Within hours of Ivanka Trump announcing Monday that she will soon take over a White House office and begin advising her father, several ethical questions about her role emerged.
As an unpaid adviser with no official title, an as-yet-undefined policy portfolio, and an office in the West Wing, Ivanka Trump’s position will be unprecedented, presidential scholars told VICE News. And her many potential conflicts of interests may force the Trump White House to confront ethical dilemmas that no previous presidency has ever faced.
“I can’t think of anybody in any other administration that had anything like this,” said George Edwards, a professor at Texas A&M University and the editor of an academic journal studying the American presidency.
Adult children of presidents have in the past served in both official and unofficial government capacities, said historian Doug Wead, who has written books about presidents’ children. But in order to avoid anti-nepotism laws, the children were often put on the payroll of the RNC or DNC, Wead said. So while their family ties made them powerful, they were not given the official administration access that Ivanka now possesses.
Even setting aside the fact that her father is the president, Edwards said he couldn’t think of a previous “unofficial, unpaid adviser with an office in the White House.”
Ivanka Trump has noted that, though a Monday statement to Politico focused primarily on how unusual her role will be.
“While there is no modern precedent for an adult child of the president [in the West Wing], I will voluntarily follow all of the ethics rules placed on government employees,” she said. Her lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, told Politico that there will likely still be conflicts of interest. (Gorelick did not respond to a request for comment.)
But Gorelick’s acknowledgment of potential ethical problems, and her client’s reassurance that she would avoid them, haven’t necessarily convinced watchdogs.
“We always hope that people follow the rules and don’t do things that they shouldn’t do,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “I would say that the White House staff, up to and including the president, to date have not given us a lot of confidence.”
The opportunities Ivanka Trump will have to benefit her business interests will be “immense,” Bookbinder noted. She and her husband, Jared Kushner, have offered up plans to significantly divest themselves from several assets since her father’s election, according to Bloomberg News, but she still owns the jewelry and fashion brands that carry her name.
And making sure she adheres to the rules that govern more traditional White House personnel could be tricky. “One of the ways that we enforce ethics rules, conflict of interest rules, is by having records, because that’s how you know who talked to whom, who did what,” Edwards explained. But since Trump isn’t technically a government employee, she might not be required to preserve documents of her meetings and calls.
White House officials cannot be compelled to testify in front of Congress, Edwards added, thanks to rules governing the separation of powers between government. Because Ivanka Trump’s situation is unprecedented, it’s unclear if those rules would apply to her.
What is clear, however, is that she has the potential to wield enormous influence.
“Ivanka can never be fired as daughter,” Wead said. “She will always be daughter. And it’s a very powerful asset, that permanency. She will be very powerful in the White House.”