The World Bank announced this past weekend that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged a combined $100 million toward a planned $1-billion fund aimed at helping female entrepreneurs around the world. The World Bank doesn’t plan on officially unveiling the specifics of the initiative until next month’s G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. This recent light-on-details announcement, then, amounted to little more than an effort to drum up some good press for the donors, the bank, and the person who’s getting credit for coming up with the idea for the fund in the first place: Ivanka Trump.
Ivanka’s involvement with the fund drew heavy criticism when she first made it public last month. For starters, the project appears to share broad strokes with the Clinton Foundation. Except in this case instead of being the work of a presidential nominee’s spouse, it is said to have been hatched by a family member of the current president, one who also happens to hold a major role in the administration. In an alternate world where White House senior adviser Chelsea Clinton spent this past weekend touting her role in launching a fund that takes donations from foreign governments, many on the right would be screaming PAY-FOR-PLAY and LOCK-HER-UP. Trump, remember, had this to say last summer in regards to Saudi donations to Hillary and Bill Clinton’s family non-profit:
Saudi Arabia and many of the countries that gave vast amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation want women as slaves and to kill gays. Hillary must return all money from such countries!
Saudi Arabia’s involvement in this fund, meanwhile, is particularly notable given both the timing of the donation and how the Saudi government treats women at home. It’s funny how eager Saudi leaders are to cut a multimillion-dollar check to help women-owned businesses in the Middle East when they still severely restrict women’s rights at home, including their ability to drive and work. (Not “Ha! Ha!” funny, but SMDH funny.) The news also comes only days after the Saudis signed a $100-billion-plus arms deal with the United States, the final negotiations for which were reportedly hashed out by Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner. Toss in the Trump family’s well-documented history of using other people’s money to playact the role of benevolent billionaires, and it’s hard not to smell something odd wafting across the Atlantic.
It’s worth asking, however, whether in the alternative Clintonian timeline proposed above, conservatives would have been justified in their hypothetical collective freak-out and what that means for our current timeline. Based on the limited details we do have, I’m not so sure it would be fair to attack such a move were the shoe on the other foot—and I was reasonably troubled during the campaign by the potential conflicts of interest raised by the Clinton Foundation.
The issue is this: the similarities between the World Bank-run fund and the Clinton Foundation appear to be mostly superficial. According to the World Bank, Ivanka won’t have any control over how the money is doled out, and according to the White House, she won’t take an active role in soliciting the funds either. (The Clintons did both at their foundation.) Assuming both of those prove true, then what we have here isn’t the Ivanka Trump Foundation by another name but instead a World Bank initiative that has the support of the White House. This isn’t the first time that the bank has teamed up with a First Family to push a project near and dear to the White House’s heart either. Just last spring, for instance, the World Bank announced it would invest $2.5 billion over 5 years in education projects that benefit adolescent girls around the globe—news of which came at an event hosted by Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, which shared that same goal.
Two of Trump’s most vocal critics when it comes to his many conflicts of interest see things similarly in regards to this new fund. Norm Eisen, a former Obama ethics czar, and Richard Painter, a former George W. Bush ethics czar, both told NPR over the weekend that as long as the World Bank runs the new fund and the donations are properly vetted, there’s good reason to believe everything is above board—and these are not men who are willing to blindly trust Trump. “In my view foreign government donations to a fund run by a reputable international organization like the World Bank for a good cause are generally acceptable,” Eisen wrote in an email. Added Painter: “I don’t see this fund as a big problem if she does not solicit [donations] and it is entirely World Bank run.”
Those are big ifs, obviously, and the Kushner-brokered arms deal in particular deserves further scrutiny. You certainly shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the Trump administration prioritized Ivanka’s brand, however subtly, at the expense of U.S. interests in order to secure the Saudi cash—such decisions, after all, were frustratingly baked into our diplomatic and political systems even before Trump arrived on the scene. But until there’s evidence that’s what happened here, it seems this is better seen simply as Trump and his family reversing how they view the Saudis and “pay-for-play” now that they’re the ones in power. Such hypocrisy has been a common occurrence in this administration, but at least this time the biggest winner of the about-face will likely be someone other than the Trumps. That doesn’t make everything right, exactly—but I’m not sure it makes it wrong either.