Ivanka Trump arrived Tuesday at the annual White House turkey pardon with her three children in tow as musicians played Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” — a song about unity that would be perfectly appropriate for a Thanksgiving celebration designed to align everyone around the notion that not all turkeys deserve to die for the benefit of American gastronomes.
But much like the selected turkeys, Trump was playing a role. She is a cultural emissary for her father, the president, but she also often appears as his formal proxy in her role as a senior White House adviser.
So it was all the more remarkable that she has spent this week pleading ignorance for her failure to use proper channels for secure email communications. Her father, after all, spent most of 2016 talking about someone else’s emails. Once ensconced in the White House, thanks in part to Hillary Clinton’s own electronic correspondence habits, the first-daughter-slash-senior-adviser proceeded to send hundreds of emails via private channels in 2017, a good year after the American public was subjected to more literal words in mainstream newspapers about Clinton’s emails than all of Trump’s scandals combined, according to researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center.
Trump claims she didn’t know that her use of a private email account for government business was improper. For that claim to be credible, Trump would have to argue that she somehow missed all the news about the 2016 campaign or that she was too oblivious to understand the implications of it. So the simplest explanation is that she thinks the rules that applied to Clinton don’t apply to her.
To be fair, this is no surprise. Research suggests that ultrarich people genuinely believe that the rules don’t apply to them, and the rich tend to break rules and violate norms more frequently as a result. They have reduced levels of empathy, because they’re not accustomed to having to depend on others to lead fruitful, prosperous lives. They have very little understanding of the value of things like sacrifice for the greater good or, well … public service for its own sake.
President Trump appears to believe the rules don’t apply to him, either — or else he would have, as every other president in the past four decades has done, put his assets into a blind trust upon taking office and released his tax returns. He also reportedly uses unsecured phones despite warnings that Russia and China are probably listening in.
And like her father’s, Ivanka Trump’s own violations of norms and laws extend well beyond communications security. For instance, Ivanka has, reportedly, personally pocketed $3.9 million in profits from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, the foreign proceeds of which are supposed to be remitted to the U.S. Treasury. And this is a violation for which we can publicly account: We have no idea how much money she is or isn’t making overall. The entire Trump family is accustomed to operating from behind a protective wall of lawyers, PR people and secretive LLCs that mask the origins of their financing and the manner in which they choose to conduct business. No wonder email rules don’t seem to apply to her: Actively avoiding transparency might not be the norm for the Oval Office, but it is for commercial real estate and for the Trump family.
This particular angle could well be the entire game for her. The outcomes of her tenure in the White House are very measurable in terms of accrual of money and power to Ivanka Trump. They are less apparent if we evaluate her in her role as senior White House adviser and public servant. What has she done for Americans that justifies paying for the travel, office, resources and access that she enjoys solely as a result of occupying a job for which she has no obvious qualifications beyond being the president’s daughter?
The answer is nothing, which shouldn’t be surprising, because she didn’t take the job seriously in the first place. It has never been her primary mandate. Her official travels have been built around her business objectives and self-aggrandizing projects that allow her to network with people she couldn’t access before her father became president. A state dinner with the president of China comes in handy when you’re waiting on trademark approvals and your company manufactures clothing there, despite your public cheerleading of American workers and American-made products. And it’s fine to give sunny speeches about women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes in the world, if you have Saudi business partners who’ve just handed you $100 million for an investment fund.
The reality is that Ivanka claims to care about working women but has done nothing to stop or even mitigate her father’s administration’s policies that harm them. She has had no effect on the xenophobic immigration policies of the administration in which she serves or its attempts to disenfranchise gay and transgender people. She has been ineffective and useless.
By this point, it’s clear that she doesn’t view her unpaid White House gig as her primary job. It’s an extracurricular activity on a résumé, gifted to her by her father. So in her mind, who cares about email protocols? Who cares if she sits in dad’s chair at the G-20? Or if she eludes questions about her boss’s sexual improprieties? We all know she’s not a real government official, right?
But she is, no matter how nepotistically and inappropriately she got there. And she can’t have it both ways. You don’t get the high-powered government job without the security protocols.
Now the new Democratic House is sure to look into the whole thing. President Trump argues that because Ivanka’s emails are a matter of public record, all of this is fine. If she did something wrong, that doesn’t matter, because at least we all know about it.
This is a defining characteristic of Trump values or lack thereof: If you can get away with something in plain sight, it’s not a crime in the first place. Another Trump value: If a core rule or norm doesn’t matter to you personally, just ignore it, no matter how crucial it is to American democracy or the healthy functioning of society at large. You’re rich, after all, and you don’t need all of these other people to live the good life. Of what use is empathy? Or rules, when you can lawyer and spin your way around them? And why should any of it matter, really, when it’s just a side gig, a lark? Your personal safety and security is intact and immutable.
And you think to yourself, what a wonderful world.