Authors: Michael Wolff
In some sense—putting aside both her father’s presence in the White House and his tirades against draining the swamp, which might
otherwise include most everyone here, this was the type of room Ivanka had worked hard to be in. Following the route of her father, she was crafting her name and herself into a multifaceted, multiproduct brand; she was also transitioning from her father’s aspirational male golf and business types to aspirational female mom and business types. She had, well before her father’s presidency could have remotely been predicted, sold a book,
Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success
, for $1 million.
In many ways, it had been an unexpected journey, requiring more discipline than you might expect from a contented, distracted, run-of-the-mill socialite. As a twenty-one-year-old, she appeared in a film made by her then boyfriend, Jamie Johnson, a Johnson & Johnson heir. It’s a curious, even somewhat unsettling film, in which Johnson corrals his set of rich-kid friends into openly sharing their dissatisfactions, general lack of ambition, and contempt for their families. (One of his friends would engage in long litigation with him over the portrayal.) Ivanka, speaking with something like a Valley Girl accent—which would transform in the years ahead into something like a Disney princess voice—seems no more ambitious or even employed than anyone else, but she is notably less angry with her parents.
She treated her father with some lightness, even irony, and in at least one television interview she made fun of his comb-over. She often described the mechanics behind it to friends: an absolutely clean pate—a contained island after scalp reduction surgery—surrounded by a furry circle of hair around the sides and front, from which all ends are drawn up to meet in the center and then swept back and secured by a stiffening spray. The color, she would point out to comical effect, was from a product called Just for Men—the longer it was left on, the darker it got. Impatience resulted in Trump’s orange-blond hair color.
Father and daughter got along almost peculiarly well. She was the real mini-Trump (a title that many people now seemed to aspire to). She accepted him. She was a helper not just in his business dealings, but in his marital realignments. She facilitated entrances and exits. If you have a douchebag dad, and if everyone is open about it, then maybe it becomes fun and life a romantic comedy—sort of.
Reasonably, she ought to be much angrier. She grew up not just in the middle of a troubled family but in one that was at all times immersed in bad press. But she was able to bifurcate reality and live only in the uppermost part of it, where the Trump name, no matter how often tarnished, nevertheless had come to be an affectionately tolerated presence. She resided in a bubble of other wealthy people who thrived on their relationship with one another—at first among private school and Upper East Side of Manhattan friends, then among social, fashion, and media contacts. What’s more, she tended to find protection as well as status in her boyfriends’ families, aggressively bonding with a series of wealthy suitors’ families—including Jamie Johnson’s before the Kushners—over her own.
The Ivanka-Jared relationship was shepherded by Wendi Murdoch, herself a curious social example (to nobody so much as to her then husband, Rupert). The effort among a new generation of wealthy women was to recast life as a socialite, turning a certain model of whimsy and noblesse oblige into a new status as a power woman, a kind of postfeminist socialite. In this, you worked at knowing other rich people, the best rich people, and of being an integral and valuable part of a network of the rich, and of having your name itself evoke, well . . . riches. You weren’t satisfied with what you had, you wanted more. This required quite a level of indefatigability. You were marketing a product—yourself. You were your own start-up.
This was what her father had always done. This, more than real estate, was the family business.
She and Kushner then united as a power couple, consciously recasting themselves as figures of ultimate attainment, ambition, and satisfaction in the new global world and as representatives of a new eco-philanthropic-art sensibility. For Ivanka, this included her friendship with Wendi Murdoch and with Dasha Zhukova, the then wife of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, a fixture in the international art world, and, just a few months before the election, attending a Deepak Chopra seminar on mediation with Kushner. She was searching for meaning—and finding it. This transformation was further expressed not just in ancillary clothing, jewelry, and footwear lines, as well as reality TV projects, but in a careful social media presence. She became a superbly
coordinated everymom, who would, with her father’s election, recast herself again, this time as royal family.
And yet, the larger truth was that Ivanka’s relationship with her father was in no way a conventional family relationship. If it wasn’t pure opportunism, it was certainly transactional. It was business. Building the brand, the presidential campaign, and now the White House—it was all business.
But what did Ivanka and Jared
think of their father and father-in-law? “There’s great, great, great affection—you see it, you really do,” replied Kellyanne Conway, somewhat avoiding the question.
“They’re not fools,” said Rupert Murdoch when asked the question.
“They understand him, I think truly,” reflected Joe Scarborough. “And they appreciate his energy. But there’s detachment.” That is, Scarborough went on, they have tolerance but few illusions.
* * *
Ivanka’s breakfast that Friday at the Four Seasons was with Dina Powell, the latest Goldman Sachs executive to join the White House.
In the days after the election, Ivanka and Jared had both met with a revolving door of lawyers and PR people, most of them, the couple found, leery of involvement, not least because the couple seemed less interested in bending to advice and more interested in shopping for the advice they wanted. In fact, much of the advice they were getting had the same message: surround yourself—
yourselves—with figures of the greatest establishment credibility. In effect: you are amateurs, you need professionals.
One name that kept coming up was Powell’s. A Republican operative who had gone on to high influence and compensation at Goldman Sachs, she was quite the opposite of anyone’s notion of a Trump Republican. Her family emigrated from Egypt when she was a girl, and she is fluent in Arabic. She worked her way up through a series of stalwart Republicans, including Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and House Speaker Dick Armey. In the Bush White House she served as chief of the personnel office and an assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. She went to Goldman in 2007 and became a partner in 2010,
running its philanthropic outreach, the Goldman Sachs Foundation. Following a trend in the careers of many poiitical operatives, she had become, as well as an über networker, a corporate public affairs and PR-type adviser—someone who knew the right people in power and had a keen sensitivity to how other people’s power can be used.
The table of women lobbyists and communications professionals in the Four Seasons that morning was certainly as interested in Powell, and her presence in the new administration, as they were in the president’s daughter. If Ivanka Trump was a figure more of novelty than of seriousness, the fact that she had helped bring Powell into the White House and was now publicly conferring with her added a further dimension to the president’s daughter. In a White House seeming to pursue a dead-set Trumpian way, this was a hint of an alternative course. In the assessment of the other fixers and PR women at the Four Seasons, this was a potential shadow White House—Trump’s own family not assaulting the power structure but expressing an obvious enthusiasm for it.
Ivanka, after a long breakfast, made her way through the room. Between issuing snappish instructions on her phone, she bestowed warm greetings and accepted business cards.
ithin the first weeks of his presidency a theory emerged among Trump’s friends that he was not acting presidential, or, really, in any way taking into account his new status or restraining his behavior—from early morning tweets, to his refusal to follow scripted remarks, to his self-pitying calls to friends, details of which were already making it into the press—because he hadn’t taken the leap that others before him had taken. Most presidents arrived in the White House from more or less ordinary political life, and could not help but be awed and reminded of their transformed circumstances by their sudden elevation to a mansion with palacelike servants and security, a plane at constant readiness, and downstairs a retinue of courtiers and advisers. But this would not have been that different from Trump’s former life in Trump Tower, which was more commodious and to his taste than the White House, with servants, security, courtiers, and advisers always on the premises and a plane at the ready. The big deal of being president was not so apparent to him.
But another theory of the case was exactly opposite: he was totally off-kilter here because everything in his orderly world had been thrown on its head. In this view, the seventy-year-old Trump was a creature of habit at a level few people without despotic control of their environment could ever imagine. He had lived in the same home, a vast space in Trump
Tower, since shortly after the building was completed in 1983. Every morning since, he had made the same commute to his office a few floors down. His corner office was a time capsule from the 1980s, the same gold-lined mirrors, the same
magazine covers fading on the wall; the only substantial change was the substitution of Joe Namath’s football for Tom Brady’s. Outside the doors to his office, everywhere he looked there were the same faces, the same retainers—servants, security, courtiers, the “yes people”—who had attended him basically always.
“Can you imagine how disruptive it would be if that’s what you did every day and then suddenly you’re in the White House?” marveled a longtime Trump friend, smiling broadly at this trick of fate, if not abrupt comeuppance.
Trump found the White House, an old building with only sporadic upkeep and piecemeal renovations—as well as a famous roach and rodent problem—to be vexing and even a little scary. Friends who admired his skills as a hotelier wondered why he just didn’t remake the place, but he seemed cowed by the weight of the watchful eyes on him.
Kellyanne Conway, whose family had remained in New Jersey, and who had anticipated that she could commute home when the president went back to New York, was surprised that New York and Trump Tower were suddenly stricken from his schedule. Conway thought that the president, in addition to being aware of the hostility in New York, was making a conscious effort to be “part of this great house.” (But, acknowledging the difficulties inherent in his change of circumstances and of adapting to presidential lifestyle, she added, “How often will he go to Camp David?”—the Spartan, woodsy presidential retreat in Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland—“How ’bout never.”)
At the White House, he retreated to his own bedroom—the first time since the Kennedy White House that a presidential couple had maintained separate rooms (although Melania was spending scant time so far in the White House). In the first days he ordered two television screens in addition to the one already there, and a lock on the door, precipitating a brief standoff with the Secret Service, who insisted they have access to the room. He reprimanded the housekeeping staff for picking up his shirt
from the floor: “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor.” Then he imposed a set of new rules: nobody touch anything, especially not his toothbrush. (He had a longtime fear of being poisoned, one reason why he liked to eat at McDonald’s—nobody knew he was coming and the food was safely premade.) Also, he would let housekeeping know when he wanted his sheets done, and he would strip his own bed.
If he was not having his six-thirty dinner with Steve Bannon, then, more to his liking, he was in bed by that time with a cheeseburger, watching his three screens and making phone calls—the phone was his true contact point with the world—to a small group of friends, among them most frequently Tom Barrack, who charted his rising and falling levels of agitation through the evening and then compared notes with one another.
* * *
But after the rocky start, things started to look better—even, some argued, presidential.
On Tuesday, January 31, in an efficiently choreographed prime-time ceremony, an upbeat and confident President Trump announced the nomination of federal appellate judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch was a perfect combination of impeccable conservative standing, admirable probity, and gold-standard legal and judicial credentials. The nomination not only delivered on Trump’s promise to the base and to the conservative establishment, but it was a choice that seemed perfectly presidential.
Gorsuch’s nomination was also a victory for a staff that had seen Trump, with this plum job and rich reward in his hand, waver again and again. Pleased by how the nomination was received, especially by how little fault the media could find with it, Trump would shortly become a Gorsuch fan. But before settling on Gorsuch, he wondered why the job wasn’t going to a friend and loyalist. In the Trump view, it was rather a waste to give the job to someone he didn’t even know.
At various points in the process he had run through almost all his lawyer friends—all of them unlikely, if not peculiar, choices, and, in
almost every case, political nonstarters. The one unlikely, peculiar, and nonstarter choice that he kept returning to was Rudy Giuliani.
Trump owed Giuliani; not that he was so terribly focused on his debts, but this was one that was certainly unpaid. Not only was Giuliani a longtime New York friend, but when few Republicans were offering Trump their support, and almost none with a national reputation, Giuliani was there for him—and in combative, fiery, and relentless fashion. This was particularly true during the hard days following Billy Bush: when virtually everybody, including the candidate himself, Bannon, Conway, and his children, believed the campaign would implode, Giuliani barely allowed himself a break from his nonstop, passionate, and unapologetic Trump defense.