The annual G20 summit is a dry, diplomatic affair that rarely offers viral moments. This year’s gathering in Japan was an exception, thanks to Ivanka Trump. The French government posted a clip last weekend that shows British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron deep in discussion as the president’s eldest daughter awkwardly interjects. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, appears visibly irked. The moment drew widespread scorn on social media and spawned the hashtag #UnwantedIvanka, where she was photoshopped into various historic scenes.
Ivanka, accompanied by her husband Jared Kushner, played a strange starring role in President Donald Trump’s East Asian trip. At times she appeared to act as a ceremonial stand-in for First Lady Melania Trump, who stayed in Washington. But she also took on roles usually reserved for senior diplomats and national-security personnel: Hobnobbing with foreign heads of government, accompanying her father to an impromptu meeting with Kim Jong Un at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and delivering filmed readouts of Trump’s meetings with the Indian and Japanese prime ministers.
It’s hard to not feel a deep sense of national embarrassment from the spectacle. The G20 has its share of corrupt authoritarian figures, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Each of those dictators still had the self-respect to not bring their unqualified adult children to international summits. Nepotism at the White House is hardly the most urgent or dangerous scandal in the administration, but it’s a scandal nonetheless. What’s more, it offers some useful insight into the president’s approach to governance, power, and democracy.
The problem starts at the beginning. For decades before his 2016 bid, Trump floated himself as a presidential candidate with varying degrees of seriousness. In 2000, he joined the Reform Party, announced a presidential exploratory committee on Larry King Live, and said he would choose Oprah Winfrey as his running mate. He toyed with the idea of running in 2012 but decided to keep his lucrative TV contracts instead. Each prospective bid came about not because he had a coherent vision of the nation’s ills and how to remedy them, but because it was a great way to garner free publicity from an amused news media.
By the time Trump actually ran in 2016, he had assembled an inchoate set of ideas for voters: the nation’s elite have failed us, foreign countries are taking advantage of us, trade deals are hurting us, immigrants are attacking us, and so on. But the fundamental dynamic—using his political career to further his personal and business interests—never really went away. Trump’s campaign spent roughly $12 million in 2016 to reimburse his companies for using Trump properties for events and his private aircraft to travel there. His inaugural committee also spent millions of dollars at his Washington, D.C. hotel in 2017, reportedly paying above market value in some instances.
What’s the point of enriching yourself if you can’t help your kids along the way? Neither Ivanka nor Jared has the experience or expertise to advise a president. It’s impossible to imagine that they would be top White House advisers if any of the 320 million other Americans in this country were president. Neither of them draw a salary from their jobs, but their personal wealth makes that a moot point. Maybe they’re building experience for political careers they might seek after the elder Trump leaves office. Maybe they’re building connections and visibility to cash in later. Whatever rewards they reap, they are surely unearned.
Not everybody is happy with this state of affairs, of course. “It may be shocking to some, but being someone’s daughter actually isn’t a career qualification,” New York Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter over the weekend. “It hurts our diplomatic standing when the President phones it in & the world moves on. The U.S. needs our President working the G20. Bringing a qualified diplomat couldn’t hurt either.” Bringing in a qualified diplomat, however, would contract Trump’s entire approach to governance. This is a president, after all, who eschews expertise unless it validates his assumptions and trusts his gut over the warnings and experience of others.
Trump’s nepotism would be easier to overlook if Ivanka and Jared had a net positive impact on the country. His son-in-law deserves some credit for bringing the White House on board with the First Step Act last year, giving a modest boost to criminal-justice reform. But the duo has also had a corrosive influence on other aspects of Trump’s presidency. The two have contributed to the West Wing’s chaos by maneuvering to oust other staffers who stymied or resisted them, including former Chief of Staff John Kelly. By reportedly encouraging his father-in-law to fire James Comey, Jared also helped transform the Russia investigation into a two-year political nightmare for the president.
The worst damage may be in foreign policy. His Middle East peace proposal landed with a thud last month. Jared’s habit of engaging in back-channel negotiations with foreign leaders often undermines the State Department and other U.S. diplomats. Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state, told Congress last month that he once discovered Mexico’s foreign minister was in town when he stumbled across him and Jared at dinner at a D.C. restaurant. He even uses WhatsApp to chat with the likes of Mohammed bin Salman—the Saudi crown prince who ordered the murder and dismemberment of a Washington Post columnist last year—instead of more secure methods of communication.
These shortcomings would likely get any other White House staffer fired. But Ivanka and Jared endure. Nepotism isn’t eschewed in a healthy democratic society just because it’s corrupt. It also forces public officials to choose between their family and the national interest. Trump reportedly once asked John Kelly to dismiss Jared and Ivanka because he couldn’t do it himself. Last December, it was Kelly who handed in his resignation as chief of staff. Mick Mulvaney, Kelly’s replacement, has reportedly built close ties with the Trump-Kushners to avoid a similar fate.
This is usually where I’d offer solutions to prevent this from happening again. Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done. Federal anti-nepotism laws weren’t written with the assumption that it would be the president installing family members in key posts. What’s more, the Justice Department re-interpreted those statutes in 2017 to clear a path for Ivanka and Jared to take White House jobs in the first place. It’s possible that new laws could be drafted to prevent this from happening again, but the real solution is even simpler: Don’t elect presidents who put their family first and the country second.