President Donald Trump, at a White House dinner with religious leaders on Wednesday, held aloft a copy of The New York Times and bragged about the paper’s coverage his eldest daughter, Ivanka. This surely mystified his conservative audience, given that the front-page story he was celebrating, “Ivanka Trump Has the President’s Ear. Here’s Her Agenda,” was about her supposed moderating influence on him. The article noted how she “successfully pushed her father to praise Planned Parenthood from a Republican debate stage,” and “helped preserve and increase funding for women’s health in the government spending deal devised over the weekend.” Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, are also credited with scuttling an executive order granting religious organizations the right to discriminate against LGBT people.
But the notion that Ivanka and Jared are somehow corralling Trump to the political center is one of the biggest myths of the Trump presidency—a myth that the couple itself has cultivated. As Times profile notes, “in interviews last week, she said she intended to act as a moderating force in an administration swept into office by nationalist sentiment. Other officials added that she had weighed in on topics including climate, deportation, education and refugee policy.”
This very list of topics makes clear how ineffectual she and Kushner have been, since Trump hasn’t relented from his hard-right stance on any of them. He has signed five anti-environmental executive orders, appointed climate-change deniers to run the Environmental Protection Agency and other key departments, and there’s renewed talk of pulling out of the Paris agreement. He has empowered Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to round up undocumented immigrants who have committed no crimes. His revised immigration order aims to freeze the refugee resettlement program for 120 days and reduce the annual admissions by more than half. And he chose Betsy DeVos, a privatization evangelist, as his education secretary.
Nor were Kushner and Ivanka able to stop House Republicans from gutting protections for pre-existing conditions in their latest attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, or to prevent Trump from assembling the most male-dominated cabinet in decades. If indeed “Ivanka Trump is all powerful,” as a source close to the White House told NBC News, the evidence suggests she’s not exerting that power to temper her father. But the more likely scenario is that she simply isn’t as powerful as so many people—anonymous sources and media pundits alike—have claimed. As the Times profile of her dryly notes, “in her 35 years, she has left little traceable record of challenging or changing the man who raised her.”
The question, then, becomes: Why do Ivanka and Jared hold so little sway over Trump?
Donald Trump is surrounded on all sides by people who have strong ideological agendas, be it House Speaker Paul Ryan’s austerity, Vice President Mike Pence’s social conservatism, chief strategist Steve Bannon’s ethno-nationalism, or Defense Secretary James Mattis’s hawkishness. Compared to these motivated Washington veterans, Jared and Ivanka are novices and ideological cyphers. They may have personal political opinions—in favor of, say, gay marriage or abortion rights—but they don’t have an obsessive vision for the country, one that compels them to go to the mat over certain key policies.
Kushner reportedly “scrambled to persuade Trump to back down” from his promise to terminate NAFTA, according to The Washington Post. But by Kushner’s own account, his persuasion was gentle, a soft sell based on political expediency. As he told Post, “I said, ‘Look, there’s plusses and minuses to doing it,’ and either way he would have ended up in a good place.” This informational approach makes sense in that it plays to Trump’s lack of knowledge and commitment, but Trump is a capricious man. Without a convincing argument about why he shouldn’t terminate NAFTA, he’s liable to switch positions again when another adviser, like Bannon, whispers in his ear.
What’s true of Kushner is also true of Ivanka. “Those close to Ms. Trump say she is generally business-friendly and socially liberal,” the Times reported. “But she says that on many issues, she does not have strongly held views.” This lack of ideological focus gives Kushner and Ivanka a rapport with the president, but also means that the advice they give him has little long-term impact, since it lacks the agenda-setting power of more politically passionate advisors.
Kushner and Ivanka’s main agenda is ultimately apolitical: to polish their brand. If they have moderate goals on some policies, it’s only to align with popular opinion. Moreover, they have been singularly ineffective in advancing those goals, as Trump has become the demagogic authoritarian we feared. It’s nice to imagine that liberals have influential friends inside the White House, but the hope that a mild married couple from the Upper East Side can somehow tame Trump is a form of political wish-fulfillment—one borne of desperation and sure to end in disappointment, if not something much worse.