Donald Trump’s two eldest children had quite the weekend.
Ivanka Trump, traveling with her father in Asia, sought to play the role of a sort of shadow secretary of state. She attended a series of bilateral meetings between the US and foreign powers at the G20. She was part of the photo-op following the President’s 20 steps into North Korea with dictator Kim Jong Un. (And she made it awkward!) She tried to edge into a conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron, IMF chairwoman Christine Lagarde and British Prime Minister Theresa May on the sidelines of the G20.
“You probably saw that Ivanka Trump was — she’s done a fantastic job, and also a fantastic job in getting jobs for a lot of people within our country — almost 10 million people,” Trump told the media during a news conference over the weekend in Osaka, Japan.
Donald Trump Jr., for his part, was making news of his own. During Thursday’s debate, he retweeted this tweet regarding California Sen. Kamala Harris’ racial identity: “Kamala Harris is implying she is descended from American Black Slaves. She’s not. She comes from Jamaican Slave Owners. That’s fine. She’s not an American Black. Period.” (Don Jr. later deleted the retweet, which had shared the tweet with the comment, “Is this true? Wow.” His spokesman told The New York Times that it was a misunderstanding.)
Within a few days, then, you had two children of the President of the United States making huge plays on the national and international stage — one acting as a sort-of diplomat and the other as the chief driver of what could be a second attempt to paint a black Democratic candidate for president as exotic and other.
None of that is normal. Nor is it at all appropriate.
The seeds of this sort of weekend have been growing for a while now — ever since the President found a loophole in the Federal Anti-Nepotism Act that allowed him to appoint both Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, to senior roles in the White House. (Ivanka, Jared and Don Jr. were all officials on Trump’s presidential transition team, too.) The law, put into place after John Kennedy named his brother, Bobby, as attorney general, has been interpreted to only apply to federal agencies, which the White House is not. And in truth, the roots were even growing before that — when Trump refused to put his assets in a blind trust — instead delegating Don Jr. (and another son, Eric) to run the company in his stead. (It’s not at all clear that the President avoids talking about the health of his business with his two sons.)
Trump has never made a secret of his belief and trust in his children over, well, everyone else. He kept them close to him in his businesses and his reality TV world; Ivanka and Don Jr. were regularly presences on “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice” — playing the right-hand man (and woman) to “Mr. Trump.”
Nor has he made it hard to figure out that he views Ivanka as a first among equals when it comes to his offspring. “If she ever wanted to run for president,” Trump told The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott earlier this year. “I think she’d be very, very hard to beat.”
All of which makes the fact that Trump appointed Ivanka and her husband to senior — yet amorphous — roles in the White House all the more troubling, and predictive of a moment like the one we saw over the weekend. (Trump told Plott that he had no idea what Ivanka would do as a job at the White House; “So I didn’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure she knew.”)
Sidebar: Ivanka isn’t the only member of her family who likes to play at being secretary of state — often to the chagrin of the actual secretary of state. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently recounted a series of episodes in which the first son-in-law was acting as a sort of top diplomat — including one time where Kushner was having dinner with Mexico’s foreign secretary without Tillerson’s knowledge. Step back and consider what we are talking about here: We have two people, both of whom are related (by blood and by marriage) to the President of the United States and neither of whom have been confirmed by the Senate (or anyone else) to their current roles, acting as quasi-official diplomats for our country. And a President who not only condones this behavior but encourages it!
And that’s not to mention that stateside, the eldest son of the President is stoking birtherism conspiracies against one of the leading Democrats running to unseat Trump.
The conclusion is simple yet startling: Trump runs the country like a family business — treating those related to him differently than everyone else. The problem — among a series of issues — with a setup like this is that we are NOT talking about a family business, we are talking about the United States government and, in the case of Don Jr., the campaign to reelect (or not) the President in 17 months’ time.
Allowing Ivanka and Don Jr. (and Kushner) to be free radicals of sorts in the chemistry of government is a dangerous experiment. When you have Ivanka acting as secretary of state, what does that mean for how our allies (and our enemies) perceive us? Do they take the word of the actual secretary of state (I see you, Mike Pompeo!) or do they see Ivanka as closer to the President? And what happens if/when Ivanka and Pompeo aren’t on the same page when it comes to the message they are sending to a country or the broader international community?
Yeah. Not good. And because Trump is Trump, none of this is going to change, either.