Ivanka Trump is the ghost of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation: She is connected, either directly or tangentially, to events at the heart of the probe, yet all but invisible to the public.
But as Mueller’s investigation broadens, the so-called first daughter is becoming a long overdue part of the bigger story of alleged corruption at the Trump Organization. Last week, we learned that the FBI is looking into the financing and negotiations surrounding her involvement with Trump International Hotel and Tower in Vancouver, which is home to an Ivanka Trump-branded spa. That inquiry may be unrelated to the Russia probe, but it should draw scrutiny to Ivanka’s business dealings and how they relate to her father’s political rise.
The mainstream press frequently describes Ivanka — who recently denied any collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russians — as the head of a fashion company. Yet she was also a top executive at the Trump Organization and a hard-charging, and often quite effective, dealmaker for the real estate development company. Despite her entrenched role in the West Wing and status as one of her father’s most trusted advisers and emissaries on matters as wide-ranging as G-20 and the Winter Olympics, her identity — carefully curated on social media and through her press operation — hinges on issues such as female entrepreneurship, maternal leave, and being a mother to highly Instagrammable kids. It’s a persona that renders the media establishment and broader public largely incapable of considering that she might be a key player in the Trump-Russia narrative.
The first daughter has not merely developed some of her father’s Teflon quality; sexism and gender stereotypes have also worked in her favor. After all, who would suspect an ex-model, mother of three, and public champion of working women to be pulling the levers of power, calling the shots, and working alongside people like Felix Sater, a Russian-American businessman with reputed mob ties who served jail time for stabbing a man in a bar fight?
Mueller’s probe is scrutinizing Trump’s business transactions. Although we don’t know the full scope of the investigation, Ivanka was reportedly among just a handful of people with a role in foreign projects at the Trump Organization.
She also appears to have been present, albeit briefly, at a controversial meeting aboard Air Force One on the way back from the G-20 summit in July, when Trump administration staffers and the president himself drafted a response to reporters’ questions about a meeting with Kremlin-linked lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin. The statement, now exposed as a cover-up, said the meeting was focused on Russian adoption when it was really to discuss potentially damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Ivanka, according to “Fire and Fury” author Michael Wolff, attended the Air Force One gathering, which is now reportedly of interest to Mueller. The first daughter’s team told Wolff that she quickly left the meeting to “take a pill, and go to sleep” — a timeline that works in Ivanka’s favor, giving her what Wolff describes as a “get out of jail free card.”
At other times, however, Ivanka has indisputably been more present. She was one of three people – along with her husband, Jared Kushner, and Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller – whom the president consulted before deciding to fire then-FBI director James Comey. Their motive for encouraging Comey’s ouster, Wolff claims, was fear for their own fortunes: Ivanka and Kushner were influenced by Jared’s father Charlie Kushner’s “panic” that the “Kushner family’s dealings were getting wrapped up in the pursuit of Trump.” The couple, whom Wolff dubs “Jarvanka,” became, in his words, “co-conspirators” in the Comey firing, which is being investigated as a possible obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense.
And it was Ivanka who went to bat for Paul Manafort, the former lobbyist indicted by Mueller on 12 counts of tax evasion, foreign lobbying, and laundering $75 million in payments as part of a pro-Russian initiative in Ukraine, as well as new charges filed last month. Ivanka reportedly printed out Manafort’s pitch letter and gave it to her father because she and Kushner thought Manafort would “bring professionalism” to the campaign.
Ivanka was also a champion of former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. In a 2016 meeting of the Trump transition team’s executive committee, Ivanka asked Flynn: “General, what job do you want?” “It was like Princess Ivanka had laid the sword on Flynn’s shoulders and said, ‘Rise and go forth,’” the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported. (Flynn pleaded guilty in December to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russian officials and is now cooperating with Mueller.)
Then there are Ivanka’s ties to Felix Sater, who has loudly and plausibly boasted of connections with senior Russian officials. Sater is now being called one of the Trump Organization’s “biggest headaches in the Russia probe” because of a letter he wrote to Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen in 2015, saying: “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.” Sater claimed that he had arranged financing for Trump Tower Moscow, a never-built project that was supposed to be the linchpin of the support from “Putin’s team.” The skyscraper included plans for an Ivanka-branded spa.
Ivanka was close enough with Sater that she traveled to Moscow with him in 2006. Sater claims he arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putin’s office chair at the Kremlin. (Ivanka told the New York Times that she may have sat in Putin’s chair, but “she did not recall it.”) And Bayrock, the company where Sater was managing director, helped finance Trump SoHo, a lower Manhattan condo and hotel project that Ivanka oversaw. (She was close to being charged with felony fraud for inflating the building’s sales figures.)
This series of events and decisions might help explain why former Trump administration chief strategist Steve Bannon labeled Ivanka and Kushner “Russia Toxic,” according to Wolff. The author says this was Bannon’s way of warning his White House colleagues not to speak to the couple lest they jeopardize their careers by getting entangled in Mueller’s investigation.
“Why is he [Mueller] not interviewing Ivanka?” asked CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin, a former prosecutor who worked for Mueller at the Justice Department. “The answer is, beats me. Either he’s just biding his time or he has obtained this evidence elsewhere and he doesn’t need her, or he appreciates the possibility of a major eruption were he to do that.”
Ivanka may have plausible deniability when it comes to events like the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer, and Akhmetshin, the lobbyist. The first daughter did not attend the meeting, though she may have run into the Russians near the elevators afterwards and exchanged what have been described as “pleasantries.” But a brief conversation with shady Russian nationals hardly proves that she colluded with the Kremlin.
On the personnel matters, it’s a different story. Even a cursory Google search would have turned up Paul Manafort’s connections to some of the world’s foremost kleptocrats and his links to Russia, particularly a business relationship with and large alleged debt to aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, who was named in a U.S. diplomatic cable as “among the two to three oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis.”
As for Flynn, who would serve as Trump’s national security adviser for only 24 days, he told the transition team before the inauguration that he was under federal investigation for working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign.
Championing Manafort and Flynn does not amount to a crime, but it remains an open question why Ivanka ignored red flags about these two men. The infantilizing answer is that she simply doesn’t know enough about the inner workings of government and criminal liability to understand that Flynn and Manafort posed imminent threats to her father’s campaign, his administration, and national security. Or it could be that her judgment was disastrously poor.
In his post-mortem of the Comey firing and attempt aboard Air Force One to craft a false account of the Trump Tower meeting, Wolff concludes that “everyone on the Jarvanka side were now directly connected to actions involved in the Russia investigation or efforts to spin it, deflect, or, indeed, cover it up.” Yet reporters of all stripes have largely given Ivanka a free pass on matters Russia-related. Wolff is in a minority for zeroing in on Ivanka’s role in the Comey firing, which triggered Mueller’s appointment in the first place.
Ivanka’s absence from the nonstop coverage of the Russia investigation may be linked to her longstanding special relationship with the mainstream press, not to mention surrogates who spend hours on the phone with reporters buffering her image. Wolff claims that Josh Raffel, Jared and Ivanka’s spokesperson, “coordinated all of Kushner’s substantial leaking” and that the leaking culture at the White House is so “open and overt” that “everybody could identify everybody else’s leaks.” It stands to reason that reporters, all competing for the next scoop, would be loath to jeopardize their access to the palace intrigue that makes the Trump White House such juicy copy. That’s why, even though journalists whisper about it among themselves, no one will go on the record to say that Ivanka and her PR machine are key sources for White House gossip and more. As one senior White House staffer told Wolff, Jared and Ivanka “are so careful about their image and have crafted this whole persona — it’s like anyone who tries to pierce it or say something against it is like a big problem. They get very upset and will come after you.”
The result is that the press often spins events in Ivanka’s favor. After the white supremacist rally and subsequent violence in Charlottesville, the New York Times reported that Jared and Ivanka were urging Donald Trump to “take a more moderate stance.” After Trump announced the transgender military ban, Ivanka got the word out that she had only learned about it on Twitter, distancing herself from the discriminatory policy proposal.
As Drew Magary put it in a piece for GQ called “Michael Wolff Did What Every Other White House Reporter Is Too Cowardly To Do,” Wolff burned many of his sources, while the rest of the media, Magary writes, “are abiding by traditional wink-wink understandings that have long existed between the government and the press covering it.” While Magary notes that Wolff “represents the absolute worst of New York media-cocktail-circuit inbreeding,” mainstream reporters are equally guilty for their kid-glove treatment of Ivanka.
That gives a whole new meaning to “collusion” — one that benefits the first daughter.