America was getting ready for a bit of novelty in the first spouse arena, thanks to the possibility that the new first spouse (first husband? first gentleman?) might be a former president. And then that didn't happen. The next first lady of the United States will be Melania Trump.
But there's a wrinkle. Few people were more instrumental in guiding Donald Trump's bumpy path to the presidency than his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. Shortly after Trump won last month, he indicated that Ivanka would join her brothers Eric and Donald Jr. in running the Trump Organization. This week, though, Trump said that only his sons would take over management of the company. Ivanka Trump has reportedly been house-hunting in Washington, suggesting some role in the administration, which is tricky, given anti-nepotism rules.
On Wednesday, CNN reported an intriguing possibility: Ivanka might use office space in the East Wing of the White House, which, in recent administrations, has been the domain of the first lady and her work. In other words: Ivanka might be looking to be something of a first daughter, advocating for policy in the way that first ladies have in the past.
Curious about how unusual that arrangement might be, I spoke by phone with Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush and a board member of the White House Historical Association. In short: It's not that unusual.
"There are no statutory responsibilities that are normalized on” the use of the East Wing, McBride explained. "Each White House gets to rewrite those rules every single time.”
Laura Bush and Michelle Obama used the East Wing offices for their work, she said, while Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan worked out of the residential area. (WhiteHouseMuseum.org has floor plans of these areas. The East Wing office used by Obama is on the second floor; the residence is on the third floor, covering the full width of the mansion.) Hillary Clinton, however, had an office in the West Wing, on the second floor.
Clinton serves as a good example of how a presidential family member can be involved in the work of the presidency, though she was by no means the first to do so. Modern presidents before Bill Clinton included their family in policymaking. During the administration of Jimmy Carter, for example, his wife, Rosalyn, served as honorary chair of the President's Commission on Mental Health. (Why "honorary”? Because of those nepotism laws, McBride said — these are unofficial roles, versus any that would involve the president giving real authority to a relative.)
It's not just wives, though. McBride pointed out that Maureen Reagan lived in the White House while she served as special counsel to the Republican National Committee. Lynda Bird Johnson transferred to George Washington University from the University of Texas when her father suddenly became president in 1963; her roommate from Texas joined her in living in the White House while she completed college. While there, Johnson helped her father with social events and other duties, McBride said. "It's not unusual that a close family member would be tapped to be helpful,” she added. "Generally, it's temporarily, but in this case, it might be longer.”
McBride was generally sanguine about the unusual-by-recent-standards possibility of an active first child, suggesting that Ivanka's key role during the campaign offered a hint that her father would involve her in his administration, too. And McBride pointed out that, if nothing else, we should be used to expecting the unexpected from the president-elect.
"This is new territory, and, like everything else in this campaign and this transition, the playbook is being rewritten,” she said.
"That is the one great thing about the White House: It adapts to all of its occupants.”