Since President Trump took office, the White House has been pushing the boundaries of what the American public will tolerate in terms of family involvement in presidential decision-making, intermingling of official government business with Trump’s private businesses and development of foreign policy strategy. (After all, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, just released a Middle East peace plan.) But even by Trump’s low standards, this past week broke new ground.
The president put forth his daughter Ivanka as a stand-in for actual diplomats and government officials at several high-level meetings and interactions with world leaders at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, and at meetings in South Korea and the demilitarized zone on the North Korea-South Korea border. Ivanka Trump was by the president’s side for his visit to the DMZ, while his national security adviser, John Bolton, was dispatched to Mongolia. A video showed her apparently trying to join a conversation among French President Emmanuel Macron, outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde in an encounter that looked as though she thought she was at a Hamptons cocktail party. The first daughter was later introduced alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit with U.S. troops in South Korea.
This ascension of family-directed foreign affairs is an unhealthy development for our democracy. And Ivanka Trump ought to back off: Americans didn’t elect her, we don’t have any way of holding her accountable and we don’t support her playacting at government.
Ivanka Trump’s self-placement at the table with global heads of state is not an example of the ascension of a professional woman: She has, after all, not one merit-based qualification to be participating in the diplomatic meetings she is attending. There are professional women inside the executive branch and outside government who have spent a lifetime becoming expert in their fields, whether that’s economics, international relations, trade, international law or diplomacy. If the Trump administration’s goal is to give a woman a seat at the table, there is no shortage of women who have the requisite experience and training who have earned their seat. Indeed, there are, as Mitt Romney once quipped, binders (and, now, websites) full of them.
One interpretation of Ivanka Trump’s actions since her father took office has it that she is simply not self-aware of how these appearances come off. Don’t buy this. Videos she released purporting to be readout briefs of the president’s meetings, as well as the president’s introductions of her, appear orchestrated to present her as a credible participant in international affairs. Her participation, her photo placement, her video releases are not accidental byproducts of an inept White House adviser; they are part of her image-building. These activities should not merely be brushed off as the desires and encouragement of Donald Trump, her father and the president. She is not a child. She shoulders full responsibility for abusing her position of access.
And which image is she building? Ivanka Trump did not fully divest from her personal business interests upon taking a White House role as presidential adviser, though she did give up daily oversight of her clothing line, which has since folded. She and Kushner made at least $29 million in outside income last year, down from at least $82 million in 2017, including $3.9 million each year from Ivanka’s stake in the Trump International Hotel in Washington. She does not take a U.S. government salary, so she is not, quite literally, working for us. That dynamic sets up a continual question for citizens when Trump family members participate in meetings with global leaders: Whose interests are they acting in? Given that Ivanka Trump has no substantive expertise or skills to contribute to diplomatic conversations, which interests are served by her doing so?
One possibility is that she harbors political ambitions of her own. If that’s true, then she is using her status as the president’s daughter in a way that no prior adult child of a president has during that parent’s presidency. There is no question, for example, that the Bush name assisted George W.'s and later Jeb’s political name recognition, but neither of them appeared at meetings with world leaders when their father was president. There is no modern historical precedent of an adult child participating in the business of the U.S. government during their parent’s presidency. The other possibility is that she is using these diplomatic engagements for the express purpose of cultivating business opportunities, either present or future.
Neither option bears any relation to furthering the interests of the United States or its citizens. When it comes to foreign policy and national security, foreign leaders and countries need to know that they are dealing with representatives of the American people, not the Trumps in their personal capacities.
At times when female advisers in the Trump White House have been criticized, they have been quick to deflect the criticism as either sexism or somehow in violation of a women-shall-not-criticize-other women code. In keeping with that theme, a White House spokeswoman, Jessica Ditto, said Monday 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.”
So let’s dispense with such nonsense now: I’ve worked in national security in Washington for the better part of 20 years. I’ve consistently and enthusiastically supported, staffed, mentored and championed women in my profession. But I will not stifle my criticism of Ivanka Trump’s abuse of her father’s position for personal advancement simply because she’s a woman.
President Trump, of course, has discarded many other norms; it’s tempting to wonder why we should spend time focusing on the activities of his daughter, which might seem benign, if embarrassing for our country. The reason is because those activities are not benign. They are part of the president and his administration’s deliberate effort to concentrate control of the executive branch within the White House and within his family, diluting important institutional mechanisms that provide accountability. The president has fired or prematurely forced out Senate-confirmed Cabinet officials (such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) who exercised a shred of independence or offered a counterbalance for his impetuous and reckless national security and foreign policy decision-making. The president has openly acknowledged his preference for acting Cabinet officials, as demonstrated by the lengthy periods of time the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security have gone without Senate-confirmed heads. The result is that executive branch officials are not accountable to Congress, nor, therefore, to the American people.
So the president’s boosterism of his daughter on major diplomatic efforts should not be viewed as an isolated act of incompetence or even public relations. Instead, it is part of his preference to concentrate power among a few advisers, especially those related to him, advisers who are beyond the reach of our institutional checks and balances. This is not the way the presidency or our government is supposed to work. And it is not a development that Americans should accept without objecting, loudly.