With new trademarks, Ivanka Trump's business grows alongside political influence

Despite controversy surrounding her global business empire and position at the White House, first daughter Ivanka Trump continues to enjoy high popularity among voters. But she won't necessarily be the most powerful first daughter to date.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
President Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington in February.

As the leader of an international business and close adviser to the president, some have speculated and raised concerns that Ivanka Trump could become the most powerful first daughter in US history.

Ms. Trump, the founder of a fashion line that bears her name, has carefully constructed a global empire that is designed to draw attention. But when mixed with political power her movements and actions have come under increasing scrutiny. Last November, she was taken to task for seemingly promoting her brand by wearing an expensive bracelet from her line during a "60 Minutes" interview. When she earned status as an unpaid government employee with an office in the West Wing some critics saw it as a form of nepotism. And this week, when China granted her approval for five new trademarks for her line of handbags, jewelry, and spa services, questions of favoritism were raised. 

But Ms. Trump is far from the first presidential offspring to wield power and influence, both in the administration and beyond in private spheres.

The mixing of politics and business concerned ethical experts and voters alike as President Trump campaigned for the White House, and for many, those worries remain during his first 100 days in office. While Mr. Trump decided to place his business in a blind trust managed by his sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr., Ms. Trump has kept one foot in each camp, serving as an unpaid adviser to the president and head of her established fashion brand.

"[Ivanka Trump's] brand is clearly built on her image: Not just her name, but her face, and what she represents," writes Vanessa Friedman for The New York Times. "It’s selling the promise that women who wear her clothes can get a piece of her gold dust – and now that this gold dust is visible in the corridors (and news conferences) of power, that is only going to be more true."

The timing of the trademark approvals raised suspicions when they came the same day that Ms. Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, another key presidential adviser, shared dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. When asked if any preferential treatment was at play, Chinese officials denied favoring the first daughter’s business because of her political position.

"We always think highly of the people who are committed to promoting China-US friendship and cooperation, whether they are from the government or society, and we commend their efforts,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang said. "There are perhaps some media engaging in hyping certain gossip to hint at something undisclosed. I can tell you that they will never succeed.”

Ms. Trump’s position as a businesswoman, first daughter, and political ally strikes many as a complicated, odd combination. While sales of her products have boomed since the inauguration, some stores have pulled the line amid pressure from buyers threatening to boycott their businesses. Attitudes about her political role are split, as well, with Millennials viewing her mostly unfavorably while overall she enjoys the highest favorability ratings of the Trump team.

Ms. Trump may have more power and influence than any first daughter in recent history, but several adult first children have played serious roles in their parents’ administrations that helped to shape US history. Doug Wead, former special assistant to President George H. W. Bush and author of the book “All the Presidents' Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Families,” says Ms. Trump’s position isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon.

“It’s very normal, it’s very natural. In fact, it’s inevitable that Ivanka would play an important role,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor, noting that presidents have turned to their children as competent, loyal sources in the past. “It just happens all through history.”

While most prominent first children may not have had offices in the West Wing, many influenced the administrations of their fathers in the background. Some even went on to political careers of their own, such George W. Bush who served as a campaign adviser to George H. W. Bush. Among first daughters, several wielded tremendous influence, although their roles are lesser known to the public.

For instance, Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, helped to appeal to younger voters with her rebellious attitude and eventual celebrity status while also unofficially advising her father. Anna Roosevelt, the daughter of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, played a role in advising her father and later made a name for herself as a journalist and member of Citizen's Advisory Council on the Status of Women under former President John F. Kennedy. And Susan Ford, the daughter of Gerald Ford, served as the White House hostess while her mother battled cancer.

As women have gained professional opportunities outside of the home, they may need the prestige of the White House less, Mr. Wead says.

“I actually see Ivanka as far more accomplished” than past first daughters, he says. “She doesn’t need the White House nearly as much as other adult female figures have needed it in the past.”

Ms. Trump, who enjoys the highest favorability rating among members of the Trump team at 46 percent, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll earlier this month, has the potential to expand Trump’s base through both her own role in the White House and respected business reputation. Family members, including first ladies, children, and even grandchildren, have long served as assets to the president, and Ms. Trump’s popularity might not be so different.

“What’s going on there is a similar phenomenon with Ivanka. It’s like a blank slate, and you can write what you want on it,” Wead says. “What does she believe and what does she stand for? She doesn’t have to answer that question. It expands the political base for Trump and that’s very useful.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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