Ivanka Trump has garnered both praise and criticism related to her efforts to promote programs that fund women’s economic empowerment around the world. In 2017, she worked with the World Bank to create the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, which leverages public-private partnerships to support women-owned small businesses. She worked with Democrats and Republicans to successfully pass the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017 and the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018, both of which her father, President Trump signed into law.
In February 2019, President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum that gave executive branch support to Ivanka Trump’s flagship program, called the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) initiative. In fiscal 2020, she helped secure $100 million of U.S. government funding for this program, which was administered with the help of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a bill in February to formally authorize the W-GDP program, which would ensure it lives on even after the Trump administration departs. After President Trump lost the election, Ivanka Trump mounted a full-court press to include her latest version of this bill in the State Department authorization bill, which itself was included in the National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA, which is being debated by a bicameral conference committee, is one of the last major bills set to pass before the end of the Trump administration.
But now that plan, and with it Ivanka Trump’s chance to cement her legacy, has fallen apart. On Tuesday, the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) instructed her conferees not to include the W-GDP bill in the State Department authorization bill, said several congressional aides, who were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations. As retaliation, the White House demanded that the entire State Department authorization bill be removed from the NDAA, and leaders of the armed services committees in both parties complied, fearing a presidential veto of the defense bill. That means all the other provisions lawmakers had negotiated for the State Department bill are now killed. It’s a particularly unfortunate outcome for House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who is leaving Congress after 32 years and for whom the State Department bill was named.
Shaheen’s office told me the problems started when Ivanka Trump’s office, after the election, stopped negotiating over the W-GDP bill language and put forth her own version, one that didn’t take the concerns of many outside groups and Democrats into account.
“Upon reviewing legislation intended for the NDAA — which would have codified the W-GDP initiative led by Ivanka Trump — I expressed serious concerns that the language would whittle away at our comprehensive strategy to empower women and girls around the world. For that reason, I couldn’t support it,” Shaheen told me.
Among the concerns, Shaheen said, were that Ivanka Trump’s version of the legislation focused narrowly on women’s economic advancement, giving short shrift to other issues such as women’s education, health care, gender-based violence, and the role of women in peace and security building. These issues are especially relevant considering the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on women in poor countries. Shaheen and others were also concerned Ivanka Trump’s bill would create an ambassador at the State Department to cover both W-GDP and the existing Global Women’s Issues (GWI) office, diluting the power and mission of the existing office.
Several Senate staffers told me that after the election, Ivanka Trump personally called several senators to push her version of the bill while abandoning negotiations with Shaheen, the legislation’s original sponsor. As of last week, Ivanka Trump had secured the support of Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders James Risch (R-Idaho) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), meaning Shaheen’s objections would not have stopped the legislation’s success.
But then outside groups on both sides of the issue got involved. Pro-life groups began to press Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to include pro-life language in the bill. That prompted pro-choice groups to call on Pelosi to kill the bill altogether, which she did. Several congressional aides said this mess was exacerbated by the way the White House sought to control the process by using veto threats.
Amanda Klasing, interim co-director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, told me the White House ignored the concerns of some women’s groups, which are skeptical of an administration they feel has deliberately attacked women’s health, undermined efforts to address gender-based violence and advanced antiquated views on LGBT rights.
“A new administration is coming into office in less than 60 days,” she said. “To pass this now would tie the hands of career experts and appointees who will be tasked with righting, and hopefully accelerating, the path towards gender quality.”
Julie Radford, Ivanka Trump’s chief of staff, rejected those accusations. “Ivanka has demonstrated she will work with anyone willing to stand up and ensure America’s commitment to women both at home and abroad,” she said.
The White House has several concerns over the NDAA that have resulted in explicit or implicit veto threats. But the fight over Ivanka Trump’s W-GDP bill was the only veto bait in the State Department authorization part, and now the entire State Department will suffer as a result.
“The linkage between W-GDP and the State authorization bill was incredibly unfortunate because the many positive things at the department that would have occurred, even many related to [the Trump administration’s] own agenda, were cast aside when W-GDP became the litmus test for success,” a senior Senate aide said.
The White House’s strong-arm tactics ultimately backfired, and now Ivanka Trump’s program could be changed or canceled by the incoming administration. That’s an outcome some Democrats and some women’s groups might celebrate. But it also leaves Ivanka Trump’s legacy — not to mention the beneficiaries of her work — in limbo.
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