Ivanka Trump's White House role: Ethics concerns collide with hope for a 'moderating' voice

Ivanka Trump will soon have access to state secrets, her own office in the West Wing and nobody official to answer to regarding her ethics. If she can be a "moderating" influence, though, some appear willing to give her a pass.

Conflicts of interest aside, some say president's daughter could add 'rational' perspective to administration

Ivanka Trump, the eldest daughter of U.S. President Donald Trump, will take an unpaid advisory role in her father's administration and will occupy a West Wing office, where she will have access to classified information. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Ivanka Trump has always had her father's ear. Soon, the eldest daughter of the U.S. president will also have access to state secrets and sensitive diplomatic cables, her own office in the West Wing and nobody official to answer to regarding her ethics.

In a way, it comes down to semantics. Unlike her husband Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president, the 35-year-old businesswoman has no formal title. Despite her role in the White House, she is not an official salaried employee. 

It's quite clear she is a United States government employee, and the White House is making a big mistake saying she's not.- Richard Painter

But she will nevertheless function as one, says Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer in George W. Bush's administration. As such, she will gain a government email account, leadership in meetings and authority to advise her father, U.S. President Donald Trump.

To Painter and other critics, that sounds an awful lot like a White House staff position.

"It's quite clear she is a United States government employee, and the White House is making a big mistake saying she's not."

'She knows she's an employee'

It only makes sense, in his view, that Ivanka Trump should abide by the same federal ethics rules that apply to her husband and other staffers in the executive branch — and not just voluntarily, as she claimed she will.

"The White House seems incapable of telling the truth about the most basic thing," Painter said. "This is just yet one more example. Even she knows she's an employee."

(Regarding her expanded role, her attorney, Jamie Gorelick, told NPR News she will serve as the president's "eyes and ears.")

Ivanka Trump is among the most influential people in her father's orbit, appearing often at his side during meetings with foreign leaders.

She co-hosted a women's business summit last month in Washington with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. She attended a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week. In November, she was inexplicably present during a sit-down between the president and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Ivanka Trump participates in a roundtable discussion with female executives and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Government ethics scholar Kathleen Clarke notes the Abe meeting came amid some suspect timing: it took place while Ivanka Trump's clothing line was undergoing business and licensing deals in Japan.

Her involvement in the administration raises too many conflict-of-interest questions for Clarke.

"When she meets with or has any interaction with U.S. trade policy towards Japan, will she be using those opportunities as a way to enrich herself or her company?"

Skirting ethics requirements to occupy an office in the West Wing — "How is that in the public interest?" Clarke asks.

Ivanka Trump has attempted to address conflict concerns by transferring assets from her apparel line to a trust and handing off day-to-day operations of her company. Painter says it will be left to her to recuse herself from future trade negotiations that might profit her business.

A 'rational' presence

As a matter of ethics, Painter and fellow former White House ethics czar Norm Eisen, who worked in the Barack Obama administration, see big problems.

As a matter of politics, though, neither objects to having the president's daughter take a formal role in the White House.

In a White House he believes is under siege by "extreme right-wing elements" in senior advisory roles like former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon, Painter views Ivanka Trump as a much-needed "rational" presence.

"Some of the non-family members who are around this administration are a greater threat to our democracy than Ivanka and Jared and anyone else in the Trump family," he said.

Analysts say the inclusion of Ivanka Trump in an advisory role at the White House could help balance out some more extreme-right views of the president's inner circle, which includes, right to left, Vice-President Mike Pence, chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Steve Bannon. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Painter, a moderate Republican who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, allows that nepotism in the new administration isn't necessarily something to reject if it's in service of America's success.

"We need good, solid people who can have an influence on the president, and if that's family members, then so be it."

Still, "however positive" a role she fulfils, Eisen says, "ours is a government of laws, and she is not above them."

Clarke calls it a "good cop, bad cop" situation, with Ivanka Trump filling the "moderating good cop" role in an administration heavily influenced by Bannon.

'Jury's still out' on Ivanka

Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies, isn't so sure the Ivanka Trump's candid input can temper her father's policies.

"She obviously does care about climate change and working mothers," Brower says. As for how influential she will be on effecting policy changes? "The jury's still out."

Ivanka Trump and her husband, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, walk to a joint press conference by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and her father, U.S. President Donald Trump. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

During the Republican National Convention last July, Ivanka Trump endorsed equal pay for women and paid maternity leave, embracing causes that might delight a Democratic rally.

But those appeals have yet to bear fruit. Judging by Trump's budget plan, neither proposal has been at the forefront of a Republican agenda in the first two months of this presidency.

According to Politico, Ivanka Trump and Kushner were crucial in convincing the president to nix a draft executive order that he had been considering — one that would have eliminated Obama-era protections for LGBT rights in the workplace.

When Ivanka Trump summoned former vice-president and climate-science crusader Al Gore to Trump Tower in December, Gore was reportedly surprised to find an audience with the president-elect, who has previously expressed skepticism about man-made climate change.

"It's no secret that Ivanka Trump is very committed to having a climate policy that makes sense for our country and for our world," Gore told MSNBC, though she had not previously been so public about her take on climate policy.

Yet Trump has not backed off his promise to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency's budget to the tune of $2.6 billion also call into question how committed he is to tackling climate change.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

With files from CBC's Lyndsay Duncombe