The first and last time I saw Ivanka Trump up close but not so personal was in her father’s suite of offices in the floors above the clouds at Trump Tower. I’d come to interview Donald – in those days he insisted on being called Donald – a year before he decided to run for office and there she was, almost levitating with fragrant elegance.
Ivanka with her jewellery shop and designer clothes was the refined, impossibly polished incarnation of the Trump brand. The obvious favourite of five siblings, even by the admission of the other four. But the thought of her one day becoming the most powerful woman in America and possibly the world was as far from my mind as, say, the thought of, well, her father becoming president of the USA.
But here we are. Donald Trump is in the Oval. A few doors along the corridor of the West Wing is his beloved son-in-law and now senior adviser Jared Kushner and in her own office, Kushner’s wife, Ivanka. This is a historic first.
Never before has the American presidency looked and felt like a family enterprise. It is novel and even disconcerting but it should not be shocking. The way Trump did business in Trump Towers is the way he does business in the White House. And that also means that Ivanka is far more visible than the real First Lady, Melania.
Jared Kushner, Ivanka, Melania and Donald Trump at the inauguration parade
Ivanka is not the real First Lady but arguably she exercises more power than even Hillary Clinton did at the time Bill was in charge. Being the daughter not the bossy wife, Ivanka gets away with a lot more. Her role is complicated and crucial. The image of Ivanka, a beautiful clever young woman with impeccable manners humanised Donald. It certainly helped him to win the election.
So the father not only owes the daughter, he also relies on her. Ivanka is always by his side and in his ear. She is the Donald whisperer who knows exactly where to draw the line between paternal loyalty and public acceptability.
Before President Trump unleashed a salvo of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Assad regime after an alleged chemical attack on civilians including children, it was Ivanka who posted a picture of victims on Instagram with a line about heartbreak. We may not have noticed, but the Middle East did. After the attack social media in much of the Arab world lavished praise on “Abu Ivanka al-Amriki”, father of Ivanka, the American. You and I know him as President Trump.
Then there are Ivanka’s social values. She puts the suave, liberal Upper East Side back in her gruff dad. Brought up in a world of metropolitan wealth and privilege where gay rights and women’s empowerment are bread and butter issues, she’s styled herself as the defender of these values in her father’s office. She forced him to mention them in the president’s speech to Congress in February, so far the rhetorical high point of normality for an otherwise abnormal presidency.
That is the reason why so many Democrats and liberals can’t stand her. She makes him look acceptable. The beautiful, kind-hearted princess who tames her despotic dad. It’s almost like a fairy tale.
The real extent of Ivanka’s power will still need to be tested in a genuine crisis. Most luridly, would she (or her husband) be able to talk Dad away from the nuclear button should things get nasty with North Korea, for instance? I predict that as the father gets more exhausted by the daily grind of running the country – which he’s admitted is so much less fun than running your family firm – Ivanka will become more of a crutch. Her influence and power will grow.
Whether that is good, bad or indifferent, it wasn’t what anyone in America voted for. But then the US loves a dynasty. It’s obsessed with our royal family. Now it has its very own in the White House with a once renewable four-year lease under King Donald the Tremendous.
Channel 4 News’s Matt Frei presents Ivanka Trump: America’s Real First Lady? on Monday 15 May at 9.00pm on Channel 4