In nearly every tale of White House intrigue about the simmering battle between the Bannonites and President Donald Trump’s more “establishment” advisers, Ivanka Trump is cast as a moderating influence on her father. She and her husband Jared Kushner are constantly portrayed as a kind of collective voice of calm, poise and reason, who are prevailing over the tempestuous Stephen Bannon and his efforts to push Trump over the edge of the precipice of extremism.
But the focus on this aspect of Ivanka Trump’s role dangerously obscures something else that is at least as important about her: Her conduct inside the White House is vexed by the same controversial conflicts of interest plaguing the president himself. And in some ways, she is just as culpable as he in pushing this White House into unprecedented ethical territory.
Like her father, Ivanka Trump has not fully divested herself from her family business — in her case, a fashion and jewelry company valued at more than $50 million. And so, she stands to profit from the unique contacts and access her White House role provides. From the moment she set foot in the White House, her vaguely defined but expansive role as the president’s “eyes and ears” has created an unprecedented new “adviser” position for the self-styled businesswoman — and with it, unprecedented openings for conflicts of interest.
Trump and her allies have dismissed concerns that the first daughter’s White House role raises ethical red flags. But a new report by the Associated Press finds that Ivanka Trump’s company already may be benefiting from the access she had to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the United States earlier this month.
The same day that Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, dined with Xi and his wife at — where else? — Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf resort, her company won valuable trademarks from Chinese authorities. Those trademarks, the AP reports, give Trump’s company “monopoly rights to sell Ivanka brand jewelry, bags and spa services” in the lucrative Chinese market.
This sort of thing helps undermine public confidence that Trump is serving the public, rather than her own financial interests. Although she has placed her financial stake in her $50 million fashion brand in a trust, according to Trump’s financial disclosure forms, that trust is overseen by Josh Kushner, her husband’s brother, and his sister Nicole Meyer. And she retains a stake in the company.
It is hardly unheard of for a president to lean on family members for official and unofficial counsel. But the Trump family’s situation is unprecedented because of their vast business holdings. Last month, when Ivanka Trump’s unique White House role began to come into focus, ethics experts immediately pointed out numerous potential problems. Her “high-visibility role,” NPR reported, “could stir up questions about whether her White House presence could be seen as promoting her products as people try to curry favor with her.” As the AP report shows, Ivanka Trump also could be seen as trying to curry favor with world leaders in order to help promote and expand her brand.
As it is, Ivanka Trump has a conflict of interest between her company and her White House role. But to complicate matters further, there are potential conflicts between her company’s profits and her father’s policies, raising additional questions about what goals her advice to her father advances. As NBC reported earlier this month, 53 of 56 shipments of Ivanka Trump-branded products imported to the United States since her father was elected president came from China. The AP report notes that U.S. imports of Ivanka Trump merchandise manufactured in Asia increased approximately 40 percent in the first quarter of 2017.
Even as her father campaigned on cracking down on Chinese trade policies, NBC reports that the Chinese media has taken note of the first daughter’s “charm offensive” with China, even observing that she is “using her children to help woo the Chinese public.” She popped into the Chinese Embassy with her 5-year-old daughter, Arabella Kushner. At Mar-a-Lago, the president’s granddaughter sang for President Xi because, Ivanka Trump can be heard saying in the video, “we wanted you to feel at home.” President Trump, notably, has tempered his rhetoric on China and trade — and one could reasonably ask whether the presidential shift had anything to do with the family business.
As government ethics experts Richard Painter, Norman Eisen and Virginia Canter wrote after Trump and Kushner’s financial disclosure forms became public a few weeks ago, the couple has “so many potential conflicts of interest that if they abide by ethics laws and past White House practices, they won’t be able to advise the president on three of his top priorities: trade, tax reform and Wall Street deregulation.” But it’s not at all clear the necessary recusals are taking place, much less even being contemplated.
According to the AP, Ivanka Trump’s lawyer Jamie Gorelick insists that her client would recuse herself from specific discussions about duties paid on clothing imported from China, but not from broad discussions of trade with China or foreign policy. Recusal from other matters, she said, would be decided on a “case-by-case” basis. But Painter tells the AP only a full recusal on matters relating to trade with China would suffice, because “the danger is that with any discussion with the Chinese, one party or the other may try to bring up trade.”
As Painter, Eisen and Canter put it, “we have serious questions about how all these recusals can be fully implemented and monitored — and whether they will be.” This latest report from the AP shows that these serious questions persist — but that the White House does not appear to be taking them seriously at all.
Sarah Posner is a reporter and the author of “God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.”