Ivanka Trump tried to travel to South Korea as the president’s envoy — but she could not escape also being his celebrity daughter.
She peppered National Security Council experts in advance with questions, not just about the nuclear threat, but also about South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife’s hobbies. Flying over the Pacific bound for the Winter Olympic Games last month, she pored over a research dossier for hours. And she and her team choreographed many of the possible encounters she might have, including acting out what she would do if a North Korean official tried to shake her hand.
“I don’t like to leave a lot up to fate,” President Trump’s 36-year-old daughter, also a senior White House adviser, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Ivanka Trump likes to be in complete control — over-prepared and deliberate — in contrast to her freewheeling and impulsive father.
But at the moment, Ivanka — whose first name has become a brand identity — controls increasingly little of the world she inhabits. The White House is careening from crisis to crisis. Her colleagues are leaking damaging anecdotes about her and husband Jared Kushner. Tensions between the couple and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly are intensifying. And all the while, the dark legal cloud hanging over her family is threatening to unleash a downpour.
By many accounts, her trip to South Korea was a success and arguably helped lay the groundwork for her father’s surprise decision Thursday to talk with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But she ran into trouble for her response to a question by NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander about whether she believes the accusations of sexual misdeeds against her father from more than a dozen women — first saying it was “inappropriate” to ask because she is the president’s daughter, then ultimately answering that she did not believe them.
Ivanka’s response, and the ensuing scrutiny, illustrated how she attempts to navigate her dual role as both daughter and senior adviser. It also served as a fresh reminder of the control she relinquished when she shifted from principal — running her own apparel business and shaping her own brand — to West Wing staffer carrying the public messages of an administration with which she does not always agree.
“I am the daughter of the president. I am also an adviser to the president,” she said. “And I respect that in that role I must work incredibly diligently to follow protocol as any other staffer would.”
This portrait of Ivanka after a year in the White House comes from interviews with more than a dozen administration officials, lawmakers and outside confidants, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a more candid assessment. Ivanka also sat down with The Post in her office on the West Wing’s second floor — a tucked-away modernist oasis of bright white and clean lines — for two interviews on back-to-back days in late February, portions of which were off the record.
Ivanka, a business executive and mother of three, entered the administration as a floating adviser. In her first year, she worked to help secure congressional votes and public support for the Republican tax plan — including pushing for expansion of the childhood tax credit — and has championed paid family leave, science and technology education, and other issues.
But in recent months, the strain between her and Kelly has deepened, White House officials said. Kelly — who Ivanka and her husband, also a senior adviser, initially pushed for chief of staff — has grown frustrated with what he views as the duo’s desire to have it both ways: behaving as West Wing officials in one moment, family members the next. He has griped to colleagues about what he views as her “freelancing” on “pet projects” as opposed to the administration’s stated top priorities.
Ivanka argues that every issue she has championed is also a policy her father campaigned on and pushed in office. Paid family leave, for instance, is far from a Republican rallying cry, but it is something Trump mentioned on the campaign trail and in both of his addresses to Congress.
Last year, she invited female senators to the White House for personal huddles on the issue.
“She spent an hour meeting with me, going over the studies, making the case,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said. “She had a couple of staffers, but she really ran the discussion. I was impressed with how smart she was and how informed she was and how passionate she was about a cause that is not closely associated with Republican leaders. I just really liked her, right off the bat.”
The president himself has exacerbated the tensions between his chief of staff and his family. He has mused to Kelly that he thinks Ivanka and her husband should perhaps return to New York, where they would be protected from the blood sport of Washington and less of a target for negative media attention, White House officials said. In the president’s eyes, “Ivanka’s still his little girl,” as one confidant put it.
But Trump has at other times urged Ivanka and Kushner to remain in Washington, telling them he relies on their counsel in the West Wing. Others say he values her singular role as an ambassador for both his presidency and the family brand.
“Everybody loves and respects Ivanka,” the president said in a statement. “She works very hard and always gets the job done in a first class manner. She was crucial to our success in achieving historic tax cuts and reforms and served as my envoy in South Korea, where she was incredibly well received. Her work on behalf of American families has made a real impact.”
Ivanka’s last name creates an aura of invincibility around her within the White House. In private, some aides criticize and share unflattering details about her — and, more acutely, Kushner — but are loath to do so publicly and risk the president’s wrath.
Ivanka and Kushner have become known simply as “Javanka,” a nickname that they view as disparaging and that they speculate was coined in the early stages of the presidency by rivals, such as then-chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, to undermine them. Ivanka resents that she and her husband are seen as a single unit, in part because their work portfolios are different. (Kushner’s declared portfolio includes brokering Middle East peace, the U.S. relationship with Mexico and domestic prison restructuring.)
Though Ivanka has long desired individuality, now Kushner is ensnared in the wide-ranging Russia investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and his mixing of his family’s real estate business and his government work is drawing public scrutiny.
Last month, Kelly instituted a new policy on security clearances that effectively stripped Kushner of his access to the nation’s top secrets. The downgrade was a public embarrassment for the presidential son-in-law and was widely interpreted as a power play by Kelly, who other White House officials say has clashed with Kushner on several fronts. Ivanka’s security clearance status is unclear.
Some close to her say Ivanka remains miffed at Kelly’s frustrations with her. Though she and her father speak multiple times a day — sometimes in unscheduled calls when the president spontaneously dials her — she says she honors Kelly’s demand that she inform him and other officials about any policy-related discussions the two have.
Kelly declined to be interviewed about his relationship with the president’s daughter, but emailed a statement through a spokesman: “Ivanka is a great asset to this Administration and has done a terrific job helping to advance the president’s agenda including the passage of historic tax reform and most recently led a tremendously successful trip to the Olympics in South Korea.”
Addressing the tensions between her and her husband and Kelly, Ivanka said, “One of the first things he said is, ‘You are family. You are part of the reason the president is here.’ He understands the role of family. He is a very family-oriented person and made it clear he doesn’t want to get in the way of that. But he also needs to make sure that in our role as advisers, we go through the process, and we respect that and have embraced that.”
Almost as soon as Ivanka arrived in Washington, she began reaching out to lawmakers from both parties, visiting them in their Capitol Hill offices and hosting small private salons at her and Kushner’s Kalorama home. Some of her West Wing colleagues were initially uncomfortable with her unofficial role as a Trump interlocutor, but under Kelly’s watch, they say, she has been more diligent about coordinating with the White House Office of Legislative Affairs and other teams.
“The fact that she has her own relationships with members on the Hill enables us to accomplish more, and anytime she’s engaging in conversations, she’s checking in with us on how she can be helpful and getting our advice on what we need,” said Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs. “She would say, ‘I’m intending to go have a meeting today but I want to make sure your office is comfortable with it and what are the White House priorities I can help with.’ ”
Ivanka, however, has at times struggled to navigate her twin roles as family and staff member. Most recently, a high-profile gaffe came during the NBC interview in PyeongChang, where she bristled at Alexander’s question about whether she believes her father’s accusers.
“I think it’s 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 that,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a question you would ask many other daughters.”
But Ivanka did proceed to answer the question: “I believe my father, I know my father. I think I have that right as a daughter.”
(Ivanka declined to address the accusations against her father on the record in her interviews with The Post.)
This was not the only uncomfortable subject of the NBC interview, which aides said Ivanka knew going in would probably be less friendly than the soft sit-downs she was accustomed to with Fox News. Alexander also asked Ivanka to weigh in on Mueller’s probe of possible Russian collusion (she defended the Trump campaign), as well as on the president’s proposal to arm some schoolteachers (she demurred).
Occupying two roles has opened her up to sharp criticism. Democrats, as well as some mainstream Republicans, had expected her to exert a moderating influence on her father. Ivanka has disappointed them by failing to halt some hard-line policies, such as the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, or by not publicly standing up to what they see as racist, sexist and anti-Semitic remarks and actions by the president.
Ivanka also has come under sustained criticism for her eponymous fashion line, which she still controls and which relies exclusively on foreign factories in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and China, where low-wage laborers — many of them women and children — have limited ability to advocate for themselves. Many critics see such practices as deeply hypocritical given her father’s railing against outsourcing and her stated interest in advancing the rights of working women.
Ivanka argues her critics hold her to an unfair standard, and fundamentally misunderstand the way any White House works when they expect her to publicly contradict an administration policy. She does not see herself as a talking head and refuses to promote policies with which she personally disagrees; for instance, she was notably silent on last year’s Republican health-care plan, and has said little recently about her father’s guns agenda.
“When people say, ‘Where is Ivanka and why is she silent on X, Y, Z?,’ they don’t understand how any White House works,” Ivanka said. “No West Wing staffer should tweet things that are inconsistent with the policy of the White House.”
Rather, Ivanka says she tries to use her voice to amplify the issues she most cares about — such as workforce development, infrastructure and women’s entrepreneurship in the months ahead.
“Let’s face it, when someone is the daughter of a president, people know that and it elevates her ability to be effective,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. “But she also is well prepared, and so the double role that she plays also accrues to her benefit.”
In some television appearances, Ivanka seems to present a simulacrum of herself — a for-public-consumption version that is at once both poised and guarded, complete with a breathy, unplaceable accent. In private, her voice sounds an octave deeper. She can be by turns lighthearted and defiant, down-to-earth and supremely confident. And like both her husband and her father, Ivanka sprinkles her conversation with the occasional curse word.
On a small table in her well-appointed office sit several pictures of her kids, a framed copy of Trump’s typed “Remarks Regarding the Capital of Israel” — signed “To Ivanka, Love Dad” in the president’s oversized Sharpie scribble — and the lyrics to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” handwritten to her by one of the songwriters. Unlike in the rest of the West Wing, including in the president’s private study, no big-screen televisions blare; she said she has little patience for cable news.
Ivanka has privately said she was naive when she first came to Washington. She was unprepared for the palace infighting that has so shaped the White House power dynamics. It was not until the hiring of White House spokesman Josh Raffel last April that she and Kushner aggressively moved to protect their reputations.
She also has lamented to friends that she is sometimes “weaponized” — unwittingly invoked by other officials as a high-profile surrogate for their personal grievances, knowing that if Ivanka is said to be frustrated about something, it is likely to draw more attention.
On tax legislation, Ivanka made especially good use of her skill set, administration officials and lawmakers said. She could speak confidently and in depth about the issue and became the administration’s point person for some skeptical lawmakers.
The South Korea trip leading the presidential delegation for the Olympic Closing Ceremonies in late February was another proving ground for Ivanka. But her role was not merely that of a goodwill ambassador. With PyeongChang roughly 40 miles from the North Korean border, her trip was weighted with diplomatic import.
Ivanka came bearing a private national security message from her father to Moon. And for the ceremony, she sat in the same VIP box as North Korean Gen. Kim Yong Chol, who is believed to be responsible for, among other acts, a torpedo attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors in 2010.
“This was not an uncomplicated situation — a balance of reaffirming and creating goodwill, within the eyes of the South Korean public, being happy, celebrating America, but also being inches away from a man who’s killed many people,” Ivanka said.
Ivanka said she was determined to forge a warm rapport with Moon, a progressive who has a somewhat cool relationship with her father. When South Korea’s first couple hosted the traveling Americans for a dinner of bibimbap with marinated tofu at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, Ivanka knew from her research how to strike up a conversation with first lady Kim Jung-sook. They chatted about their shared interest in K-pop, a distinct musical style originating on the peninsula.
“She 100 percent carried the conversation of the dinner,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a member of the visiting U.S. delegation. “She and Moon instantly had a good connection and she and the first lady had really good chemistry.”
National security adviser H.R. McMaster said in a statement, “Ivanka ably represented our country and advanced our diplomatic goals in the region.”
Even abroad, though, her special status as presidential daughter followed her like so much glistening snow. One morning, she attended the men’s snowboard big air final to cheer on the American athletes.
But as the snowboarders flipped in the air, performing gravity-defying tricks, many of the cameras were instead facing the stands, trained squarely on the willowy blonde in the red ski suit and Team USA beanie.
Amid all the action, there was Ivanka.