Ivanka, Don. Jr. and Eric have a lot to learn

Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio: The Trump children will play key roles in their father's presidency
  • Devotion to their father may be the only requirement in new administration, he says

Michael D'Antonio, the author of "The Truth About Trump," is writing Trump Watch, a series of columns on President-elect Donald Trump for CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Few people on Earth consume media more avidly than members of the Trump family, and this is doubly true when it comes to news items that mention the family name.

In my visits to Trump Tower I have seen many inter-office mailings that included items of interest from the global press with notes of approval from daughter Ivanka to her father. This habit of attending to all that's written and said about the Trump clan makes it hard to believe family members didn't notice the many thousands of references to "Trump" and "conflict of interest" in reports on the President-elect's transition to the Oval Office.
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Despite their keen antennae and signals all around them, the Trumps thus far have been unable to establish a framework for separating their personal interests from the White House. In the early post-election days, a number of the most damaging notes have been struck by Donald Trump's children, who attracted a lot of favorable comment when they were given starring roles at the Republican National Convention during the summer.
    Individually, and as a group, the younger generation of Trumps speaks with more grace than their father as they make the same points. Simply put, they are chips off the old block. Yes, they have been polished and smoothed in ways that their father has not. But their instincts and sense of entitlement are consistent with his. This is why they believe that despite their lack of knowledge and experience they can serve as adept advisers.
    What matters is not knowing things, but knowing what Donald Trump wants. In a similar vein, they believe, as he does, that Trumps don't get enough credit and should be regarded as American royalty.

    Pay to play?

    No dispute obscures the two recent attempts at pay-to-play schemes hatched by Donald Trump's grown children. In the first they collaborated to auction a coffee date with Ivanka Trump, with the proceeds to go to the Eric Trump Foundation, which primarily benefits St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
    Considering that Trump's daughter, 35, has attended transition team meetings, and plans to move to Washington where she will work in the White House advising her father, the access and chance at an ongoing relationships purchased by the auction winner would be invaluable. At the very least the winner would get a photo to post on an office wall, suggesting status and power to every visitor.
    The hubbub that arose when the coffee-with-Ivanka raffle was revealed led to its abrupt cancellation. Bidding had reached the sum of $72,888.
    In a statement released to the press, Eric Trump said, "The only people that lost are the children of St. Jude." No mention was made in the statement, or by a Trump spokesman, of Eric or others in the family, which Trump has said controls more than $10 billion in wealth, making a comparable donation.
    Though burned by one charity auction project, Eric Trump, who is 32, pressed forward with his 38-year-old brother, Donald Jr., on another, grander one involving Trump senior directly. The two younger Trumps were listed on a brochure as "honorary chairmen" of an event scheduled for the first full day of the Trump presidency, January 21. Leaning on the theme of hunting and fishing, the invitation was for an Opening Day 2017 event and urged attendees to come in "Camouflage and Cufflinks."
    The pitch letter invited donations of between $1 million and $25,000. At the $1 million and $500,000 levels, donors were guaranteed time with the new President and a special photo-op. For $250,000, attendees would get to schmooze with Eric and Donald Jr. Below that level, money would get you into the hall, but it wouldn't get you a spot next to anyone named Trump.
    The spectacle of a president's sons selling access to their father was more befitting of a banana republic than the United States of America. It also conflicted with the practices of Trump's two immediate predecessors, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. They both barred family members from these kinds of fund-raising practices, to avoid even the appearance of unethical behavior. In the case of the Trump sons, transition team spokeswoman Hope Hicks responded to questions about the fund-raising effort by saying that the brochure was an unapproved set of "initial concepts" and that members of the family "are not involved (in the event) in any capacity."
    In fact, Eric and Donald Trump's names were on the papers filed to register the new group as a nonprofit organization in Texas. Others were vice chairmen of finance for the committee putting together inaugural events. Where would the money raised by the event go? This was not made clear either in the brochure or by the organizers, although one said, "It's conservation, conservation, conservation." As of Wednesday another of the organizers said, "So we took Don Jr. and Eric out of the foundation completely." However, it wasn't clear whether the President or his sons would show up at the event.

    A difficult adjustment

    Although confusion reigned when it came to the fate of Opening Day 2017, it was clear that the Trumps were having trouble adjusting to the norms of first family life. The President-elect may have been able to flout conventions of decency and truthfulness in his campaign, but presidents and their families must meet certain expectations.
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    At the very least, the Trump sons must have recalled that their campaigning father made much of alleged pay-to-play activities of opponent Hillary Clinton. "If it's true, it's illegal," Trump said in August. "You're paying and you're getting things." As Eric Trump noted, fund-raising activities had become a "quagmire." Like all political quagmires, those caught in the mess helped to create it.
    While the Trump sons have tried to leverage their father's power and fame for charitable donations and star turns at a Washington gala, Ivanka Trump has moved from dismissing suggestions that she might work for her father in Washington, to house hunting in the capital, to accepting the role of partial first lady in a Trump White House. This odd arrangement would have her occupy an office in the White House and adopt a portfolio of concern including child care and climate change.
    The strangest thing about Ivanka's decision and new role isn't the fact that she will supplant Trump's wife, Melania. Nor is it that she insisted she didn't want such a job. No, the strangest thing is that she will be a policy adviser with no significant experience relevant to the issues she will take up. She has children, but the great wealth and the security that come with working for her father exempt her from child care pressures.
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    As for the environment, well, she lives on the same planet as 7 billion other beings but breathes rarified air and is sheltered from the effects of climate change as they are felt by the poor. She holds no relevant degree, and has never worked in an organization devoted to environmental concerns.
    Donald Trump himself promised to deliver a plan to address potential conflicts of interests posed by his many businesses, which have dealings around the world, but abruptly canceled this commitment. Later it was revealed that Kuwaiti officials in Washington had booked an annual event usually held at the Four Seasons at the new Trump-operated hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.
    Some news reports say they were pressured by Trump executives. Others say they were not. Either way, the situation looks bad.
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    The President-elect and his offspring seem to have a problem understanding that certain standards, set outside their own control, may be applied to their behavior.
    The American people have come to expect that presidents and first families avoid both actual conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts. This is why previous presidents have put their assets in blind trusts and distanced themselves from troublesome relatives. (Jimmy Carter famously rebuked his brother, Billy, for getting involved with the Libyan government.) During the transition, the Trumps have been snagged by controversies of their own making.
    What makes them do what they do? Other young people who lack advanced degrees, have worked in a family business for much of their adult lives and have been mentored mainly by the same person might hesitate to sit in on transition team meetings, screen applicants for administration jobs and plant to occupy offices in the White House. The young Trumps have done all of these things with a kind of chin-first self-confidence that resembles no one so much as their father. And this is the point. They are valued because they have lived their lives inside the Trump bubble, where they have been supported by and worked for their father and absorbed his way of thinking.

    Racehorse theory

    The big qualification that Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric possess is that they are in The Family. As Donald Jr. explained to me, Trumps believe in the "racehorse" theory of human development, which means that abilities are determined by breeding. The President-elect put it to me in a slightly different way, saying that he prefers in-born talent to experience. Also, when it comes to trustworthiness, the elder Trump counts his children first. They make up his innermost circle of allies, and he counts on them for support. This is especially true where Ivanka is concerned.
    Trump has long had a need for advice and encouragement from women he admires. Over the years his most trusted assistants have been the women who keep his appointments and monitor the traffic to his office door and his telephone line. Ivanka's beaming approval, noted by many observers during the campaign, has a steadying effect on the President-elect. He respects her and seeks her support. She provides it in ample portions.
    In Washington, Ivanka will, like her father, find herself in her first serious job outside the family orbit. And, like him, she will encounter people who are independent of Trump power and can, in the case of John McCain to name one, rally support for themselves.
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    Nevertheless she will attempt to "normalize" President Trump, which means that she will lend her almost motherly approval to everything he does. Yes, she may advocate for women and children, but in the main her role will be to persuade us, by her presence, that Donald Trump can be trusted. In this way the public will be encouraged to ignore the outrageous distortions of fact Trump offers and cease expecting him to put the welfare of our democracy first. She will help legitimize his agenda, with the ultimate goal of a second term.
    The Trump children have been groomed to play the role of supporting cast their entire lives. They have been hardened, like coal under pressure, to the point where they present a diamond's luster. They may get outplayed in Washington, as they join a new game, but they will be resilient in their devotion to their father.
    In their commitment to Richard Nixon, which brought them afoul of the law, aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman could not come close to matching the devotion young Trumps feel for "our father." Should they witness wrongdoing, or lawbreaking within the administration they will go to him, not to the Justice Department. Their loyalty is not to the country. It is to the man.