CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
A series of anonymously-sourced anecdotes have created an image of a moderate Trump in the White House. But actual policy changes are hard to find.
Standing before the crowd at the Republican National Convention last July, the future first daughter— dressed in an Ivanka Trump-branded muted sheath dress that was later marketed to consumers through her considerable social media presence — opened her speech with a strange line for the most visible child of the new leader of the Republican Party.
“Like many of my fellow millennials, I do not consider myself categorically Republican or Democrat,” Ivanka told a cheering crowd. “More than party affiliation, I vote on based on what I believe is right, for my family and for my country. Sometimes it’s a tough choice.”
It was a speech met with near-universal praise from pundits and delegates. California delegate Shawn Steel told the Guardian that it proved Ivanka was “the greatest asset Donald Trump has.” CNN called it “smart and savvy.” And Vanity Fair called it “remarkable,” noting that it struck a decidedly different tone from the rest of the convention.
“She simply pretended she was speaking at the Democratic Party’s convention, and delivered a speech about the wage gap, maternal leave, and other liberal ideals,” wrote Tina Nyugen.
Ivanka followed that speech with a slew of public appearances and interviews where she advocated for her father’s paid leave plan — a plan that will do little to help low-income Americans who need the most help shouldering the cost of childcare. When Trump won the election in November, a trickle of anonymously-sourced stories suggested Ivanka would use her position in the White House — unofficial, to comply with nepotism laws — to pull her notoriously extreme father towards the center on traditionally liberal issues like women’s rights, family leave, and the environment.
In recent weeks, the trickle of anonymously-sourced stories painting Ivanka as a progressive influence on her father has grown to a deluge, with stories coming out almost daily suggesting Ivanka and her husband, senior White House advisor Jared Kusher, have been working behind the scenes to moderate both Trump’s tone and policy goals.
Among the stories are rumors that, thanks to Ivanka and Kushner, when Trump releases his long-anticipated executive order next week rolling back several crucial Obama-era climate policies, there will be no mention of pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, a pledge that had been a staple in the Trump stump speech. A recent round of anonymously-sourced stories also claim that Ivanka was the primary reason for Trump’s more moderate tone during his Joint Address to Congress on Tuesday night, a perception that won Trump rounds of praise from political pundits.
But just as Trump’s more measured tone benefited Trump more than it benefited Americans — allowing the president to bask in the adoration of the media without actually changing any of his unpopular policies — the liberal myth of Ivanka does more to bolster Ivanka’s personal brand, and insulate the White House from criticism of its most unpopular policies, than protect Americans from Trump’s extreme agenda.
In late January and early February, at the dawn of the Trump presidency, rumors began circulating that the White House was preparing an executive order that would overturn Obama-era protections of LGBTQ workers, something Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, has supported throughout his legislative career.
That executive order did not come to fruition; instead, the White House released a statement pledging its support to “protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community.” Sources identified only as being “close to Kushner and Ivanka Trump” told Politico that the world had Ivanka and Kusher to thank for that order, who had worked behind the scenes to ensure the Obama-era protections remained in place.
But almost a month after pledging to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community, the White House rolled back federal protections for transgender students. This time, there was no word from Ivanka — not even through anonymous sources. When it came to actual policies enacted by her father’s White House, Ivanka was silent.
That’s far from the only example of an outlet running a story, based on an anonymous source, depicting Ivanka as a moderating influence on her father, followed by a Trump policy that functions to the opposite effect. In December, Politico ran a story, based again on nameless sources, suggesting Ivanka was looking to make climate change her signature issue.
And those stories have continued through the early days of Trump’s presidency: A week ago, the Wall Street Journal published a story based on unnamed sources that credited Ivanka and Kushner with removing mention of the Paris climate agreement from Trump’s forthcoming executive order on climate change. The day after Trump’s speech to Congress, Axios published a story based on an unnamed source that credited Ivanka with the passing mention of “clean air and clean water” that made it into Trump’s remarks — the only reference to the environment in the entire speech.
And yet, Ivanka’s allegedly moderating influence with respect to the environment has done little to stop the Trump administration from enacting a strikingly anti-environment agenda. To lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general who sued the EPA 14 times to block various environmental regulations, from the Clean Power Plan to the Clean Water Rule. On the same day Trump gave his speech to Congress, with its single mention of “clean air and clean water,” he signed an executive order directing the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to begin rolling back the Obama-era Clean Water Rule, which expanded the coverage of the Clean Water Act to protect drinking water for 117 million Americansnot previously protected by the Clean Water Act.
Perhaps most glaring are reports of the omission of the Paris agreement from the forthcoming Trump executive order on climate — one of the most widely re-reported anonymously-sourced anecdotes about Ivanka’s environmental efforts in the Trump White House. Without fail, they all neglect to highlight the fact that the United States’ participation in the Paris agreement, without the domestic policies that Trump is set to undo with that same executive order, amounts to little more than a public relations performance.
The Paris agreement is built on the independent domestic pledges of participating countries — without domestic policies like the Clean Power Plan, or without a leader interested in deepening the country’s commitment to greenhouse gas reductions, it makes little difference if the United States participates in the agreement. It is participation in name only — and coming from the world’s largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases, participation in name only could be enough to sink the agreement altogether.
Unlike issues she has championed publicly, any image of Ivanka as an environmentalist or a champion of LGBTQ rights comes not from her own words, but from pictures painted by anonymous sources and published by media outlets without critical coverage. And even when Ivanka speaks about an issue on the record — as she has with paid leave and women in the workplace —coverage is often uncritical, focusing more on talking points than the details of the policy.
The benefit of these stories to readers, and the American public, is negligible. It offers the quick thrill of an uncorroborated glimpse into an administration that seems, at times, without a unifying purpose, and for those who care about issues like the environment or human rights, it can seem like a life raft of sanity in an otherwise hopeless sea of extremism. But despite Ivanka’s palpable presence in the administration — she appears in administration meetings and events almost daily, despite having no official role — Trump’s presidency has thus far been marked by orders to roll back protections on both human rights and the environment.
If anything, these stories are a net-negative for the American public, distracting from Trump’s more extreme policies by softening them through Ivanka. A story on a forthcoming executive order not criticizing the Paris climate agreement shifts focus away from what the order does mention: likely the dismantling of crucial domestic policies meant to curb carbon pollution and slow global warming. Stories about Trump mentioning clean water once in his speech detract attention from the fact that hours before, he signed an order rolling back clean water protections — protections that are extremely popular with voters.
But, above all, these stories benefit Ivanka. They perpetuate her carefully cultivated image of a young woman who votes with her conscience, not a particular party; a young woman who cares deeply about equality and opportunity and the future of our planet, deeply enough to attach her name to those causes so long as it comes from an unnamed, untraceable source.
Her choice of issues — paid family leave, LGBTQ rights, the environment — are as calculated as the carefully curated reality of her Instagram account, where her inoffensive tone creates what ThinkProgress’ Jessica Goldstein described before the election as a “blank space onto which liberals can project a favorite fantasy.” It’s no coincidence that Ivanka’s preferred causes are those often championed by millennials, and especially millennial women. That is, and always has been, her target audience — the group that, according to a 2015 Vogue profile, Ivanka geared her entire clothing and lifestyle brand toward.
In that same profile, author Jonathan van Meter quotes a friend of Ivanka’s, who tells him that “her father is hated by half of America and loved by the other half. The half that love him love her, and the half that hate him love her — because she’s not him!’”
Anonymously-sourced stories give Ivanka enough cover to perpetuate the idea that she is distinct from her father — that she is of Trump, but not necessarily the Trump. For those who oppose her father’s policies, this myth of a liberal Ivanka acts like an oasis of reason in a landscape seemingly void of such principles; it comforts those who know that without a moderating presence, all the president is left with is an adviser like Steve Bannon. But for those who support her father’s policies, anonymously-sourced stories create a myth nebulous enough that it can be ignored — especially when the concrete policies coming from the White House are consistently more Bannon than Ivanka.
Ancient cultures created myths to explain that which seemed inexplicable; earthquakes, floods, plagues, feast, and famine all came from unseen deities, forces that rippled into reality but remained just outside the field of view. But myths, by definition, are not real — and it’s time to learn the difference.