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Ivanka Trump begins to clarify unique role in White House

By Jodi Kantor, Rachel Abrams and Maggie Haberman

A month before Donald Trump was elected president, he and his aides watched his daughter's coolly composed surface crack open.

Inside Trump Tower, the candidate was preparing for a debate when an aide rushed in with news that The Washington Post was about to publish an article saying that Trump had bragged about grabbing women's private parts. As Ivanka Trump joined the others waiting to see a video of the episode, her father insisted that the description of his comments did not sound like him.

When the recording finally showed he was wrong, Trump's reaction was grudging: He agreed to say he was sorry if anyone was offended. Advisers warned that would not be enough.

Ivanka Trump made an emphatic case for a full-throated apology, according to several people who were present for the crisis discussion that unfolded in Trump's 26th-floor office. Raised amid a swirl of tabloid headlines, she had spent her adult life branding herself as her father's poised, family-focused daughter. She marketed her clothing line with slogans about female empowerment and was finishing a book on the topic. As she spoke, Trump remained unyielding. His daughter's eyes welled with tears, her face reddened, and she hurried out in frustration.

Seven months later, Ivanka Trump is her father's all-around West Wing confidante, an adviser whose portfolio appears to have few parameters, making her among the highest-ranking women in a senior staff stocked almost entirely with men.

The two trade thoughts from morning until late at night, according to aides. Even though she has no government or policy experience, she plans to review some executive orders before they are signed, according to White House officials. She calls Cabinet officials on issues she is interested in. She set up a weekly meeting with Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary.

In interviews last week, she said she intended to act as a moderating force in an administration swept into office by nationalist sentiment. Other officials added that she had weighed in on topics including climate, deportation, education and refugee policy.

Even as Ivanka Trump said she was seeking to exert more influence, she acknowledged she was a novice about Washington. "I'm still at the early stages of learning how everything works," she said, "but I know enough now to be a much more proactive voice inside the White House."

Ivanka Trump, 35, a former model, entrepreneur and hotel developer, says she will focus on gender inequality in the United States and abroad, by aiming to create a federal paid leave program, more affordable child care and a global fund for women who are entrepreneurs, among other efforts. Her interest in gender issues grew out of a "Women Who Work" hashtag and marketing campaign she devised a few years ago to help sell $99 pumps and $150 dresses. On Tuesday, the career advice book she worked on before the election, whose title echoes her hashtag, will be published.

By inserting herself into a scalding set of gender dynamics, she is becoming a proxy for dashed dreams of a female presidency and the debate about Trump's record of conduct toward women and his views on them. Critics see her efforts as a brash feat of Trump promotion by a woman of extraordinary privilege who has learned that feminism makes for potent branding. (Ivanka Trump is not promoting her book for ethics reasons.)

In the two interviews last week, Ivanka Trump talked about unleashing the economic potential of women – some of her phrases sounding uncannily like those of Hillary Clinton – and effused about finding a new role model in Eleanor Roosevelt.

"Suddenly, after my father declared his candidacy, it became that all the things that I was doing that I was praised for, the same people, the critics, viewed them through this different lens," she said. "Somehow, all the same things they applauded me for as a millennial, as a female entrepreneur, were now viewed very cynically as opportunistic."

Some former employees express surprise at her new policy interest, saying she was once reluctant to grant them maternity leave. But other observers call her the administration's best hope for progress on gender issues and say they are encouraged to see a presidential daughter, and a top member of a Republican White House, advocate federal paid family leave.

"I hope she will go on to become a great champion in this area," said Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, which is working with Ivanka Trump on funding female entrepreneurs.

Those close to Ivanka Trump say she is generally business-friendly and socially liberal. But she says that on many issues, she does not have strongly held views. (In the White House, she uses corporate terms – like "business plan" – as much as partisan or political ones.)

She has one skill unmatched by almost anyone else, family members and aides say: She can effectively convey criticism to a man who often refuses it from others, and can appeal to him to change his mind.

"I'm his daughter. I've known him my entire life. He trusts me," she said. "I don't have a hidden agenda. I'm not looking to hit him to help myself."

Just as Ivanka Trump joined the family real estate business in 2005, the Trump name became even more of a source of power and opportunity because of the new glow from the reality television show "The Apprentice," in which her father starred. Ivanka Trump played an authority figure on the show, weighing in on contestants' merits during the tense boardroom scenes.

The attention helped her license her name to products: fine jewelry (2007), shoes (2010), clothing (2010) and handbags (2011), all of which were promoted on the show. Her business was closely intertwined with her father's name and organization, where she continued to spend much of her time.

But penetrating the mass market presented a challenge: Ivanka Trump's gilded life felt distant to women who shopped at Macy's. So, late in 2013, she and her husband gathered with a few employees in front of a whiteboard in their Upper East Side apartment. Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" had just topped the best-seller charts, and Ivanka Trump's team wanted its own catchy yet accessible slogan.

The brainstorming solidified into a new motto: "Women Who Work."

Later, Ivanka Trump and those close to her described the period just before her father announced his candidacy as one of the most fulfilling of her life. She had managed to update her family's brand from the older, flashy days, with sleek designs. She was personally developing a hotel at the site of the Old Post Office building in Washington, a historical property. And Vogue magazine profiled her as a paragon of millennial taste and accomplishment.
But the very first day of her father's presidential campaign caused her problems: His remarks about Mexico's sending rapists over the border caused two celebrity chefs to drop out of the Old Post Office project.

Ivanka Trump was shocked by the heat and fury of the campaign. Before, she had gotten letters of admiration, calling her a role model; now many of the letters she received were scathing. "Everything that was ascribed to him suddenly, for my critics, became true of me," she said.

Last week, speaking in her newly repainted West Wing office, Ivanka Trump appeared alternately energized, defensive and daunted. Behind the scenes, advisers say, she has been frustrated, unhappy about giving up her life in New York, and determined to prevail and make the best of a White House tour that she never expected.

"There's a lot I don't know about how government works and how things get done, but I feel I know enough now that I can be much more proactive about the type of change and reform that I'd like to see happen," she said.

Playing the role of centrist advocate in a right-leaning administration would be a challenge for anyone, even those steeped in politics. As is the case with her father, Ivanka Trump's newness to Washington and preference for straight-ahead business negotiations can result in painful collisions.

For now, Ivanka Trump acknowledges how much she has to learn and asks the public to be patient with her.

"I do believe that in time I'll get to the right place," she said. "In the short run I'll have missteps, and, in some cases, I'll take shots that I could have avoided if I had publicly said what I think."

"I'm really, really trying to learn," she added.

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