not appear to be true.
Partly out of family loyalty, partly out of her own future ambitions, Ivanka Trump is playing the long game. By hiding the moments when she disagrees with her father’s actions, she retains her most valuable asset in the White House: the trust of the president.
“To voice dissent publicly would mean I’m not part of the team. When you’re part of a team, you’re part of a team,” she says. “That doesn’t mean everyone in the White House has homogeneous views – we don’t, and I think that’s good and healthy – but that doesn’t mean we’re publicly undermining [each other] and this administration.”
Two weeks after Charlottesville, Ivanka and I are sitting in her office in the White House, one floor above the Oval Office and the office of her husband, who is senior adviser to the president. While the rest of the West Wing interior has the gold, beige and mahogany colour palette of an upscale Marriott, Ivanka’s office is a startling shade of white. The newly minted assistant to the president has taste to match her reputation for self-control.
Outside is a crowded room full of junior White House assistants. Inside is a sanctuary of calm – green branches visible outside the window, the furniture sleek and modern, the clutter non-existent. There are no visible personal effects, with one exception. Just next to the office hangs a giant framed photograph of Ivanka and her husband, resplendent in glittering gown and black tie, dancing at January’s inaugural ball, with a felt-tip inscription from the president scrawled over it: “The best and most beautiful couple in the world. I am very proud of you both. Love, Dad.”
From the Kennedys to the Bushes, America has a long tradition of political dynasty, and the first daughter (the title favoured by the White House) is not the first person to receive a role inside a relative’s administration. The perils of installing family members in such prominent positions are much debated but Ivanka Trump is the most striking example since Hillary Clinton, who plunged herself into the US healthcare debate during her husband’s administration, and Robert F Kennedy, who served as his brother’s attorney-general.
Study in contrasts
Known for her placid and perfectly controlled exterior, Ivanka is a study in contrasts to the chaos wrought by her father. In person, she is unfailingly polite and charming, an asset on the campaign trail, where she stumped tirelessly for her father, and in Washington DC, where for the first five months she acted as de facto first lady while her stepmother Melania Trump remained largely out of the public eye in New York. Ripostes are delivered with a lilt and a smile – lest anyone take offence. When she greets you there is a firm handshake, a hand on the arm, a strategic compliment. Her posture is upright, and each sentence delivered slowly and deliberately.
In her TV interviews and on social media, the first daughter can come across as manufactured and slightly plastic. In person, though, she is an edgier version of that Stepford-perfect woman: an operator who has spent the near-entirety of her adult life working the media, working her father and perfecting her brand, both in person and in business. She is known to drop the occasional four-letter word, and to bristle at being called the president’s “conscience”.
Behind the scenes, the seemingly immaculate Ivanka has a reputation as a fierce White House courtier, using her relationship with her father to outmanoeuvre her rivals, such as the recently ousted chief strategist Steve Bannon, in the bitter factional disputes that have characterised the administration, and to leverage her own position as she fights for various pet projects that will help define her legacy.
In July and August, the Financial Times met Ivanka three times and received supplemental comments from her via email. It also conducted numerous interviews with friends, critics and commentators. What emerges is a picture of a first daughter digging further into her White House role and growing hardened to the criticism that has been levelled at her for everything from her father’s decision to ban transgender people from joining the US military to his call to pull out of the Paris climate-change accord.
To some outsiders, Ivanka’s decision to risk her reputation and join one of the most controversial presidential administrations in US history is bewildering. To Ivanka herself, it is barely a decision at all. Tied to her father since birth, she has chosen the fame, influence and fortune that have come from tethering her career to his – something she continues to do in her new White House role. “There is zero doubt in my mind that I am here because my father was elected,” she says firmly. “I have no problem with the acknowledgement of that. It’s a truth.”
Beloved by the swath of Americans who buy her eponymous shoes and handbags and create Instagram accounts in her honour, Ivanka Trump is reviled by another group, who see her as a symptom of the worst aspects of her father’s presidency. To the first, she is Camelot: Crest-white smile, sleek blonde hair, social grace and inoffensive political platforms. To the other, she is an entitled political neophyte using nepotism to further her own future business brand and political and social status.
“Anything we thought a few months back about how she was going to be a moderating influence on Trump has not come to fruition,” says Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian. “If she’s having a major policy influence, it’s really being done in a subterranean fashion, because there are no clear signs of it.”
In her conversations with the FT, the first daughter insists, again and again, that she knows she is in a position of great privilege and great opportunity. Her White House role, she says, is as someone who can provide the president with advice and research to back up the positions she holds on certain issues. “I think it benefits the president to be able to hear from people who both agree and disagree with him on any given issue,” she says. “And then, ultimately, the president makes his own decision.”
Ivanka’s allies argue that it is unfair to blame her and her husband for controversial issues such as the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate-change accord, which she reportedly pleaded against. While she has cultivated her father’s trust, and he will usually hear her out, that doesn’t mean that he is going to side with her, argues one good friend of the first daughter. “He listens. The hard part is she has no control.”
Her husband takes a similar view. “She tries to be supportive of her father and I think that she is able to both agree and disagree with him in private and share her feedback with him honestly and respectfully,” says Kushner, who spoke in a separate interview in late August. “She’s worked with him for a long time – longer than anyone else in the White House.”
Her decision not to break publicly with her father riles critics who believe she does not want to be associated with his most extreme policies, despite simultaneously benefiting from his position. The TV show Saturday Night Live mocked Ivanka in a satirical ad for a perfume called Complicit, and women’s groups have criticised her for portraying herself as an advocate on women’s issues while not lending public support to groups such as Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health organisation.
“The value of having a relationship is that it goes both ways,” says Kate Black, chief of staff at Emily’s List, a liberal non-profit that seeks to get more Democratic women elected to public office. “If you’re going to say you’re an ally of women, you have to stand up for Planned Parenthood.”
Ivanka has waved away much of the criticism of her as either unmerited or sexist. She says she wants to be judged only on the niche policy areas that she has set as her core responsibilities: the establishment of paid family leave, the promotion of women in science and entrepreneurship, the creation of workforce apprenticeship programmes. “While sometimes my heart wants me to fully engage on any host of issues outside of my responsibility or expertise, I try really hard to stay in my lane and execute on the initiatives I came to DC to take on,” she says over email.
Yet she is willing to go beyond those niche areas when it suits her, causing speculation that she is being auditioned by her father for a political career of her own. Whether she is establishing a personal relationship with Angela Merkel or being on hand for meetings with Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping, the first daughter is learning the game.
During the G20 summit in Hamburg in July, Trump encouraged her to take his seat at the table, surrounded by world leaders, while he briefly stepped outside. The minutes she spent in the presidential chair overshadowed the unveiling of her new initiative with the World Bank, which aims to make more than $1 billion available to female entrepreneurs in developing countries.
During her first few months in the White House, Ivanka has struggled to learn how to use her new power in the Washington ecosystem. As one senior White House official puts it, she arrived “super idealistic” about her own capabilities and her ability to influence political veterans. But she has become more cynical, admitting in private that she finds DC politics prickly.
Though some liberals perceive Ivanka to be a Democrat who holds the same moderate beliefs as many of her Manhattan peers (her friendship group has included Chelsea Clinton and currently includes Wendi Deng, former wife of Rupert Murdoch), the alternative explanation is that she, and her husband, are actually less the “White House Democrats” that Bannon and his allies portray them to be and more like the president: ideologically flexible and willing to compromise on issues that others might perceive as falling strictly along party lines.
In February, Ivanka organised a meeting with Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood, in an attempt to bridge the divide between the organisation and Republican leaders who have spent years trying to defund it. Bright-eyed about finding a compromise, she offered a series of ideas to Richards: one of them involved spinning off the organisation’s abortion operations into a separate entity. The move backfired and news of the meeting leaked despite Ivanka’s efforts to keep it under wraps.
Richards later took a swipe at the first daughter, telling Cosmopolitan that she should rethink her government role “if she’s not comfortable standing up for what she believes in for women”. It was an episode that underscored Ivanka’s Trump-like desire to make a deal, and her naivety in thinking that one of the most liberal groups in Washington would be willing to compromise on its mission statement.
On the right, Ivanka has attracted criticism from those who believe she and her husband are trying to undermine the president’s nationalist agenda. “She reflects very well on President Trump personally. However, I don’t know what her qualifications are to be a top West Wing adviser,” says Alex Marlow, editor of the controversial alt-right news site Breitbart, which has been increasingly hostile towards her. The news site recently welcomed back Bannon, who clashed with Kushner and Ivanka in the palace court intrigues, as its executive chairman.
It was Kushner, Marlow notes, who supported the president’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey in May, a move that cleared the way for a special counsel investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia – “a blunder from which this presidency might not fully recover”, he argues. “It’s inappropriate for them to be in the roles they have, and hopefully they both decide to move on soon.”
When it comes to her liberal critics, Ivanka says that she is being judged unfairly. “Some people have created unrealistic expectations of what they expect from me,” she says in an email. “That my presence in and of itself would carry so much weight with my father that he would abandon his core values and the agenda that the American people voted for when they elected him. It’s not going to happen. To those critics, shy of turning my father into a liberal, I’d be a failure to them.”
Her decision to stick to her niche is deliberate. Before joining the administration, she says she was advised by “a close friend” from the Obama administration [she won’t say who] to be “laser-focused” on a number of key issues. If she lacked “discipline of focus”, she would risk getting nothing done at all.
Since joining the White House in April, Ivanka has held listening tours on issues related to women in the workplace; workforce training programmes and apprenticeships; the empowerment of female students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects; human trafficking; and better policies for working families.
Anxious to be considered a good student, she has memorised reams of statistics and facts on her selected areas of interest – and can speak without interruption on them, as if giving a 15-minute presentation. “She gets done anything she sets her mind to,” says Kushner. “She’s always been both tenacious and very likeable. In that way she is able to build coalitions.”
The centre of her agenda is the creation of federally mandated paid family leave for new parents – something the US has never had before, even for federal employees. Since the spring, she has been meeting Republican and Democratic lawmakers to craft bipartisan legislation, and has pushed for her father to double the tax credit for childcare in the US from $1,000 annually to $2,000 – a proposal that Ivanka is currently pitching to fiscal conservatives, and which is set to be included as part of the White House’s tax-reform plan.
Under the White House’s initial proposal, new mothers and fathers whose employers do not provide paid leave would be given six weeks’ leave paid for by the federal government. While no new legislation on the issue has been written yet, Ivanka has been successful in getting congressional discussions under way. “You have to find people who are willing to engage on the issues,” she says in an email. “I am able to convene, to referee a debate, but I cannot make laws. It won’t be easy. If it was it would have been done already.”
If she is successful on paid family leave, it will be a major milestone both for the country and for Ivanka, elevating her status from a first lady-esque family member to a political force with a serious policy achievement behind her.
Trump’s election has propelled Ivanka to a far higher level of fame, yet in many ways she has been under scrutiny her whole life. “Ivanka grew up in the spotlight and she is accustomed to being in the public eye,” says Reed Cordish, a longtime friend who now works with Kushner in the White House’s Office of American Innovation. “When you grow up being Ivanka, you are well prepared to be a public person.”
Through her parents’ acrimonious and highly publicised divorce when she was nine, Ivanka learnt how to keep it all zipped up inside. “You didn’t see her crying in the hallways,” one former classmate tells me. Growing a thick skin at a young age prepared her for the realities of life in the White House.
Ivanka has said that she has fashioned herself on her mother Ivana, a Czech-born model turned businesswoman who helped Donald manage the Plaza Hotel. “She was unwilling to compromise on the small imperfections that most people don’t even notice,” Ivanka recalled in The Trump Card, her 2009 self-help book, noting that her high-heel-clad mother would admonish Plaza staff if a chandelier bulb had burnt out.
While it is Donald who is often credited with the way his children have turned out, those who know the family say it was Ivana who imposed much of the structure – and who remains in her children’s lives today, albeit in the background.
For Ivanka, the divorce was a turning point. The trauma of her father’s affair with Marla Maples brought her and her two brothers – Don Jr and Eric Trump – closer together. “The divorce also brought me closer to my father,” she says in The Trump Card. “Not because I was taking his side but because I could no longer take him for granted . . . Now I went down to see him every morning before school, and I also started dropping by his office on my way home in the afternoon. Just to say hello.”
By all accounts – including those of her siblings – Ivanka, the middle child, the peacemaker, became the favourite of her father, who named a yacht “Trump Princess” in her honour and would later joke that if Ivanka weren’t his offspring perhaps he would be dating her.
According to those who knew her during her school years, Ivanka was in many ways no different from her socialite peers. There was a raucous birthday party in Atlantic City, home at the time to her father’s hotel and casino. As a teenager, she was politely asked to leave the Manhattan school she had attended since kindergarten, according to three people. Two former classmates said it was partly related to an incident that violated school etiquette. But one person directly familiar with the circumstances said it was because Ivanka was playing truant.
A source close to her strongly denied these accounts and said she left of her own volition to go to another school. (Disclosure: I also attended this school, but did not know Ivanka.)
At times, she attempted to distance herself from the family name, venturing into modelling because it was one industry her father had no direct influence over. That autonomy did not last: much to her chagrin, her father chose to make business inroads into modelling soon afterwards. Eventually, Ivanka says, she decided to accept being a Trump rather than fight it. “No matter what I hear or read about my family, the fact is I’m absolutely proud to be a Trump,” a teenage Ivanka said in a 2003 documentary, Born Rich. “I’m proud of my family name and everything they’ve accomplished. For a while I worried that I’d always be under my parents’ shadow, but I guess it’s not a bad shadow to be under.”
Peter Linneman, Ivanka’s former real-estate professor at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania and a business acquaintance of her father, notes that even at 21 Ivanka was clear that she wanted to work for her father – something that still appears to be true today. “She wanted to work in her family’s company,” Linneman says. “I understand the United States is not her family’s company,” he adds quickly. “But I think [for Ivanka] it was not as much working for her family’s company, but working on what her father was working on.”
Ivanka’s development of brand Trump extended to her own jewellery line, which she started in 2007, and later to clothing and accessories. She currently has no apparent connection to the brand that bears her name, having handed over the day-to-day business decisions to Abigail Klem, the company’s president, and control of the business to a trust controlled by Kushner’s brother and sister.
The Trump presidency has had a mixed effect on her brand. According to Slice Intelligence, which tracks five million online shoppers, Ivanka Trump sales were up 332 per cent in January and February. This autumn the company will open a bricks-and-mortar store inside Trump Tower. Yet there have been pitfalls as well. In February, Nordstrom announced it would stop stocking the line, citing flagging sales but raising suspicions that the brand was bad for business.
The brand also had to apologise for promoting a $10,000 Ivanka Trump bracelet that the incoming first daughter wore in a TV interview and for manufacturing its products outside the US, something that does not sit well with the president’s “America First” motto.
In Jared Kushner, Ivanka has found an equally ambitious partner with a similar family lineage – both are the children of brash property tycoons who at times have been enmeshed in very public scandals. Because of their backgrounds, she and Kushner are “uniquely qualified to handle this attention and pressure” in a way that most normal human beings are not, says Cordish. “These are two people with tough skin and an ability to compartmentalise.”
Still, the White House has bled into their personal lives. By all accounts, since Trump took office, Ivanka and Kushner have remained a team, strategising about how best to win over the president on certain issues. Their days are structured: there is exercise in the morning, then a full day at work, where they will sometimes end up in the same meetings or pass in the hallway. At home, it is time with their three children, followed by more talk of work.
“We talk about it,” Ivanka says of their days at the White House. “I think it’s probably healthier to compartmentalise more. But I don’t think this job lends itself to that. I think the weight of the decisions that are made in this building are such that you can’t leave it at the door in the same way that you could in the business world. Lives are impacted in a very different way. You know when a decision is upcoming and you’re thinking through the consequences of one path or another; it does and should keep you up at night in a very different way.”
From the outside, the week of the Charlottesville violence appeared to be a low point for the couple and the Trump presidency. From inside the White House, the view looked decidedly different. An ongoing staff shake-up continued with Bannon’s departure. On the way out, he spread the rumour that Ivanka was known to “run in and lay her head on the [president’s] desk and cry”, as the New York Times reported. White House officials have vehemently disputed this characterisation.
While the president has been battered by criticism from US lawmakers – including members of his own party – the couple’s position looks increasingly stable. “It could be heck of a lot of worse,” says Richard Painter, a White House ethics lawyer under George W Bush. “There are a lot of people trying to influence this president who are a lot stranger in their outlook of the world than Ivanka, who is a kind of a well-to-do Republican woman on a lot of issues. I’d be reluctant to push her out the door. Because then who else is he going to fall back on?”
For the most part, the couple have cheered the arrival of retired marine corps general John Kelly as chief of staff. While previously Ivanka found herself on the defensive, personnel changes have left the couple on more stable ground, allies say. Although many thought Kelly would end the first daughter’s ability to waltz into her father’s office, she continues to maintain the privilege, “dropping in” just like she used to at Trump Tower.
The couple are learning the ups and downs of Washington power games. So far they haven’t felt much of a chill in the liberal New York circles they ran in before the campaign. They know that friends who are happy to trash Ivanka anonymously in newspapers are usually not gutsy enough to do it to her face. A person familiar with her interactions recalled only one instance where an acquaintance approached her with “a less than positive response” regarding her political support of her father.
Access to powerbrokers
Moreover, the couple now have access to world powerbrokers. They were welcomed by the elite at the annual summer fete thrown by Lally Weymouth, the Washington Post heiress. At Sun Valley, they were greeted by a throng of tech titans, among them Apple chief executive Tim Cook (someone Ivanka says she can ask for advice). There are few world leaders who wouldn’t take a call from them.
But concerns continue to mount about how the couple’s reputations will survive their political foray. Kushner remains a central figure in the ongoing Russia investigation, where he is under scrutiny for attending a meeting with a Russian lawyer who reportedly had compromising information on Hillary Clinton. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that members of Trump’s legal team had wanted Kushner to leave his White House role because of legal complications relating to his meetings with multiple Russian officials and business people last year.
In the White House, Ivanka has been protective of her image, distancing herself from her father’s most controversial statements and fighting back, behind the scenes, against suggestions that she and her husband are losing influence – as suggested in a recent Vanity Fair article, which quoted sources predicting that the couple could choose to leave Washington as soon as 2018.
To assume that they are preparing to pack up, however, underestimates the calculation they made in moving to Washington in the first place, as well as the underlying allegiance the couple have pledged to the president. “It’s not easy for her as a mother. It’s not easy for her to give up the business that she’s built” but she had done it “with heart”, says Kushner of Ivanka’s decision to accompany her father into government.
“We know at the end of the day we will judge our experience based on the results. We are not going to look back when this thing is over and say, ‘Oh, there’s a bad story’ or ‘We had a bad meeting with that person.’ We’re going to look back and say, ‘Did we achieve our goals?’”
Ivanka already has an eye towards what she believes will be a positive legacy. “I said to Jared after the World Bank Fund was announced, ‘Man, if I go home today having just helped create that, the largest facility ever launched to provide capital and mentorship to women entrepreneurs in the developing world, that’s amazing,” she says brightly.
For now, the first daughter show goes on. Last week Ivanka made a cameo appearance in the congressional debt ceiling meeting. She also recently joined her father on stage in North Dakota. “She actually said, ‘Daddy, can I go with you?’” the president told the audience. “I like that, right? ‘Daddy, can I go with you?’ I said, ‘Yes, you can.’”
If Ivanka and Kushner do finally leave Washington, they will walk away from the political fray that has consumed their days since before the election. But they will take with them a level of unprecedented exposure that they would likely have never achieved otherwise.
“Whether my contribution ultimately lives up to the expectations of some of the harshest critics? Only time will tell,” Ivanka says in an email. “But I will not be distracted by the noise.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017