Soon after Donald Trump announced that he was running for the presidency in June 2015, his 35-year-old daughter Ivanka — the poised, reflective and subdued Trump — was asked if she was ‘happy’ about it.
‘That’s a complicated question,’ she deadpanned.
Her feigned reticence was an acknowledgement of Trump’s slim odds of winning. But as the primary victories piled up, Ivanka’s scepticism eroded and she soon emerged as her father’s most consistent, indefatigable supporter — even when eight months pregnant and running her eponymous fashion brand, she was pressing the flesh with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
As her father hyperventilated on stage, warning of the illegal immigrant apocalypse, Ivanka was there in the background, presenting the measured case for Trumpism, free of profanities and superlatives.
While Donald gravitated towards friendly media outlets (Fox News, MSNBC’s sycophantic Morning Joe), Ivanka was ecumenical, talking to mainstream newspapers both liberal and conservative, women’s and lifestyle magazines, and non-Fox News cable outlets.
In an interview at Fortune’s ‘Most Powerful Women’ summit last October, Ivanka, whose husband Jared Kushner, a fellow real-estate heir, is now a senior adviser to Trump, showed signs of ideological oneness with the campaign. Her delivery was circumspect, but the sentiment was distinctly Trumpian: ‘I think [media] bias is very, very real,’ she said, citing an article in the liberal New York Times that she claimed was a ‘mischaracterisation’ of the facts.
Since the election, an impenetrable wall of silence has been built around Ivanka. Former employees and associates, many with filing cabinets full of byzantine non-disclosure agreements, fear that speaking out will result in legal retribution. My emails and off-the-record conversations with people close to her elicited a swift response from Kelly Magee, vice-president of Risa Heller Communications, the public relations firm representing Ivanka. Who I was? What was I was writing and who was I writing it for? Ivanka was not available for an interview.
Those who did talk to me all seemed to work off the same script: Ivanka wants to be taken seriously as a businesswoman — by her father most of all — and she possesses an almost cosa nostra level of devotion to her family. Most refused to talk on the record, even while praising her. If the roles were reversed, one friend said, Ivanka would not contribute to a media narrative about them. Even those who have no current loyalties to Ivanka were nervously effusive, as though she were the daughter of a Mafia don.
‘She’s been portrayed as calculating and I don’t think that’s accurate,’ said one friend. ‘I think she’s impressive and smart and I respect her a lot as a person, and those attributes will serve her well in any [White House] role.’ She also offered the hope that Ivanka would be an influential voice in the White House on behalf of the ‘progressive values’ she grew up around in New York. Perhaps.
Most of those I contacted were quick to denounce her father’s populist conservatism. Courtney Cohen, former vice-president of sales at Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry, described her as ‘kind, respectful and generous’ towards her employees. But her father’s presidential campaign and administration made Cohen ‘mortified that she ever worked for a member of the Trump family’.
Measured against today’s radical progressivism, Ivanka is more traditionalist than feminist, identifying as a moderate independent (one friend described her as a ‘Rockefeller Republican’). And there is a certain prissiness about her that resonates with social conservatives. In her book The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life, Ivanka recalls a teenage outing to get her belly-button pierced, interrupted by her father. Hearing from him ‘got me thinking about the responsibility I carried…to preserve and protect the family name and reputation’.
Ivanka was nine when Trump left her mother Ivana for his second wife, Marla Maples. If it has occurred to her that his avariciousness and ungentlemanly behaviour toward women has tainted the family name in some circles, she has never admitted it. In her book, she writes instead that her father is known for his ‘old-fashioned sense of chivalry’ and retells the story of how her parents met at an upmarket New York singles bar. (After their divorce, Ivana claimed that she had felt ‘verbally abused and demeaned’ by Donald during their marriage and that he had subjected her to ‘cruel and inhuman’ treatment.)
Asked about the accusations of misogyny against her father during the presidential campaign, Ivanka insisted he was an ‘equal opportunity offender’ who’s ‘said plenty of rough things about men over the years’. As evidence that her father was in fact a quiet crusader for gender equality, she declared that he wouldn’t have made her an executive at the Trump Organization if she wasn’t qualified for the job, right?
According to her father, Ivanka is a brilliant business woman, a sharp political mind — and, as he infamously went on to add, so beautiful that if she wasn’t his daughter he’d ‘perhaps be dating her’.
Despite insisting that her only role in her father’s administration would be as his daughter (she objected to being called a ‘surrogate first lady’ and an ‘adviser’ during the campaign), Ivanka is the only presidential daughter in modern history to attend meetings with foreign leaders and sit in the front row at press conferences with high-ranking White House officials.
‘We’ve seen presidential children like George W. Bush be really involved in campaigns, but Bush didn’t sit in on adviser meetings,’ said Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.
In an administration overflowing with populists and nationalists, Ivanka is telegraphing the theme of her moderating influence at every opportunity. In mid-February, with the White House still in new-regime chaos, she looked a picture of serenity in the President’s chair, flanked by her father and the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. ‘A great discussion with two world leaders about the importance of women having a seat at the table!’ she wrote on social media to celebrate the meeting — and show off her own involvement in day-to-day policy.
The image of her sitting in daddy’s chair at the Oval Office threw into sharp focus the potential ethical problems of her having such unprecedented political access even without any clearly defined role in the administration. Nepotism laws prohibit her from taking any official White House position, but Trump has already stretched those in making her husband Jared a senior adviser. And the President has given every indication that his daughter will continue to be a crucial figure in his inner circle.
Like many people advising the new administration, Ivanka has no political experience (which is now of course considered a virtue in American politics). She worked at her father’s company for more than a decade before stepping down as executive vice-president when he took office, forgoing business for politics. Alongside that role, she launched her jewellery line in 2007 and her fashion label soon afterwards.
She has promoted her company as a lifestyle brand that would ‘make an impact in the lives of women’. This was to be achieved by selling them ‘chic, appropriately sexy and affordably priced’ clothes bearing the name Trump, and by cluttering the company website with feminist-lite maxims. The brand was about inspiring women to ‘architect’ their own lives.
In America, being the First Lady or an adult First Daughter requires you to dedicate yourself to an issue. (Melania Trump, the President’s wife, will be touring the country, finger-wagging about ‘bullying’.) For Ivanka it’s ‘women’s economic empowerment’. She is, after all, an economically empowered woman — and not just by virtue of her name. Colleagues, friends, entrepreneurs, and Ivanka herself have insisted her business success is well-founded.
But when Trump credited his daughter’s influence for his newly proposed family leave plan, which includes six weeks of paid maternity leave and allows families to deduct childcare costs from their taxes, Marissa Velez Kraxberger — who was chief marketing officer at Ivanka’s fashion company for two years until 2015 — challenged her old boss in a Facebook post. Kraxberger says she was two months pregnant when she was interviewed for the job and claimed she was told by Ivanka that the company didn’t offer maternity leave. ‘Our team — the ones who created #WomenWhoWork and the ones who the hashtag really stood for — fought long and hard to get her to finally agree to eight weeks’ paid maternity leave,’ she wrote, noting that Trump’s family plan didn’t support paternity leave, nor maternity leave for adopted children. ‘How can [Ivanka] claim that their maternity policy is a comprehensive solution for our country?’
At the time, an Ivanka representative dismissed Kraxberger’s Facebook post as a ‘mischaracterisation of how our company developed its leading culture and benefits package’. Kraxberger declined to comment further beyond saying she hadn’t intended her Facebook post to go viral.
So who is the real Ivanka Trump? Increasingly, to the half of America who didn’t vote for her father, including the liberal social milieu of New York City where she herself grew up, Ivanka is a semi-famous businesswoman who is now being deployed as a weapon in pursuit of her father’s illiberal politics.