Trump's official White House role came with a steep learning curve
The early months of the Trump administration were fraught with internal chaos
Like nearly every senior staffer in a White House infamous for backstabbing, Ivanka Trump spent her early months immersed in the drama of competing power centers.
She just didn’t know where the daggers were coming from.
Anecdotes quickly emerged of Ivanka pleading with her father to moderate his positions – or at least his tone – often, with little success. It took a while to determine those leaks weren’t entirely the result of her Manhattan friends casting her in the role of their liberal savior, but rather her newfound White House colleagues looking to undermine her influence, according to administration officials.
The early months of the Trump administration were fraught with internal chaos. Rival factions emerged, pitting then-chief strategist Steve Bannon and others who counted themselves as nationalists against the more global-minded wing, led by Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband, and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn. Meanwhile, then-chief of staff Reince Priebus battled constant speculation about his status and lack of standing within the West Wing.
As Trump accepted a formal role of assistant to the President, she wasn’t spared either. Her role came with a steep learning curve and a target on her back.
“I’m listening, I’m learning, I’m defining the ways in which I think I’ll be able to have impact,” she said in April at a women’s economic empowerment panel alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Less than a year after assuming her unprecedented role in her father’s White House, President Donald Trump’s elder daughter has begun to carve her own path.
After months of navigating the drama and unpredictability of the divided factions within the West Wing – as well as her father’s own unpredictability – her focus has turned to building relationships within the administration, Congress and officials abroad. A portfolio that once included dabbling in nearly every issue that crossed her father’s desk is now more neatly tailored to women’s economic empowerment.
Trump arrived in Washington in January with her husband and their three small children. Initially, her intention was to care for her family and continue loosely advising her father, for whom she has been a long-trusted aide.
Asked what type of role she would have in her father’s White House days after the election, Trump, who worked for the family real estate business and built an eponymous fashion brand herself, initially eschewed a formal role, telling CBS News: “I’m going to be a daughter.”
But by March, it became apparent her role was expanding; she obtained a security clearance and moved into an upstairs office in the West Wing, becoming a senior adviser to the President.
With her formal title came lofty expectations, including the notion that she would moderate her father’s positions on everything from climate change to LGBTQ issues to women’s reproductive rights.
A testy meeting with Planned Parenthood after the inauguration – in which Trump advocated that the group spin off any abortion-related services in order to protect its federal funding – left reproductive rights activists disenchanted with her commitment to women’s advocacy. Her efforts to urge the President not to abandon the Paris climate accord also fell short, disappointing global warming warriors.
“Don’t Let Ivanka Trump’s Tweets Fool You – She Doesn’t Care About Women,” a Harper’s Bazaar article declared in April. “Look, It’s Time to Collectively and Officially Give Up on Ivanka Trump,” a Vogue article said in July. “Ivanka Trump has no power as a White House adviser,” a Salon article insisted in September.
“I got the sense through my interactions that the goal was continued relevance, not impact,” said one early adviser to Ivanka, who has since parted ways with her team.
Rather than slowly easing into Washington and building a unique coalition of conservative and more liberal-leaning allies behind the scenes, Trump dove headfirst into an ill-defined White House job.
“She took a very traditional path, which closed off opportunity,” the former adviser said, dismissing her position in Washington as “not only ineffective, but irrelevant.”
For Trump, working at the White House has been a lesson in learning to pick her battles. If it’s a promise the President campaigned on, she knows there’s little chance of changing his mind and her most valuable role may be presenting him with alternative points of view. If it wasn’t a core campaign promise, she has more room to try to exert her influence.
“I would say not to conflate lack of public denouncement with silence,” she told CBS in April, when asked about criticism that she has failed to speak out on hot-button issues like climate change and Planned Parenthood. “So where I disagree with my father, he knows it. And I express myself with total candor. Where I agree, I fully lean in and support the agenda and – and hope – that I can be an asset to him and – and make a positive impact. But I respect the fact that he always listens.”
But she did say that she’s been able to change his mind on some issues.
“I’ll go to the mat on certain issues and I may still lose those,” she told The New York Times in May. “But maybe along the way I’ve modified a position just slightly. And that’s just great.”
Since Gen. John Kelly was hired as chief of staff in July, the West Wing has become a somewhat calmer workplace. Bannon was ousted from his perch as chief strategist in August, a departure that was cheered by some administration officials who viewed him as an egotist taking credit for the President’s accomplishments and peddling false narratives about his colleagues.
White House officials insist some of the tales about Ivanka appealing to her father to moderate his tone or flip on controversial issues were exaggerated.
“I think it was overblown,” said Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs. “I think there are certain policy positions she wants to advocate, but I think she’s really here more than anything to help her father.”
As Kelly imposed a military-like order on the West Wing, he also helped to more clearly define the portfolios of senior staffers, including the president’s daughter.
“Everybody was just kind of freelancing,” Short said about the administration before Kelly. “Now there’s better defined structure. It enables her and a lot of us to know our territory and have responsibility.”
These days, Trump no longer feels the need to weigh in on the issue du jour. Instead, she has focused on economic initiatives that benefit women and families, including workforce development, encouraging women to move into STEM fields and combating human trafficking. On tax reform, she emerged as a key administration voice for expanding the child tax credit.
As she and her husband look to build relationships in Washington, they’ve hosted several dinner parties at their Kalorama home. The subject matter has ranged from prison sentencing reform to tax reform, and participants have included lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, Cabinet secretaries and staffers.
Among the dinner attendees: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the President’s former political rival, who also teamed up with Ivanka and other members to press for an expansion of the child tax credit.
While Trump may cast herself as a typical White House employee, the scrutiny and interest in her activities outshine most other aides. An Ivanka appearance on Capitol Hill all but assures a mob of reporters in tow.
Those who have worked with her on Capitol Hill have praised her ability to raise awareness for such issues. On tax reform, she may be poised to notch a victory. The Senate version of the bill doubles the child tax credit to $2,000.
“I believe that most of our success is due to her charisma and her competence and her courage to stand up and take the arrows she takes normally,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, who worked with Trump on the child tax credit push. “Without her this is not possible.”
Sphere of influence
Trump’s sphere of influence extends beyond the West Wing – she has become a key representative of the administration abroad, working to build relationships with key players across the globe. It’s a wise move for world leaders, understanding that she has her father’s ear.
Last month, she traveled to Hyderabad, India, leading the US delegation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, where she held meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi focused on increasing US security and economic partnership with India.
Earlier in November, she was invited to speak at a conference on women’s participation in the economy in Tokyo by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. She spoke about human trafficking alongside Britain’s Theresa May during a United Nations panel this summer, and she’s met with Canada’s Justin Trudeau multiple times.
Trump also counts the creation of a World Bank facility aimed at empowering women in developing countries, called WeFi, which she spearheaded alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as one of her biggest successes in the administration thus far.
Trump’s allies insist she finds her West Wing role fulfilling and is already lining up legislative issues to tackle after tax reform. And while it may be a disappointment to the liberals who once pinned their hopes on her, she’s shown little sign of upending her cautious approach.
She remains hesitant to disagree publicly with her father; Trump has been on the record just once in opposition to the President, speaking out strongly against Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.
“There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children,” she told The Associated Press in an interview otherwise focused on tax reform last month. Though she chose her words carefully, declining to say that Moore was one such person, she added that she had “no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts.”
Her father was irritated by her comments and didn’t hesitate to tell her so, according to administration officials.
The President appeared to give little credence to the victims’ allegations against Moore.
“He totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen,” he said last month. “And look, you have to look at him also.”
The President threw his full support behind the embattled Senate candidate, recording a robocall for Moore and traveling last week to nearby Pensacola, Florida, where he urged supporters to “get out and vote for Roy Moore.”
For his part, former White House adviser Bannon continued his needling of the first daughter.
Speaking at an election eve rally for Moore Monday evening, he appeared to mock her statement on Moore, criticizing members of his party who spoke out against the Senate candidate: “There’s a special place in hell for Republicans who should know better.”
Moore lost to Doug Jones, the first Democrat to win a statewide race in Alabama in 25 years, Tuesday night.