By one measurement, last week was a good one for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
President Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law had been double-teaming for weeks to persuade him to oust chief of staff Reince Priebus, pushing for a new chief who could “professionalize the West Wing,” according to multiple White House officials. On Friday, Trump finally announced he’d replace Priebus with John Kelly, his secretary of Homeland Security, starting Monday.
That victory followed Trump’s appointment a week earlier of financier Anthony Scaramucci, a campaign surrogate and donor, as communications director, a move the couple also strongly supported.
But if Ivanka Trump and Kushner, socially liberal former Democratic donors, remain influential voices with Trump on personnel decisions, they have so far had little effect on his policies.
Last week they were blindsided by the president’s tweet saying he planned to ban transgender people from serving in the military, according to several White House aides, a major coup for conservatives who had been quietly lobbying the administration on the issue for months.
White House officials said the first daughter was surprised by her father’s posts; in the past, Trump has been a supporter of gay rights. Ivanka Trump, according to these officials, learned of the decision when she saw her father’s tweet on her phone.
The decree came less than a month after the first daughter tweeted, in honor of Pride Month: “I am proud to support my LGBTQ friends and the LGBTQ Americans who have made immense contributions to our society and economy.” And it spurred another wave of liberal rage directed at Ivanka Trump.
For all the talk of a White House war between New York City liberals and traditionalist conservatives, it was the latest example of the limited influence the moderates have been able to wield on policy.
Six months ago, few would have thought the president would have been circumventing his daughter to deliver victories to fiscal and social conservatives—but that’s precisely what happened with the transgender military ban, which the Pentagon has put on hold pending review.
Now, as Ivanka Trump runs up against some of limits of her power in the White House, she appears to be narrowing her objectives—and disappointing those progressives who had pinned their hopes on the president’s family members exerting more of a moderating influence on his presidency.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the nonprofit Human Rights Coalition. “Either Ivanka is ineffective in her advocacy within the building, or her voice doesn’t matter to the president as much as she hopes it does.”
Ivanka Trump has had some victories. While she lost out on persuading her father not to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, she had much more success in limiting a religious liberties executive order to abortion and procreation issues, cutting out many other possibilities that would have angered the LGBT community.
“She’s in there doing what she can,” said R. Couri Hay, a publicist and a longtime friend of the Trump family. “It’s unrealistic, unfair and cruel to expect her to change climate policy and pre-K and women’s issues in six months.”
But Ivanka Trump — who once met with Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards to discuss a needle-threading way to potentially fund the organization — is staking out her reputation on getting a child care tax credit passed in a Republican Congress as part of tax reform, and fighting for paid family leave to be included in the budget.
She has told allies that she wants to be held accountable solely on those issues she is actively working on — uphill battles that will count as major victories if she is successful — and the success of a World Bank fund she helped start, geared at helping female entrepreneurs gain access to capital. She has also said she wants to make ending human trafficking a White House priority.
Kushner, for his part, remains focused on projects that are peripheral to the White House’s main domestic agenda, like introducing technological innovations to the federal government. In the first six months of the administration, he has steered clear of the legislative battles that have been the meat of the work of Trump’s policy shop, focusing instead on relations with Mexico, China, Canada and the Middle East.
Ivanka Trump has explained to critics that she doesn’t want to ruin her credibility with Republicans, whose support she will need, by being perceived as what she sometimes refers to as a “super-lib” and expressing her personal disagreement with the administration’s most conservative policies.
Meanwhile, she desperately wants to lower expectations of what she can achieve in an administration where she views herself as one person on a large team — even though other White House officials said she still has access to the president whenever she desires it. Allies have bucked up her spirits by telling her that her legacy will look better in hindsight if she is successful in moving the needle on her stated issues. And as she navigates the unique role of working-daughter-in-the-White House, she is reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography for guidance and inspiration.
Both Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner declined to comment for this story.
People close to her say Ivanka Trump is aware of the criticism hurled at her — and sometimes frustrated by the misunderstanding of the limits of her power.
From her newly renovated, all-white office in the West Wing, Ivanka Trump often fields messages from progressive friends pushing her to speak out on their pet issues. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio messaged her ahead of the climate decision, begging her to do more to intervene.
She’s no newcomer to the difficult balancing act. In the early aughts, as she sought to make a name for herself in New York society, she had to simultaneously embrace the family brand while trying to distance herself from the gaudy reputation of the Trump name, already unwelcome in the upper echelons of Manhattan society.
One well-known socialite who was friendly with Ivanka Trump put it bluntly: “Everyone knew that Jared’s father was a felon and her father was a buffoon, but you looked past that because they stood on their own two feet and were sophisticated and presentable. They were accepted despite their parents. Now, there’s no separating the two.”
But friends and acquaintances who knew Ivanka Trump before her move into politics said they are not surprised that she has remained publicly in lockstep with her father. “I know her well enough to know her relationship with her father, which is that she will never, ever, go against the grain,” said one former fashion-world friend who has socialized with Ivanka for years but has not spoken to her since she moved to Washington.
Another close friend of the family, who has known Ivanka Trump her entire life, said: “She wanted to be the apple of her father’s eye. There’s no question, she worked hard to be the perfect image her father wanted.”
In the wake of one of the most tumultuous weeks in Trump’s presidency, his daughter had a private lunch with the United Nations secretary-general Friday to discuss economic empowerment for women. She’s made similar diplomatic excursions, traveling to Berlin in April to join German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a women-themed summit and meeting with female entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia.
It’s a world apart from her father’s domestic policies — and one more in line with the first lady-like role that she bristles at. The prime movers behind Trump’s decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military were two of the House’s most conservative members: North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows and the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Jim Jordan.
After the failure of an amendment that would have stripped Pentagon funding for gender reassignment surgeries, the duo approached Defense Secretary James Mattis. They discussed a number of options, including a two-year delay on the implementation of Obama administration policy guidelines that permitted Pentagon funding for the surgeries. When that path lead nowhere, they took their case directly to the White House, where they spoke with several officials including Marc Short, the director of legislative affairs.
Inside the White House, the issue was so closely held — and resolved so quickly — that just a handful of West Wing aides were aware of what was transpiring. In addition to Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, a Catholic evangelical with a history of pushing religious liberty policies, had no inkling of what was underway.
Meadows and Jordan had also corralled a group of conservatives capable of sinking the appropriations bill, making it clear to the White House they were willing to do so if the funding issue wasn’t resolved. “They were frustrated with Mattis and DOD, and the White House was sympathetic to them on the policy,” said a senior White House aide. Neither Meadows nor Jordan responded to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Christian conservatives such as Tony Perkins and Gary Bauer were also lobbying the Trump White House, a factor that boosted the congressmen’s cause, according to a second senior White House official.
Their requests ran the gamut: While the congressmen asked the White House to resolve the funding issue, which had riled both fiscal and social conservatives, some Christian leaders came asking for the blanket ban the president delivered on Wednesday. But even they were surprised when Trump came down on their side. “I wish the Republican Congress was as bold as the president is on a wide range of issues,” said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “But unfortunately, like on health care, they don’t seem to be.”
Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, in an interview with Fox News radio, cheered the president for “showing that the bottom line is the bottom line is the bottom line.”
The other bottom line: Ivanka Trump is aware she needs a real win — not just starting a conversation about paid family leave that may or may not materialize in a final budget — to win back credibility.
Her old circles are skeptical. When asked what her view was on Ivanka Trump, the fashion designer Charlotte Ronson wrote in an email: “Fortunately, I don’t know her well enough to give any good accounts.”
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