Close your eyes and try to remember the world as it existed as recently as January 2015. At the time, Ivanka Trump — a glamorous, well-known former model and mother of young kids with some television experience and a family connection to a brand-licensing business — was a natural partner for Nordstrom, the luxury department store found in upscale malls, generally in the suburbs of big cities.
The Ivanka Trump clothing line was self-consciously forward-looking and progressive without being radical. It appealed to younger, educated professional women trying to make their way up the career ladder — exactly the kind of people Nordstrom hopes will be the next generation of loyal shoppers at its stores.
But a lot has happened over the past two years. One thing is declining sales for Trump’s line at Nordstrom. Consequently, the company began phasing out her stuff over the course of the winter and confirmed to Racked on February 2 that the relationship is over: “Based on the brand’s performance, we’ve decided not to buy it for this season.”
Another thing is that Ivanka Trump’s father was elected president. Nordstom’s decision prompted a flurry of activity from Donald Trump, including tweets from his personal account and the official @POTUS White House account, a pointed condemnation of Nordstrom from the podium of the White House briefing room, and an advertorial for Ivanka’s apparel from Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway during a Fox News interview — that probably broke the law. It’s a typical incident in the very atypical Trump administration, tying together a lack of discipline and low-grade corruption.
But it also reveals that the story of Trump’s financial conflicts of interest is more multifaceted than a casual graft. Trump has unusual opportunities to exploit his political office for financial gain. But his family’s business network also gives his political opponents unusual points of leverage, while ensuring that his ideological allies will repeatedly get bogged down in fights and controversies that have nothing to do with their agenda.
The Ivanka Trump brand no longer works
“The modern working woman,” according to the #WomenWhoWork section of Ivanka Trump’s website, “looks fundamentally different from women in previous generations. For the first time in history, we’re embracing the fact that our lives are multidimensional. We’re doing work we love, work that inspires us, and we’re also pursuing our passions and making them priorities.”
This was supposed to be a statement about fashion, not about politics. Trump wanted people to buy her branded clothing. But apparel brands are as much about personal identity as they are about fabric or cut, and this brand was certainly designed to speak to a certain kind of self-image. This is clothing for women with careers, not just jobs. Upwardly mobile college graduates, in short. These were not necessarily Nordstrom’s core customer base, but they were the kind of people Nordstrom would need to turn into customers for the brand to have enduring relevance in a world where the very concepts of the department store and the regional shopping mall are under assault from the dual forces of online shopping and the vogue for walkable urbanism.
The problem is that this is not — at all — the direction in which Donald Trump has taken the family brand.
Donald Trump’s brand is old and downscale
Most Trump voters were probably the exact same people who voted for Mitt Romney and John McCain. But relative to previous GOP nominees, he fared worse with college graduates — especially younger ones and women — while doing better with secular Northern whites without college degrees. In terms of Electoral College math, this was a good swap. Clinton gained a lot of votes relative to Obama in California, New York, Texas, Arizona, and Georgia. But these states were either already blue or else too conservative to be flipped by her gains. Conversely, she lost votes in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio — and with them the presidency.
Beyond benefiting from the fact that white working-class voters are disproportionately concentrated in Midwestern swing states, Trump took advantage of the fact that old people are more likely to vote than young ones.
Commercial marketing logic, however, is the exact opposite of this. Consumer brands care more about appealing to young people than old ones since young people are more likely to try new things and develop loyalties that can last decades. Upscale customers, meanwhile, are more valuable than downscale ones, for the boring reason that they have more money.
Last but by no means least, the basic economics of the regional shopping mall tend toward locations that are in either the central county of a Sunbelt metropolitan area or an inner-ring suburb of a more traditional metropolitan form. Those are exactly the kinds of places where Trump fared poorly in the election. A glance at a map of Nordstrom locations reveals that virtually all of them are located in counties that Clinton carried — including in Midwestern and Southern states that voted for Trump — even though Trump won the vast majority of American counties.
Ivanka has been spending brand capital on her dad
Not only is Ivanka Trump’s brand at odds with Donald Trump’s politics, but she’s been specifically leveraging her existing brand to try to help close the deal for her dad.
Her role in her father’s campaign became public in August 2015, when Trump was facing accusations of misogyny after he said that Fox News’s Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her … wherever" during a debate.
Initially, Trump didn’t see his feud with Kelly as a problem at all. It was Ivanka who convinced him it was a real vulnerability and that he needed to address it. As Trump told Sean Hannity: "She said, 'Dad, you've got to let people know how much you adore women and how you'll take care of them.'"
Since then, Ivanka has taken a leading role in trying to defend her father’s reputation — a difficult task given Trump’s long history of objectifying and denigrating women. In July 2016, she told London’s Sunday Times that her father is "a feminist":
And it's a big reason I am the woman I am today. He always told me and showed me that I could do anything I set my mind to if I married vision and passion with work ethic. He's also surrounded me with strong female role models who have done just that since I was a little girl. … People talk about gender equality. … He has lived it, he has employed women at the highest levels of the Trump Organization for decades, so I think it's a great testament to how capable he thinks women are and has shown that his whole life.
While this defense wasn’t entirely convincing, Ivanka was arguably Trump’s best messenger here. She was also responsible for awkwardly grafting a paid parental leave plan onto her father’s campaign. This idea had a preposterous pay-for mechanism, and there’s little evidence the Trump administration is in any way pursuing it, but all this probably helped Trump hang on to the votes of some women who had doubts about him. Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, have also let it be known that they sank the idea of an executive order that would have rolled back protections for LGBTQ workers at federal contractors.
This work has been important to the Trump political project, but has come at the expense of the Ivanka Trump brand. Political activists who would normally be indifferent or perhaps broadly favorable to her ersatz feminist apparel marketing are instead now interested in making sure she pays a price for her diligent work on behalf of an administration committed to banning abortion, gutting the welfare state, deporting immigrants en masse, and stealing Iraqi oil.
It’s not just Nordstrom
Anti-Trump activists have created the “Grab Your Wallet” campaign, compiling a list of businesses, contact information, and suggested demands to try to induce various companies to choose between doing business with the Trump family and doing business with liberals.
In many cases, this probably won’t work. But the Ivanka Trump line is specifically targeted at a demographic group — younger, college-educated women — that really doesn’t care for her father or his politics. So her brand has been particularly hard hit by the campaign.
- T.J. Maxx told employees to remove all Ivanka Trump products and dump Ivanka Trump signage in the garbage.
- HSN has removed all Trump products from its website.
- ShopStyle no longer lists any Ivanka Trump products, after having had as many as 1,500 Trump-related results to a search of its site as recently as mid-January.
- The department store Belk dropped her products, telling Racked, “We continually review our assortment and the performance of the brands we carry. And we make adjustments as part of our normal course of business operations.”
- Neiman Marcus, an upscale retailer that formerly carried a small amount of her branded jewelry on consignment, decided to sever ties earlier this year.
It’s not clear why the Nordstrom move, in particular, broke through, but it seems to have set Trump off in a way that other retailers dumping his daughter didn’t.
The Trump administration went to war with Nordstrom
At 10:30 on Wednesday morning, Donald Trump sat down for his regular presidential intelligence briefing. There evidently wasn’t much to discuss, since 21 minutes later he was online tackling the threat of retailers badmouthing his daughter’s apparel line.
My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person -- always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 8, 2017
This is an unorthodox subject for a presidential communication, but it rapidly ascended up the Trump administration priority list. The @POTUS Twitter account, inaugurated by the Obama White House and serving as the official government account, retweeted Trump’s personal tweet.
Later, at his daily press briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer addressed this urgent matter, calling Nordstrom’s actions “unacceptable” and a “direct attack” on Trump’s policies.
Sean Spicer on Nordstrom re: POTUS and Ivanka: "This is a direct attack on his policies and her name."— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) February 8, 2017
There is no real evidence that this is true, but the Trump administration frequently says things that aren’t true, and getting aides to tell obvious lies in public can serve a strategic purpose for Trump.
Spicer, in particular, is by no means a Trump loyalist. He served as spokesperson for the US Trade Representative’s office during the George W. Bush administration, regularly touting the virtues of various trade deals that Trump would later denounce. He later landed at the Republican National Committee, where he worked with Reince Priebus — the current chief of staff in the White House, who rarely appears to be genuinely in charge of the White House staff.
Priebus brought Spicer on board, but Trump has reportedly been unhappy with Spicer’s performance and is looking to make a new hire and narrow his portfolio. Under the circumstances, demonstrating slavish loyalty to the Trump brand by launching a baseless attack on an American retail chain from the White House podium could be a smart career strategy.
Spicer was, however, swiftly outshone by his White House frenemy Kellyanne Conway, who serves in an amorphous senior adviser role that involves frequent television appearances. She went on Fox News Thursday morning to say, “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff, is what I would tell you.” After all, “It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it. I’m going to give a free commercial here: Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online."
Demonstrating a willingness to lie in public on behalf of the first family is a good loyalty pledge — and also against the law.
Federal law bans product endorsements
The specific issue with Conway’s statements is a federal statute stating that federal employees, including Conway, may not “endorse any product, service or enterprise."
Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, says he believes Conway’s statement violated the rule.
Appears Kellayanne Conway may have just violated ban on Federal employee using public office for endorsement of product. 5 CFR 2635.702 https://t.co/mIvngSHCnk— Larry Noble (@LarryNoble_DC) February 9, 2017
Norm Eisen, who was White House ethics czar in the Obama administration, agrees.
"Clearly, the Trumps feel some of this is related to politics. But whether that's true or not, these marketing battles need to be fought by Ivanka and her company," Schweizer told the Washington Post. "They cannot and should not be fought by government employees and the White House. It's time to move beyond the mind-set and the role of a businessman and assume the mantle of commander of chief.”
In a more detailed formal complaint to the Office of Government Ethics, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington added further details and analysis to support the notion that Conway was violating the law. CREW notes, for example, that Conway “unquestionably was acting in an official capacity,” as the Fox News segment introduced her with her title as special counselor to the president of the United States and she was broadcast live from the White House briefing room.
AP: House Oversight chairman calls White House aide's promotion of Ivanka Trump brand 'clearly over the line, unacceptable'— Jesse Rodriguez (@JesseRodriguez) February 9, 2017
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Government Oversight Committee, even got in on the action, calling it “clearly over the line.”
Trump’s conflicts of interest are multidirectional and comprehensive
The most obvious reason why presidents have traditionally kept their financial assets in a blind trust (like George W. Bush) or a banal diversified portfolio (like Barack Obama, who held bonds and index funds) is that it gives citizens assurance that the president’s policy decisions are not helping to line his own pockets.
Nordstromghazi highlights the fact that the conflict of interest runs in both directions. Beyond questions of appearances, a non-corrupt president would want to separate himself from ownership of operating businesses precisely in order to insulate himself from strong-arm tactics.
Liberal activists would have loved to hit Bush in the wallet while he was president, but they couldn’t — his financial assets were in a blind trust. Conservative activists, similarly, had no way to injure Obama’s portfolio, because his money was in diversified index funds.
Trump, by contrast, literally has his name stamped on things. Foreign governments that don’t like a Trump policy decision can take action against the factories that make Trump-branded apparel. Foreign terrorists can attack Trump-branded buildings located around the world. Protesters can try to shut down Trump’s golf courses. And boycott campaigns can urge retailers to stop carrying Trump-branded products. Trump could, of course, choose not to care about any of this.
But from Trump’s failure to comply with precedents around financial conflicts of interest to his actions over Nordstrom’s decision, he has shown that he clearly does care about his various businesses and brand-licensing ventures. His tweet shows that he’s not disciplined enough to prevent his tendency to care to leach into his public presentation. The subsequent behavior of his staff shows that in a faction-ridden administration, the temptation to curry favor by operating on behalf of the Trump Organization is unavoidable. And whether the net impact on Trump’s personal finances is positive or negative, the public debate will be repeatedly dragged away from the GOP’s policy agenda and toward the idiosyncratic personal and professional interests of the president and his family.
Congressional Republicans could put a stop to this if they wanted to. But so far, they haven’t wanted to.