News World A White House challenge: Balancing the roles of the First Lady and first daughter

A White House challenge: Balancing the roles of the First Lady and first daughter

melania ivanka trump
Melania Trump in Ghana during her much-publicised African visit. Photo: New York Times
Twitter Facebook Reddit Pinterest Email

When Melania Trump’s chief of staff announced at a staff meeting months ago that the US First Lady would travel to Africa for her first solo journey abroad, aides to Ivanka Trump, her stepdaughter, sent back a message: She was planning her own trip to Africa but just had not announced it yet.

Melania Trump spent five days in Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt in October. It was a trip that generated mostly positive coverage, topped off with a glossy network special.

Soon Donald Trump’s eldest daughter and senior adviser will follow suit, travelling to Africa with Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the US President’s most loyal defenders.

Stepmother and stepdaughter have given different reasons for their interest in the continent, which Mr Trump, who famously used an expletive to describe African countries, has yet to visit.

Melania Trump used her trip to highlight poverty and her “Be Best” initiative, while Ivanka Trump’s trip, tentatively scheduled for January, will showcase her role as an informal White House liaison with members of Congress and her interest in economic empowerment.

But the competing visits also suggest the delicate balance the White House staff faces in managing the activities of both the First Lady and the senior adviser to the President who has embraced the title of first daughter.

By all accounts, the two women have a complicated dynamic, and they coexist with little overlap in their roles. But they have not hosted a joint initiative carried out solely between their staffs since Melania moved full time to the White House last year after spending the first months of her husband’s administration with her son in New York.

They have rarely appeared together. And they clearly see their roles differently.

Melania, 48, prefers to stay deeply private. Ivanka, 37, has sought from the earliest days of the Trump administration to define her role as an adviser and policymaker.

She has even staked out a claim to an office in the West Wing, where the President and his staff are, after early reports of a Trump family office potentially being set up in the East Wing, the traditional domain of the First Lady.

ivanka melania trump
Ivanka Trump speaks during a meeting at the Executive Office Building in Washington. Photo: New York Times

And while expanding her own presence in the White House, Ivanka has at times, intentionally or not, defined her stepmother’s role in more limited terms.

Friends say she has noticeably bristled when asked questions that she saw as traditionally in line with a First Lady’s responsibilities – among friends, she has dismissed queries about whether she would be involved in White House preservation efforts, and has made it clear that she was in the White House to work on meaty policy issues, a move some allies say was out of deference to Melania.

Daughter and wife both have influence with the President but they exercise it differently. Earlier this year, the First Lady, who has made it a point to say she is willing to disagree with her husband, spoke publicly about her discomfort with the administration’s policy of separating children from their parents after illegal border crossings – and made several trips to the area.

Ivanka also weighed in on the issue, but that only became known when Mr Trump told a group of congressional Republicans that his daughter had been urging him to change the policy.

Historians have struggled to place the relationship between the two women in context.

Katherine Jellison, a professor at Ohio University who studies first ladies, said there was little historical precedent for an adult first daughter and First Lady to overlap to this degree. The closest parallel, she said, would be between Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt.

“Both had a great deal of influence on FDR,” Ms Jellison said.

“In the case of Melania and Ivanka Trump, on the other hand, sometimes one of them is ‘out front,’ and sometimes it’s the other one who is,” she added.

As her role has evolved, Ivanka has let family friends know in the clearest terms that she is in the White House to help her father by using her charm and contacts to cut through Washington’s bureaucracy, particularly with Congress. Sometimes she has emphasised her official role on the White House staff during West Wing controversies, other times that of being the President’s daughter.

Like her father, Ivanka is acutely aware of her news coverage: A rotating cast of White House aides have often tried to get her credit in the news media for issues she has worked on. Her meetings are often summarised by the White House press office and emailed to reporters, a move that is not routinely extended to other senior advisers to Mr Trump.

Stephanie Grisham, Melania’s spokeswoman, did not directly address the relationship between First Lady and first daughter.

“The office of the First Lady is focused on her initiatives and works independently,” Ms Grisham said. “But we often collaborate on a variety of projects with the West Wing and have a very positive working relationship.”

A White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity insisted there was no tension between the two: “The First Lady and Ivanka have a great relationship. As strong independent women, each has their own unique portfolio but they always support each another personally and professionally.”

And a person close to Ivanka insisted she was trying to avoid stepping on her stepmother’s toes when she described certain duties as being in the East Wing’s purview.

As for Ivanka’s pending trip to Africa, White House aides said Senator Graham first invited her several months ago, but she had rescheduled it to accommodate the First Lady’s and one taken by the secretary of state.

People familiar with the trip said Bill Shine, the White House communications director, has been helping shape coverage of the visit.

Like the First Lady’s, it may also include a network special.

-New York Times

View Comments