If you believe the accounts of a few anonymous members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Ivanka Trump cried when her father refused to apologize for saying he groped women’s genitals. Frustrated by the then-candidate’s blasé response to the Access Hollywood “grab ‘em by the pussy” comments, Ivanka rushed out of the campaign war room, red-faced and weepy-eyed.
At the time, many news outlets interpreted the story as evidence that Ivanka and her father diverged on issues of sexual assault and basic respect for women. New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, who co-wrote the piece detailing Ivanka’s reaction, told a Times podcast host that Ivanka wants to “sand down the edges” of her father’s most harmful policies. Axios reported that the crying anecdote showed that “Ivanka is clearly more emotional and compassionate than her father has been publicly.”
But tears don’t always indicate compassion, and there is good reason to doubt the testimony of anonymous Trump officials who have every reason to portray the president’s daughter as a sane, humane presence in a White House that’s anything but. This morning, Ivanka herself laid waste to the enduring fiction that she cares for the people her father harms. “I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he has affirmatively stated that there’s no truth to it,” she told NBC News’ Peter Alexander when asked about the more than 20 women who’ve accused Donald Trump of sexual harassment or assault. “I believe my father, I know my father.”
Journalists have every right to question Ivanka, a White House policy adviser on women’s issues, on her father’s history as an alleged sexual abuser. Her platform and portfolio have grown exponentially with her father’s rise to power—just a few days ago, the administration dispatched her to brief the South Korean president on new North Korea sanctions—and, as an official White House employee, she should have to explain why she continues to support her boss. If Ivanka is going to try to use her meager child care policy efforts to paint a woman-friendly gloss on an anti-woman administration, she needs to be able to speak to the concerns women have about the harassment-endorsing man in the Oval Office.
Alexander’s question tied a perfect bow around the conundrum of being Ivanka Trump. With her lifestyle brand focused on working mothers and her nonthreatening, apolitical women’s empowerment shtick—to say nothing of her reputed presidential ambitions—it might have behooved her as a future businesswoman/candidate to acknowledge the bravery and credibility of Donald Trump’s accusers. Ivanka knows this. It’s why she tweeted that Oprah’s speech about sexual assault and marginality at the Golden Globes was “inspiring” and encouraged everyone to “come together … & say #TIMESUP.” It’s why she told the Associated Press, of accused child molester Roy Moore, that “there’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children” and said, “I have no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts.” Popular opinion has turned ever so slightly against men who use their power to sexually exploit women, and that category includes Donald “When You’re a Star, They Let You Do It” Trump.
But any hint of an admission that the president actually did grab women’s genitals and leer at half-naked teenagers, as many women say he did, would trigger Ivanka’s immediate excommunication from her privileged stature in the Trump family. As long as her biggest achievement consists of grimacing and shrugging every time her father does something horrible, like recommending the discharge of all transgender soldiers (while Ivanka was “wishing everyone a joyful #Pride2017”) or complimenting the character of white nationalists, Ivanka gets to keep her unearned position of power. If she ever actually stood up for the casualties of her family’s cruelty, instead of merely marshaling anonymous sources to tell the press she isn’t as evil as her dad, Ivanka would be banished to wherever Tiffany lives.
It is possible that, somewhere in her heart, Ivanka believes the women who have courageously continued speaking about Trump’s alleged assaults while he threatens them with lawsuits and calls them too ugly to assault. Ivanka, too, has been subjected to what I would call verbal abuse from her father, who has repeatedly suggested, in public, that he would like to have sex with her. Perhaps admitting that her father has sexually abused women would force Ivanka to internally reckon with her own victimization; perhaps she’s not ready or willing to do that. Or maybe she’s just playing good politics: Defend Trump now, when he holds the keys to her public platform, and gently change her tune in a few years when she’s back in the private sector or runs for office—or don’t, and bank on Trump fans being ready to back one of the few women who think he’s a stand-up gentleman.
Either way, Ivanka will be answering this question for the rest of her career. Like Hillary Clinton before her, Ivanka has chosen to support the presidency of a family member who has committed sexual improprieties at best and sexual assault at worst. Like Clinton, Ivanka has tried to preserve the president’s status and her own dignity by using her gender in his defense, at the expense of the women he allegedly abused. And if, like Clinton, Ivanka tries to become president someday, she will be forced to answer over and over again for the deeds of the lecherous man she championed. To the extent that people still care about keeping sexual abusers out of public office, Ivanka’s failure to cut ties with her father may threaten her future endeavors the way Bill Clinton’s history threatened Hillary’s.
But the Clinton presidency was not the threat to women that Trump’s has been. In some circles, Hillary Clinton’s commitment to advocacy for women and girls overshadowed her commitment to Bill. Ivanka has no such record of public service to promulgate. Every ostensibly pro-woman remark she makes directly conflicts with the actions of the administration she serves to beautify. For instance: the Oprah speech Ivanka praised invoked the memory of Recy Taylor, a black woman who was gang-raped in 1944 in a brutal act of racial and sexual violence. Meanwhile, Ivanka stands as a proud representative of an administration that has emboldened white supremacist violence more openly than any in modern history while holding a megaphone to the most misogynist leaders of the alt-right. The contrast between Ivanka’s purported values and her lived ones is so stark, it seems like the setup for a terrible joke.
When it comes to her father, though, Ivanka is remarkably steadfast. If the defense she gave to NBC News—“he has affirmatively stated that there’s no truth to it”—sounds familiar, it’s because it’s almost identical to the argument Donald Trump made for Roy Moore: “He says it didn’t happen,” the president said. “You have to listen to him, also.” After Moore’s loss, Trump said he’d known all along that Moore didn’t stand a chance, which is why he initially backed the Republican who lost the primary to Moore. If additional evidence against Moore ever crops up, the president could simply say he was giving the guy due process. That’s the good thing about hanging support for an alleged abuser on a thin denial: When the political winds shift, it’s easy enough to play dumb.