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It’s official: Ivanka Trump will be a White House staffer

First Lady Melania Trump Hosts Lunch At White House On International Women's Day Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Ivanka Trump’s power behind the scenes in the White House is now really, truly official. The president’s daughter, who already had a West Wing Office, a security clearance, and a government-issued phone, will become an unpaid government employee with the title of special assistant to the president, according to the New York Times.

That title is a shift from her earlier plans, which would have given her the office and the clearance without the official status. As a White House employee, even an unpaid one, Trump, like her husband, Jared Kushner, will have to abide by federal ethics regulations.

Her appointment is pure nepotism: There is nothing on her résumé that suggests Ivanka Trump is qualified, by any traditional definition of the term, to advise the president of the United States. But for President Donald Trump she has two qualities that likely outweigh any others — she’s a Trump, and she’s going to be loyal to him.

Ivanka Trump, who is 35 and has a bachelor’s degree in business, is best known for running a relatively small apparel line branded with her name, for appearing on The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice alongside her father, and for writing a memoir/career advice book, The Trump Card.

By all accounts, she was a capable lieutenant to her father at the Trump Organization, where she oversaw global expansion and the development of the president’s hotel in Washington, DC’s Old Post Office building. Still, this is not the type of résumé most White House jobs are built on. She’ll have access to well-guarded information about national security, and, according to Politico, her portfolio of issues won’t be confined to the family policy she spent most of her campaign trail time discussing.

Ivanka Trump’s role, her lawyer told Politico, is to be her father’s “eyes and ears” in the White House. In an administration that spent its first two months riven by very public leaks and infighting, Trump has apparently decided, as he did in his business career, that his own children are the only people he can really trust.

Nepotism is illegal — but the Trump administration has decided it doesn’t apply to the White House

Giving Ivanka Trump a West Wing office might be nepotism. But it’s not illegal nepotism. The Justice Department ruled that federal anti-nepotism laws don’t apply to the president’s choice of White House advisers. The day Trump was inaugurated, the Justice Department determined that it would be legal for him to appoint Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and Ivanka Trump’s husband.

“A President wanting a relative's advice on governmental matters therefore has a choice: to seek that advice on an unofficial, ad hoc basis without conferring the status and imposing the responsibilities that accompany formal White House positions,” the Justice Department’s Daniel Koffsky, a deputy assistant attorney general, wrote, “or to appoint his relative to the White House under title 3 and subject him to substantial restrictions against conflicts of interest.”

In other words: Trump is going to get advice from his relatives anyway, so he might as well get it in a role that puts some ethical restrictions around what they can do.

Congress passed a federal anti-nepotism law in the 1960s. Before that, the only unusual thing about an appointment like Trump’s would be that she was the president’s daughter — not the president’s brother or the president’s son.

John F. Kennedy made his brother Robert attorney general and put his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, in charge of the Peace Corps. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s son worked in the White House as an assistant staff secretary. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son James served as secretary of the president, an important coordinating job akin to the modern position of chief of staff. (In an episode with additional resonance for Trump watchers, James Roosevelt was also accused of profiting personally from his father’s presidency and had to publish his tax returns to prove he had not.)

Then in 1967, a federal anti-nepotism law reforming the Post Office prohibited executive branch officials from appointing their relatives to jobs in the agencies they oversee. Legal experts disagree on whether the law applies to the president and to jobs in the White House. But some presidents have decided to play it safe: When President Bill Clinton tapped Hillary Clinton to oversee his health care overhaul, he put her in charge of a task force rather than giving her an official White House job.

Today, Kushner and Ivanka Trump have already disclosed information about their finances and divested from some stocks as part of Kushner’s White House role, according to Politico. As an official White House employee, she’ll also be bound by regulations on financial disclosures and conflicts of interest.

Is Ivanka Trump’s new job a win for the “Democrats” in the White House?

Since the campaign, Ivanka Trump has assiduously cultivated an image as the voice of moderation, even liberalism, whispering in her father’s ear. It reached its pinnacle when she told the Republican National Convention that her father believed in affordable child care and equal pay for equal work — issues that a Republican president had never put at the center of his campaign.

That influence had limits: Trump has not made child care the center of his legislative agenda. Still, for the observers and pundits who constantly scan for a “pivot,” a sign that Trump is moving away from his most extreme positions and rhetoric, there will be a temptation to interpret Ivanka Trump’s West Wing office as the latest sign of moderation. Kushner, as well as fellow New Yorkers Gary Cohn and Dina Powell, former Goldman Sachs executives, are seen as the moderate voices in the Trump administration; according to the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, their rivals have taken to calling them “the Democrats.”

The narrative of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner nudging the president to the center can be overblown. But Kushner, Trump, and their allies have leaked to reporters a counterfactual history of how much more extreme Trump’s decisions would have been if they weren’t there to put on the brakes.

According to media reports, Kushner and Trump pushed for an executive order on climate to be less critical of the Paris climate deal. Another report has them successfully derailing another executive order that would have made it easier for businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Ivanka Trump, according to reports, persuaded her father to embrace the less bellicose tone he employed in his speech to a joint session of Congress, rather than the bleak imagery from his inaugural address. She attended a play about welcoming immigrants with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The image of Kushner and Ivanka Trump as the (relatively) progressive adults in the room is so enduring that for the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency, political observers even held them responsible for the presidents’ tweets. A slew of speculative articles suggested the president tended to send his most zany tweets on Friday nights and Saturdays because Trump and Kushner, who are Orthodox Jews, were observing Shabbat and weren’t there to stop him.

Rabbis, including the rabbi who oversaw Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism, finally debunked this interpretation: Nothing is stopping Kushner and his wife from talking about the president’s tweets, even during the religious observance, they told Politico.

More broadly, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner might be winning occasional battles. But if their goal is to shape President Trump’s administration into one that actively fights climate change and protects the rights of LGBTQ people, they’re losing the war.

The Trump administration is trying to eliminate the federal government’s ability to oppose climate change through its budget. It abolished protections for transgender students in K-12 schools. If Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner truly felt these were morally monstrous decisions, they could resign.

Instead, they’ve been able to have their cake and eat it too: participating in the administration that set these policy moves in motion, while making themselves the stars of a narrative about the people who tried to stand up to them.

The right way to think about this move isn’t ideological — it’s that Trump only trusts his family

The most likely explanation for Ivanka’s new office and security clearance, though, isn’t that Trump is beefing up the moderate faction within his administration. It’s that despite his claims to hire the “best people,” the only people Trump ever really trusts are those related to him by blood or marriage.

It’s easy to understand why Trump might feel like he needs “eyes and ears,” the role Ivanka is supposed to play, in the West Wing. Usually an incoming presidential administration is at least somewhat united by a common purpose, and doesn’t degenerate into public kvetching and backstabbing until it’s suffered some setbacks. Trump’s administration got there in less than a week.

The White House and federal agencies have both a below-average number of employees and an above-average number of factions, all of whom apparently spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone to reporters leaking unflattering details about one another. The situation is so bad that several meetings meant to crack down on leaking have immediately been reported in full by the media after details about the anti-leaking meetings were leaked.

“Hire the best people,” Donald Trump wrote in his 2007 book Think Big and Kick Ass, “and don’t trust them.” Trump’s definition of the “best people” is idiosyncratic at best. But in business and throughout the campaign, he leans on his family to an unusual degree. Trump’s three grown children — Eric, Donald Jr., and Ivanka — are in their 30s and 40s, but they all work for their father. When he stepped away from the day-to-day operations of his company to serve as president, Donald Trump put Eric and Donald Jr. in charge.

Another president who wants a loyal lieutenant in the West Wing might pick a longtime colleague or even a friend, as Barack Obama did with Valerie Jarrett. Trump has relatively few of those tight, nonfamilial connections. What he does have is his family.