Ivanka in the Trump White House: the rewards, and the risks

Making the president's eldest daughter a West Wing adviser at a time of political struggle brings a loyal, steadying presence to Trump's side, but does nothing to alleviate the dearth of government experience in the White House.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Ivanka Trump speaks at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington on March 28. Ms. Trump announced Wednesday, March 29, that she will serve as an unpaid employee in the White House.

When Ivanka Trump announced she was joining her father’s White House team as an unpaid adviser, reactions ranged from dismay to delight to “what took so long?”

That President Trump has struggled of late may be an understatement. His first major legislative foray, to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, crashed and burned last week, when the Trump-endorsed plan failed to garner enough support among Republicans. That the president’s party controls both houses of Congress made the defeat even more stark.

Mr. Trump clearly needs help, analysts say, though whether bringing in his elder daughter will solve anything is debatable. Like her father, Ivanka has no previous experience in government. More likely, her arrival in the West Wing brings a steadying presence to Trump’s side.

“Apparently he has a lot of faith in her; she seems very reliable,” says Gil Troy, a presidential historian at McGill University in Montreal.

And given Trump’s background as a real estate developer with a family business, Mr. Troy continues, “it's not surprising that the people he would most trust would be members of his family."

Ms. Trump’s lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, has said her role is to be the president’s “eyes and ears,” and to offer wide-ranging advice. The closest analogy in the Obama White House may be Valerie Jarrett – not a relative, but someone who was already close to the president when he took office, and whom he trusted to look out for his interests with absolute loyalty.

With the current White House, there are ready jokes about a “Trump monarchy” and renewed questions about nepotism. Ms. Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, is already one of the president’s closest advisers, and now with Ivanka in her own West Wing office, the Trump White House is becoming a family affair like no other in American history.

Not that presidents haven’t relied on family to advise them or even occupy important roles in their administration. Robert Kennedy served his brother, President John F. Kennedy, as his attorney general. President Franklin Roosevelt’s son James served in the White House for a time as presidential secretary. John Quincy Adams served his father – the second president, John Adams – as his minister to Prussia.

The last president to bring a son or daughter onto the White House staff was Dwight Eisenhower, whose son John served as assistant staff secretary.

“I don't recall his appointment being particularly controversial,” says historian David Pietrusza. And unlike Ivanka Trump, he adds, “I suspect he actually cashed the checks.”

Last week, news broke that Ms. Trump would work from the West Wing as an informal, unpaid adviser, albeit with a security clearance, and that she would voluntarily abide by the ethics rules that govern staff. But the informal arrangement still raised concerns by watchdog groups and ethics lawyers, and this week, the White House announced she would be formally joining the staff as an unpaid assistant to the president.

Political impact

Like her father, Ms. Trump brings considerable business interests to the table, and thus potential for conflicts of interest. Before her father took office, she stepped down as head of her fashion and jewelry company, but she still owns the brand. Both Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner are selling off considerable assets to comply with federal ethics rules, though her lawyer acknowledges that conflicts have not yet been eliminated.

As for nepotism, the Justice Department ruled hours after President Trump took office that the appointment of his son-in-law to a job inside the White House was lawful. Presidents have wide latitude in selecting White House advisers, as compared with cabinet posts, which require Senate confirmation.

It's funny, this is a very interesting democratic, lower-case-d, dilemma,” says McGill’s Troy. “Roosevelts do it, Kennedys do it, 'It's charming.' … Trumps do it, 'Uh oh.' We tend to get more outraged by nepotism the more we dislike the president, and we tend to excuse nepotism the more we like the president.”

Then there are political considerations. Ivanka Trump famously declared in her speech to the Republican National Convention last summer that she does not consider herself “categorically Republican or Democrat.” Kushner is a Democrat. On social issues, in particular, the couple do not mesh with current-day Republican orthodoxy. Last month, they reportedly talked the president out of overturning an Obama order that protects worker rights based on sexual orientation.

Ms. Trump, too, is keenly focused on women’s issues, including support for paid family leave – a policy her father has backed. Women’s events at the White House are almost sure to bear her stamp.

But with a policy brief that ranges wide, encompassing both domestic and foreign affairs, she could serve to alienate her father even further from members of his own party.

On Thursday, the president effectively declared war on hard-line conservatives in a tweet: “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!"

Boosting the 'New York faction'

If Trump is signaling a pivot toward the center, bringing his daughter in as a full-time adviser strengthens the point. Ivanka also adds more heft to the “New York faction” within Trump’s White House staff, which clashes in world view with the populist nationalists on Trump’s team, led by former Breitbart News executive Stephen Bannon.

In fact, both factions suffer from a lack of experience in government, and the arrival of Ms. Trump to the West Wing does nothing to alleviate that deficit.

“The overriding problem with the Trump White House is that it has too few people who know how to work the government,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, in an email. “Bringing Ivanka into the West Wing does nothing to address that problem. Rather, it means that there is yet one more influential voice that may be able to debate goals but has little sense of how they might be achieved in government.”

Still, the arrival of Ivanka Trump as a full-fledged participant in West Wing life can also be seen as a positive, says Troy of McGill University.

“Maybe he’s starting to learn the ropes, maybe he’s understanding that there’s a whole set of rules and protocols in Washington, which you have to follow,” he says. “So you can’t just have your daughter move to Washington, [rent] a fancy house, and pop into the White House when it suits her.”

“You have to put her in the official infrastructure of the White House, because otherwise it’s just going to generate more trouble,” he adds.”

Staff writer Josh Kenworthy contributed to this report.

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