This weekend, Ivanka Trump — prized first daughter, presidential sounding board, sometime diplomat — managed to ignite the rage of the Internet by just doing her job.
Wait, what job is that exactly? Officially, the 37-year-old is a senior adviser to the president, who happens to be her dear old dad, Donald J. Trump. In practice, she seems to have unlimited responsibilities. And her “Where’s Waldo?” appearance at the 2019 G-20 summit in Japan — there she is smizing with Shinzo Abe! holding her own with Theresa May! saying stuff in front of Christine Lagarde! — was further evidence of just how far her sphere extends.
The nature of Ivanka’s job would be enough, in a normal profession, to drive an HR manager to tears. It’s not simply that she got her role through nepotism, explains Jennifer Lawless, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. It’s the fact that she now seems to have so much power with zero accountability: “She’s not secretary of state, but she’s acting like she has the same clout as Mike Pompeo. She is not a formal diplomat, but she’s the one having formal conversations.”
Ivanka’s shadow position in the administration includes advocating for a shifting roster of buzzwords like “female empowerment,” “entrepreneurship” and “economic growth.” Because none of her roles can be pinned down, she can’t be truly held responsible for her work. “I’d rather have that job,” says Lawless, “instead of one with a clear set of performance outcomes.”
Watching Ivanka’s role unfold must also be torment for career foreign policy professionals — especially women. One female foreign policy expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, had a single word to describe Ivanka’s performance at the G-20 summit: heartbreaking. “Many of us work incredibly hard over a very long period of time to build our careers and will never come close to attaining this level of success — despite our education and qualifications,” she said. “Moreover, the struggle is real — many of us do battle every day to have our voices heard in the workplace.”
So it’s not simply that Ivanka’s seat at the table is unearned but that it displaces the long line of extremely qualified women behind her. Rather than uplifting them, she’s negating their experience.
“I would be extremely disheartened to see women who are not qualified occupy these roles and to be seen as functioning in these roles as if this is what it looks like,” says Cynthia Burack, a political theorist in the department of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio State University. “This is not what it looks like.” Burack worries that the continued disregard for protocol could have lasting impact on how we govern after this administration.
Lawless is more hopeful. “This issue has more to do with Donald Trump being Donald Trump instead of undermining women’s credentials more broadly as a nation,” she says.
Of course, nepotism isn’t new to presidential administrations. The federal anti-nepotism statute was born out of President John F. Kennedy’s appointment of his little brother Bobby as attorney general. Hillary Clinton got her fair share of flak when her husband, President Bill Clinton, named her as chair of the Task Force on National Health Care Reform and gave her an office in the West Wing — a first for a first lady.
But Ivanka’s lack of relevant credentials or clearly defined role is probably pushing the guardrails of nepotism even further. According to Burack, the key distinction between the Trumps’ brand of “all in the family” and other administrations’ instances of nepotism boils down to competence. The question isn’t just should she be doing this job, but can she?
The White House, for its part, responded to criticism of Ivanka’s participation with its trademark victimhood snark. Jessica Ditto, a White House deputy director of communications, said that it was “sad but not shocking that the haters choose to attack Ivanka Trump, a senior adviser to the president, when she is promoting U.S. efforts to empower women through strategic partnerships with world leaders.”
But hating and legitimate criticism are not cousins. And arguably, the West Wing’s knee-jerk response to “the haters” does more harm than good. “If anyone is undermining women,” says Lawless, “it’s the lack of a substantive defense offered by the administration I think is the most damning.”
Helena Andrews-Dyer is co-author of The Post’s Reliable Source column.