The Trump Century Tower is a 57-story luxury skyscraper in the heart of a gentrifying neighborhood controlled by one of the world's most bloodthirsty strongmen. In a 2012 ad for the property, you can watch the developer's son Robbie Antonio explain how the building was born out of a meeting with Ivanka Trump and promise it will be "the most important residential condominium the Philippines will ever see." As her dad plays golf in the background, Ivanka herself appeals to Filipino consumers on "a great quest for luxury."
Several years later, the tower is nearly complete, even as the American dynasty behind it has moved on to bigger things. The man who swung a golf club in the ad's b-roll is now the leader of the free world, recently launching missile strikes at Syria in what one high-level official called "after-dinner entertainment." These days, Donald Trump's eldest daughter is not just the face of a glass tower in Asia or the purveyor of the finest luxury goods your local Dillards has on offer, but a White House adviser who convenes with foreign heads of state.
Meanwhile, just before the election, the Trump Century Tower's developer, Jose Antonio, was appointed by Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte—a man whose answer to his nation's drug problem is to encourage vigilante shootings of suspected dealers and users in the street—as a special envoy to the United States. Just this weekend, President Trump invited Duterte to the White House, setting off alarm bells for exhausted watchdogs who can barely keep up with the most ethically dubious administration in decades.
Since Dad began running for president, Ivanka Trump, a businesswoman and public figure in her own right, has been touted as a social progressive who might moderate his worst impulses on everything from women's health to war to gay rights. But even if this proves to be the case, she has shown over and over again that she's as compromised as anyone in a White House that includes dudes admitting straight up they want to use the government to make themselves richer.
Next to the white nationalists hanging out in the West Wing, it's tempting to see Ivanka—who converted to Judaism to marry Jared Kushner, also an adviser to the president—as a comforting presence. (This may be partly the work of a marquee branding effort helmed by Democratic communications whiz Risa Heller.) Whatever Ivanka's handlers are doing behind the scenes, it seems to be working: The first daughter is currently shilling an advice book for working women that has garnered positive press—both by outlets that are and are not government-funded—even in the midst of her latest ethics controversy. (It has also won its share of scathing reviews.)
But to Jeff Hauser, executive director at the watchdog group Revolving Door Project, Ivanka Trump's meticulous attention to branding and how she's perceived might actually be the key to combatting corruption in her father's White House.
"There's a school of thought in politics where you go after the squealer—not the most important person, but the person most likely to respond to pressure," he told me. "Ivanka cares. She wants to be thought of as a moderate, smart, pragmatic, feminist success story. Scrutiny on her could actually produce results."
To back up, Ivanka Trump's conflicts raised eyebrows before her dad even won the election. After introducing him at the Republican National Convention, Ivanka tweeted about the dress she was wearing, causing it to sell out online. Then, during a November interview on CBS, the daughter of the president-elect wore a $10,800 bracelet from her jewelry line and the company sent out an email blast to fashion writers promoting the piece's appearance. After a media backlash, the brand issued an apology—something her father almost never does.
Even as President Trump angered the Chinese government early on by jumping on the phone with the leader of Taiwan, Ivanka has proven a much more effective—or at least tactful—emissary on the global stage. For starters, she seemed to garner an immense amount of good will from Beijing after a video of her daughter singing a song for Chinese New Year went viral on that country's version of Twitter. Now young Chinese apparently consider Yi Wan Ka (a.k.a. Ivanka) their idol, with tabloids reporting people are getting plastic surgery to emulate her appearance.
This idolization obviously bodes well for Ivanka, who just got a bevy of lucrative trademarks approved by the Chinese government, and with them the ability to sell a whole slew of products bearing her name to crazed fangirls sometime in the future. (It's worth mentioning that these trademarks were approved on the same day that Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the Trump resort in Mar-a-Lago in Florida to hang with Ivanka's father, and that she has additional trademarks in Japan and Canada—two countries whose leaders she met with in November and February.) Putting all of that aside, Ivanka Trump still has a stake in her father's DC hotel, where foreign dignitaries can theoretically stay in hopes of currying favor with her dad.
True to her penchant for cultivating a righteous brand, the first daughter has at least taken baby steps toward good governance, placing her own businesses in a trust. And in March, after ethics groups demanded clarity on Ivanka Trump's status in the White House, she announced plans to become an official, unpaid employee of the government.
"I have heard the concerns some have with my advising the president in my personal capacity while voluntarily complying with all ethics rules, and I will instead serve as an unpaid employee in the White House Office, subject to all of the same rules as other federal employees," she said in a statement.
But Ivanka Trump hasn't gone all the way, liquidating her assets and moving them into a completely blind trust, like George W. Bush and Barack Obama did. That makes advocates like Paul S. Ryan with the good government group Common Cause think the first daughter's professed ethics concerns are more about optics than anything else.
"She cares about her brand and her reputation," Ryan says. "That may cause her to do things that we want to hear, but I'm not convinced that it will lead her to do the things we need her to do as a country. Her personal fortune is directly influenced by foreign trade policy, and because the mechanism for enforcing our ethics laws is so weak, all we can do is hope for the best."
Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Tom Carpenter on Monday released a response they got from the Office of Government Ethics, detailing how Ivanka's new gig will require her to tell us where she's getting her income, which includes ongoing payments from her father's company and her own brand. She says she won't participate in day-to-day business decisions, even if she can still veto specific deals. She's also promised to recuse herself from government affairs affecting her assets and is prohibited by law from intentionally enriching herself with the new gig.
But the government ethics office is not a law enforcement agency, and it can't actually compel any meaningful change—it's just there to spotlight issues and occasionally make noise about glaring misconduct, like Kellyanne Conway hawking Ivanka's clothes on TV. And the Obama-appointed head of the agency will finish his term in early 2018, which means President Trump can select a new one sympathetic to his worldview. Meanwhile, the prospect of some kind of public corruption investigation into the administration by the attorney general's office is basically nonexistent now that Jeff Sessions, a Trump campaign surrogate who was forced to recuse himself from the Russia probe, is running the show.
"I'm holding back my attempt to chuckle at the notion that he would enforce any of these laws aggressively with regards to the Trump administration—never mind with regards to a member of the Trump family," Ryan tells me.
Depressingly, it seems like one of the better ways to discourage corruption in the new administration may be as simple as Americans looking askance at Ivanka and denting her public image. In fact, around the same time President Duterte's impending visit was announced, a Twitter user posted a photo of a billboard for Trump Tower Manila featuring her likeness. Though the image sparked outrage, the photo was out of date, and conservatives used the apparent mischaracterization as a way to deflect from the glaring ethics issues at stake.
Meanwhile, ads for the Filipino property featuring Ivanka quietly disappeared from its website.
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