It is a criminal offense for Ivanka Trump to discuss trade in the White House.
The law forbids employees within the executive branch from participating in matters that affect their own financial interests. Since Ivanka still has full ownership of her brand, which imports clothes and shoes from other countries, it is illegal for her to discuss anything related to the apparel import business.
That includes a wide set of issues. She’ll have to excuse herself from any conversation involving trade, the proposed tax on goods imported into the country, and policies that aim to keep clothing manufacturing jobs here in the United States.
“The problem is that trade agreements cover a whole range of products,” says Richard Painter, a law professor and an ethics adviser to President George W. Bush.
In late March, Ivanka said that she would become an official government employee, serving as an unpaid adviser to her father in the White House. In her statement, she explained that she would be “subject to all of the same rules as other federal employees.”
Earlier in the year, she said that she would step away from running her own fashion brand, as well as from her management role at the Trump Organization. But she and her other family members still own the business. Her husband, Jared Kushner, who is also an official government employee, is bound by the same rules as she is, since the law applies not only to one’s own business but to their spouse’s.
This places Ivanka in a tricky position, one that even Donald Trump is not subject to, since the president does not have to abide by the rules of other White House employees. “This is a statute that applies to everybody in the executive branch but the president and vice president,” says Painter says.
Painter says that Ivanka has a good lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, who will advise her to stay clear of conversations that put her in danger of breaking the law. “The statute says you cannot participate personally and substantially in the matter,” Painter says. “Here, the ‘matter’ is clothing and trade with China. If trade comes up, it gets risky if she does much more than just sit there and say nothing.”
Of course, as the New York Times points out, Ivanka spends a lot of time in private with her father, discussing issues in the Oval Office with the doors closed. Under these circumstances, it’s unclear how Ivanka might influence national issues in ways that serve her own financial interests. If someone in the White House leaked that Ivanka or her husband were participating in any such discussions, the Department of Justice could get involved to investigate if a crime was committed.
Shortly before her father’s inauguration, Ivanka wrote a Facebook post saying that she wanted to be a force for good in the administration. She was particularly keen to focus her energies on the areas she was most passionate about, which she listed as, “the education and empowerment of women and girls; leveling the playing field for female entrepreneurs and job creators, and unleashing the potential of women in the workplace.” She just published a book entitled Women Who Work, in which she repeatedly refers to herself as a champion for working women.
Issues relating to trade will have a direct impact on a broad swath of the population, including women. Overseas, women often far outnumber men on labor-intensive factory lines. Here in the United States, trade discussions will have a big impact on the price of goods sold in stores. If her father passes the Border Adjustment Tax that will levy a tariff of up to 30% on products imported from overseas, the price of everything from T-shirts to fruit will go up, impacting families across the country. Women, who still earn 17% less than men for the same work, will be more adversely affected by these new price tags.
More broadly, Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of bringing jobs to America. If he follows through on these promises, White House policy discussions could influence whether the new jobs created impact the female workforce.
Painter points out that these are all areas where Ivanka–a woman in a male-dominated administration–could play an important role. But her current conflicts of interest make this impossible. “She’s an excellent person to take the lead on dealing with these sweatshops overseas and fair trade, which is something that Donald Trump campaigned on,” says Painter. “She can’t because she’s not willing to sell the clothing line.”