BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the White House last month may have been filled with awkward moments, but she left with one key takeaway — identifying the first daughter as her back-channel to President Donald Trump.
The White House was broadly criticized for seating Ivanka Trump, who at the time held no official government position, next to the German leader during a meeting on workforce apprenticeship, essentially elevating a family member with no political experience to the level of Europe’s most important leader.
But for Merkel, a skilled political operator forging relations with the third U.S. president to gain power during her 12 years in office, it was a useful signal of how to work the Trump White House.
She followed up by elevating Ivanka Trump even more, inviting her to speak Tuesday at the W20 Summit in Berlin alongside Queen Maxima of the Netherlands and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, among others, for a panel on women’s entrepreneurship.
A White House official said the panel will be more in the weeds and wonky than sweeping and symbolic; Ivanka Trump has been prepping for weeks, immersing herself in McKinsey & Co. reports on women in the workforce, rather than searching for soaring language with a speechwriter.
Her inclusion on a panel of world leaders gives as much insight into Merkel’s strategy for diplomacy with the U.S. president — who during the 2016 election called her “insane” and accused her of “ruining” Germany — as it does about the ambitious first daughter. But it provides Trump with her biggest international platform yet.
“The Germans are as bemused as everybody else is, in attempting to navigate how this White House manages its official relationships,” said Constanze Stelzenmuller, an expert on German policy and politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
But knowing how heavily the president relies on his family members as top West Wing advisers, Stelzenmuller said, “It seems obvious that you would engage Ivanka Trump. Merkel is saying, ‘This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and this looks promising.’”
James Jeffrey, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute and a former deputy national security adviser and ambassador to Iraq under President Barack Obama, said Merkel is working out how to approach an atypical U.S. leader.
“Merkel is sly as a fox. The unorthodox road to this guy is Ivanka. That’s the person you go to, not the second secretary in the Embassy in Berlin,” Jeffrey said.
In this case, Merkel doesn’t have much choice: Trump has yet to appoint an ambassador to Germany (an Obama-era deputy, Kent Logsdon, is filling the role on an interim basis). She will appear on a panel about democracy with Obama next month.
In seeking to reach the president through his daughter, now a special assistant in the White House, Merkel has given Ivanka Trump an opportunity to prove to skeptics at home and abroad that she is the serious, policy-minded, moderating political force she aims to project, not just a softer saleswoman for her father’s ideas.
It’s not a symbolic opportunity to speak truth to power abroad, the way Hillary Clinton did when she traveled to China as first lady in 1995 and proclaimed, “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” Instead, Trump’s trip is seen here as an opportunity to ease fears among Europeans about the new U.S. administration.
The visit is particularly fraught as Europe reels from Sunday’s vote in France. Emmanuel Macron, a novice political centrist, and far-right populist Marine Le Pen, who has proposed calling a referendum on France’s membership in the European Union, qualified for a run-off to decide the next president.
In Berlin, Trump faces a skeptical audience, one that views the new presidency with fear and suspicion and is unsure of what to make of the first daughter.
“What does a daughter with no political experience have to do in the White House?” said Andrea Seibel, an opinion editor at Die Welt, the influential conservative-leaning Berlin daily, where editors huddling in the newsroom Monday afternoon planned to give front-page coverage to the visit.
“We have family clan experiences in autocracies,” Seibel said. “Ivanka Trump isn’t elected, she is a daughter. She didn’t say anything in the elections when he was saying nasty things about women and migrants. She is his voice, but somehow she has a nicer face.”
The coverage of Ivanka Trump in the German media in the days leading up to her speech was similar to that at home, where she has been criticized on late night programs like “Saturday Night Live” for being “complicit” in her father’s agenda.
The front page of one daily newspaper, Berliner Zeitung, featured a photograph of Ivanka Trump under the headline “First Flusterin,” or “the first whisperer.” The story questioned whether the first daughter would push her father toward a moderate course or act as a “loyal accomplice.”
And abroad as at home, the interest level in all things Trump is high. About 400 reporters are expected to cover the women’s conference at the Intercontinental Berlin, CNN reported.
Merkel isn’t the first world leader to try and influence the president through the family member he has made clear is one of his most trusted advisers. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March invited Ivanka Trump to attend the Broadway show “Come From Away” with him, a play whose central theme is about embracing foreigners.
And a White House official said Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, and Queen Maxima have both reached out with requests for public events with Ivanka Trump. (Both are participants in Tuesday’s W20 summit.)
Merkel laid the groundwork for her own outreach in February, when she approached Vice President Mike Pence at a Munich security conference.
When she came to Washington in March, she told Pence she wanted to participate in a roundtable on apprenticeship, according to a person familiar with Merkel’s thinking and a White House official. Merkel hoped to discuss how American and German private sector companies could better train workers.
One of her aims in picking that issue, according to the person familiar with her thinking, was to engage the first daughter, who has expressed interest in working with CEOs to improve conditions for women in the workforce. Appealing to Ivanka Trump was an easier target for Merkel than the president’s top political adviser, Steve Bannon, an anti-globalist who supported last year’s Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and is critical of the EU.
In Berlin Tuesday, the White House official said, Trump plans to stick to the basics: Highlighting the role of women in the global economy and discussing the importance of access to capital for female entrepreneurs. It’s an issue she has studied since before the campaign and one that she has focused on since moving to Washington, where she has been on a listening tour of sorts with CEOs such as Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi and General Motors’ Mary Barra.
After the conference, Trump, a converted Orthodox Jew, is scheduled to tour manufacturing company Siemens and visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin’s Holocaust memorial.
She will be accompanied by three White House aides: Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser and senior economic counselor; communications adviser Hope Hicks; and her newly named chief of staff, Julie Radford.
Even with Europe’s future in turmoil, Ivanka Trump’s visit dominated front pages in Berlin. “Who knows,” said Oliver Michalsky, deputy editor-in-chief of Die Welt. “Maybe she’ll become America’s first female president.”
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