I once flew to Germany for 19 hours to watch Ivanka Trump sit on a panel with a bunch of female leaders, and to be summoned by her later that evening for an off-the-record chat in her hotel lobby, where she ordered red wine in a white dress, which seems, in retrospect, like the boldest act I’d ever seen her make.
I once spent several weeks trekking to the White House, repeatedly, for additional conversations that were supposed to be on the record, but then suddenly weren’t, and which then collapsed into afternoons at a nearby bakery where my reporting partner and I would eat scones and try to dissect what had happened. What was Ivanka saying? What was she really saying? What, on the record, could we say about her?
The reporters who cover Ivanka Trump have spent as much time as anybody trying to figure out how to meaningfully cover Ivanka Trump: the deep moat surrounding her, the careful way she measures her words like a Weight Watchers subscriber trying not to go over her daily allotment of almonds.
I’ve asked the questions that the public has asked: Is she trying to moderate her father? Is she actually moderating him? How much does she care about her publicized issues — job training and economic opportunities for women? How much is she just trying to sell books? Sell sleeveless floral sheath dresses? Shoes?
The last question was answered on Tuesday: She’s not trying to sell clothes at all. Her eponymous clothing brand — her defining symbol, which seemed to tie together and represent everything she cared about in terms of women and their success — is shuttering. “I do not know when or if I will ever return to the business, but I do know that my focus for the foreseeable future will be the work I am doing here in Washington,” she said in a statement, closing off the possibility of returning to the company’s helm. (She’d officially stepped down after taking a White House job as her father’s adviser.)
As with most things Ivanka does, the news was immediately interpreted in a dozen ways: Perhaps she was heroically eliminating her escape hatch so she could go all-in on the nation’s affordable-child-care problem. Perhaps this was a face-saving maneuver: Nordstrom had stopped carrying the line because of deteriorating sales, other stores had scaled back, the clothes had become controversial.
I don’t know. After dedicating days, weeks, months to understanding how Ivanka saw herself and the world around her, I understand mostly that Germany is a long way to fly to watch someone tour an educational center, when you’re pinned out of earshot in a press scrum and your notes read only, “Careful eye contact. Excellent posture.”
In public interviews, Ivanka’s been a master of careful excellence, the artful dodge, the well-phrased nothing. As for her influence: She’s said only that if she disagrees with her father, it’s expressed privately and “with total candor.”
From time to time, Ivanka’s believers have tried to imbue meaning into what she left unsaid, or what they perceived as subtweets: “I am proud to support my LGBTQ friends and the LGBTQ Americans who have made immense contributions to our society,” she posted last June. A few weeks later, her father announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military.
She could have forcefully come out against it. She could have forcefully opposed (or supported?) a lot of her father’s controversial decisions.
But the biggest question surrounding Ivanka has always been this one: How much of her identity is about herself? Her own name, her own brand, her own legacy? And how much of her identity is tied up in being her father’s daughter?
As gleeful Ivanka takedowns began circulating this week, I’m again analyzing her: wondering what it would be like to have a truly unguarded conversation with her, wondering whether she’d ever had an unguarded conversation with anybody. Wondering about soft power, and beautiful-white-woman power, and the agony of seeking parental approval — even as an adult! — and how silence is sometimes actually wisdom and sometimes actually fear.
Either way, here we are: the death of her company. It had her own name on it; it represented her own values. But it will ultimately be associated, inextricably, with the politics of her dad. Again and again, Ivanka has sublimated her own voice and her own views. Even when speaking out would have been good for her. Even when it might have been useful for the country.
One way to look at the shuttering of the Ivanka Trump brand is as a definitive act of filial piety. And an answer to the biggest question: Her identity is entirely tied up in being a Trump.
Of course Ivanka isn’t coming to save you. She couldn’t even save herself.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.