Even in recent years, Washington’s political battlefields continued the genteel tradition of regarding the wives and children of presidents as non-combatants. Nancy Reagan had considerable influence over her husband’s policies, but official Washington treated her more as a fashion plate and unflappable White House hostess; Barbara Bush was the softer face of the White House when George H.W. Bush was too icy and unpopular; Laura Bush made it through eight years of George W. Bush‘s presidency without making a single enemy; and even at her most overtly political last year, Michelle Obama enjoyed the highest favorability ratings of anyone living in or seeking to move into the White House.
Even Hillary Clinton received plenty of soft-focus attention when it came to being the White House’s social ambassador, and even wrote a coffee-table book about that role. (The gloves came off when her office was a full-fledged policy shop in the West Wing.)
The guarded approach taken toward presidents’ families now looks like one more “norm” President-elect Donald Trump will upset—and perhaps it should. Some of Trump’s family is coming to Washington with him, but it is not a typical arrangement.
On Tuesday, Washingtonian reported that Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, will be moving into a $5.5 million mansion in Kalorama. That the next president’s 35-year-old daughter and her family are moving to DC is certainly newsworthy in itself, but the reason why they’re coming can be lost. Consider how CNN framed it. In a three-minute story that aired Tuesday evening (which includes an appearance from Washingtonian president and Kalorama resident Cathy Merrill Williams), the network gave a rundown of the house, the neighborhood, how Trump and Kushner are “also likely to make a splash at the dinner parties of Washington’s top social circles.” The Wall Street Journal‘s Monica Langley pops into the story to call Trump and Kushner DC’s new “it couple,” and Sally Quinn finishes it off with a non-sequitur about how the bickering members of Congress once forgot their daily disputes over glasses of bourbon.
But CNN’s mention of why Trump and Kushner are moving to Washington comes very late and very briefly in the story. They’re not coming here to anchor the social scene. They’re here because they are two of Donald Trump’s closest advisers. And considering the president-elect’s established reliance on his immediate family in business and politics, his daughter and her husband will likely influence him in ways Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, or Reince Priebus could never hope to.
Ivanka Trump and Kushner’s sway on the Trump administration is well-established. During the election, she was her father’s top, and most effective, surrogate, while Kushner was often seen as a de facto campaign manager. Since November 8, both have been steady presences in Donald Trump’s meetings with foreign dignitaries, business leaders, and future cabinet members. Presidents giving jobs to their kids is nothing new—consider 1988, when George W. Bush moved to DC to work on his dad’s campaign and later help staff up the White House—but never will they be so formalized as the roles Ivanka Trump and Kushner seem poised to take, giving them opportunities to execute troubling policy agendas.
With Melania Trump staying in New York through at least this summer, Ivanka is poised to set up shop in the East Wing of the White House, the traditional power base of first ladies. While she may inherit some hostessing duties, she’s already meeting with members of Congress about a child-care tax deduction she inserted into her father’s campaign platform.
On the surface, it’s a perfect issue for Ivanka to champion: a family-oriented policy that connects her to working parents. But the bones of the Trump child-care plan suggest that it would do little to actually offset the high costs of childcare that can eat up as much as one-third of many families’ incomes. The current version of the plan caps eligibility at $250,000 for single filers and $500,000 for couples. That helps stave off the notion that it’s a perk for the wealthy—the Trump-Kushner household, for instance, is unlikely to qualify for it. But as a deduction, it would also miss the 35 percent of all filers who have no federal income-tax liability, making it almost useless to parents living below the poverty level. Those people, according to researchers at the University of New Hampshire, often devote at least one-third of their incomes to child care. The proposal, and Ivanka’s role in leading it, will be used to soften the Trump White House’s image, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fundamentally regressive.
Meanwhile, Kushner has pivoted toward foreign affairs. His father-in-law has suggested him as an envoy to the Middle East. Kushner’s family foundation has also been a major contributor to an organization supporting Israeli settlements in the West Bank headed up by David Friedman, Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel. Friedman’s first statement upon being nominated last month was to proclaim his intent of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, which most nations, including the United States, do not recognize as the capital of Israel. How well Kushner knows the players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unclear, but he seems headed toward being the Trump administration’s point man on policies that could further destabilize an already shaky part of the world. And this is all well before Donald Trump is sworn into office.
All of this is to say that while Ivanka Trump and Kushner are high-society figures, that will not be their primary role in Washington, and members of the media here will have to take care to remember that. In a way, it’s easier to see them as the power wielders and policy influencers they’ve become when they’re working out of Trump Tower, where their public lives are the New York tabloids’ domain. Nobody in DC cares if Ivanka was spotted at the Flywheel on East 67th.
Once they’ve made the move here, though, they’ll fill our glossy magazines and gossip columns with sightings of where they eat, shop, and socialize. The pressure to treat them as social creatures—while not unimportant—will encroach on the media’s responsibilities to cover fully their actions as the president’s most senior aides. Anyone who’s ever interviewed Ivanka can verify reports that she is gracious and disarming, but grilling her on federal tax policy will require a steelier approach than when interviewing her about window replacements.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with how CNN packaged the Trump-Kushner home purchase with a soft focus on the Kalorama neighborhood. Their move is news, and they will soon be welcomed by DC’s social class. And why wouldn’t the likes of Sally Quinn try to embrace a pair of wealthy, attractive 30-somethings like Trump and Kushner? They’re a much better public face for the White House than Donald Trump, who seems inclined to spend as few days here as possible and whose ogreish personal life has been picked over so many times. But don’t forget that Ivanka Trump is making headway on tax policy and also wants to tackle climate change, to say nothing of the fact that she has said even less than her father about separating her business holdings from her administration role. And Kushner may take a leading role in reshaping one of the most important foreign-policy issues on the White House’s plate. These two aren’t moving here to party; they’re here to guide the president, and they should be covered as such.