Ivanka Trump stopped in PyeongChang, South Korea, over the weekend to cheer for U.S. Olympic teams and sell South Korean officials on the Trump administration’s attempts to put “maximum pressure” on North Korea’s nuclear program.
If that second mission seems like a strange one for someone with no experience in government, that’s nothing new. Ivanka Trump’s visit to the Olympics underscored the way she has been operating since her father’s election: When there’s something to be gained by posing as a White House adviser, she demands that people take her seriously. But when taking her seriously means holding her responsible in the way you would a senior policy official, then she’s just a daughter, vulnerable and helpless, obligated by family loyalty to take the president’s side.
Ivanka Trump’s blurred sense of accountability was particularly evident during an interview with NBC’s Peter Alexander tied to the closing ceremonies on Sunday. Asked whether she believed the 19 women who have accused President Trump of sexual assault, Ivanka declared the question was “a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter … if she believes the accusers of her father when he’s affirmatively stated there’s no truth to it.” She leaned hard on the word “inappropriate,” as if emphasizing it would make Alexander apologize and move on. “I know my father,” she said. “So I think I have that right as a daughter to believe my father.”
As an adviser, Ivanka Trump has traveled the globe (on the taxpayers’ dime, no less) claiming to be an advocate for women’s rights and speaking on behalf of the country. Whether the president — who aside from being her father, is also her boss — has sexually assaulted 19 women is obviously relevant for an administration that just this month dismissed senior aide Rob Porter over reports that he allegedly abused his ex-wives. It’s an obvious question for any senior White House adviser. But Ivanka Trump wants to put it off limits because the president is her dad. She acts like a sort of ersatz first lady, while Trump’s actual wife, Melania Trump, occupies more of a seen-and-not-heard role usually relegated to children. Ivanka Trump is the president’s visible right-hand woman, and she stands by her man no matter what.
“Because the president is her dad” is, of course, also the only reason she has a job as a senior White House adviser in the first place. There are plenty of first children who’ve hovered around the periphery of their father’s administrations but never in a way that suggested they were policymakers themselves, much less in formal positions. Only Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, had the temerity to take jobs for which they had no qualifications. But if anyone questions her fitness for the job, it’s easy enough to elude the question by suggesting she’s there to be supportive as a daughter, not to make policy or advise the president on the same.
Why else does she work at the White House despite her total and absolute lack of political and policy experience? Or despite her refusal to divest herself fully of her businesses and relationships to the Trump Organization, or the inability of either Ivanka Trump or her husband to get a full security clearance (possibly because of her business relationships and the conflicts of interest and potential for corruption they present)? Because she and Kushner are related to the president. And because they wanted powerful jobs they could simply take even though they weren’t qualified for them.
The desire to have it both ways extends beyond convenient vacillation between her role as a daughter and adviser to the administration. Ivanka Trump also implausibly attaches herself to disparate and often contradictory political agendas. She came to the White House a socially liberal Democrat who espoused better policies for working women and environmentally friendly approaches to climate change, and she supposedly found the administration’s immigration ban abhorrent. But her convictions on these issues haven’t been so strong that they have stopped her from continuing to publicly support and enable a White House with an appalling record on what she’s supposed to believe.
But she has no problem with the dissonance because she has never known how to be authentic in the first place. She’s been in the spotlight since she was a child; she was a runway model as a teenager. She evaluates everything she does in terms of optics. If she has or had any strongly held beliefs or values, they’re secondary to her utilitarianism.
Like her job, she gets that from her dad. In the digital media industry, there’s a simple analytical process called “A/B testing” that involves publishing two elements of content with one variable changed (text or images, for example) and determining which is more effective for a given audience. The element that performs the best is the one used going forward.
Trump is a kind of human A/B test: He tries out different messages and goes with whatever got the best response the last time he used it. (May 2016 Trump: “Crooked Hillary said that I want guns brought into the school classroom. Wrong!” Today? Well, you know.) And he defines “best” only in terms of magnitude, valuing negative responses almost equally to positive responses. So a message that infuriates the left and energizes the base is probably going to appeal to Trump. And because responses differ and are not entirely consistent, so do the president’s themes and values.
Ivanka Trump behaves a bit like this, too, but she aims for neutral or positive responses and goes to great lengths to avoid confrontation. (Milquetoast Ivanka, pressed for a response after the president tried to ban transgender personnel from serving in the military: “I am proud to support my LGBTQ friends and the LGBTQ Americans who have made immense contributions to our society and economy.”) She is as fundamentally valueless as her father, but she craves respectability in a way that he doesn’t. As a result, she says whatever might absolve her for enabling her father’s horrible behavior and policies but allow her to retain the power she has as part of his administration.
You can almost see that calculation happening as she speaks. Her voice in the NBC interview was low and slow, as a media trainer would recommend to create the appearance of poise and thoughtfulness. But it’s not poise or thoughtfulness; it seems more like a reflection of the mental calculations she’s performing to evaluate different responses on the fly and determine which one is the least risky. And if she can’t come up with an answer fully stripped of risk, she simply dismisses the question as “inappropriate.”
But as with everything else Ivanka Trump does, it’s hard to take her “how-dare-you” tone seriously. The implication that as a daughter, or as an adult human being, she’s above talking about anything so salacious as the very public accusations against her father is preposterous when you consider that this is the same person who voluntarily starred in a reality TV show for multiple seasons and is reportedly not above crass sexual commentary herself. If Ivanka Trump has any delicate sensibilities, they seem to be completely dulled outside of uncomfortable White House interviews.
She has also taken advantage of her position to enhance her personal brand and, presumably, her bank account. And even if Ivanka Trump understands nothing about policy, it’s clear that she understands one idea that was fully realized by another former fashion designer and model-turned-aspirational-kleptocrat also known primarily by her similarly cadenced first name: “The media is more powerful than the gun,” Imelda Marcos once said. “The gun can only kill you up to your grave, but the media can kill you beyond the grave.”
But the United States is not the Philippines. Here, the family members of the president are not supposed to be able to use media to build their brand, to sell their shoes or to get people to buy into the idea that they can be a good policy adviser despite their lack of experience by dismissing questions they don’t like as “inappropriate.” Not only are these questions appropriate; they come with the job. If Ivanka Trump finds them intolerable, maybe it’s time for her to pack up her stilettoes and head back to New York. Because “daughter” looks like the only job she’s legitimately cut out for.