Ivanka Trump's new White House role doesn't eliminate ethics concerns, experts say

Ivanka Trump made it official, announcing Wednesday that she will serve as an unpaid employee in the White House and will be "subject to all of the same rules as other federal employees," according to a statement from her.

Trump plans to file financial disclosure forms and "be bound by the same ethics rules that she had planned to comply with voluntarily," said her attorney Jamie Gorelick.

Ethics experts greeted the announcement with muted applause, telling ABC News that Trump was already effectively a government employee who should be subject to ethics rules. Formalizing her role is a positive step, they said, but it does not eliminate all ethics concerns.

"The White House lawyers got it wrong when they tried to make her a nonemployee and pretended that she was exempt from the ethics rules. They were playing games, and that's just not going to work," said Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush.

Kathleen Clark, a legal ethics expert and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said that the White House's former position was "indefensible" and that "that 'voluntary' language really obscured the point — they are claiming that she had a choice."

As a federal employee, Trump is subject to a criminal federal conflicts of interest law that prohibits most federal officials from participating in government matters in which they or their family members have a financial interest. As president, her father, Donald Trump, is exempt from this rule.

Clark and Painter said that Ivanka Trump is not required to divest from her company but that she should recuse herself from matters that could affect her economic positions, her company or her husband's business dealings.

"For example, half of her business is based on jewelry, so pretend the administration is weighing an enormous tax on jewelry," Clark said. "That's something she would not be able to be in the room for if she doesn't fully divest. But it's unclear how broadly this would be applied."

Clark said that in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, "the Department of Justice ruled that the U.S. response to the Iraqi invasion was so broad in scope that conflict of interest rules didn't apply to White House officials who had oil holdings."

Painter said that Trump should stay away from any trade negotiations with countries where she has manufacturing deals for her clothing brand, as well as from real estate matters.

But Gary Bass, an ethics professor at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy, said that this strategy is fraught.

"It's almost impossible to come up with simple recusals, because government matters are so interwoven," he said, pointing out that discussions about job creation or even maternity leave could unexpectedly veer into policy talks that would affect her business.

The White House "is becoming a family operation, and there aren't a lot of rules about this," Bass added.

In her new position, Trump could run afoul of an anti-nepotism law, some experts believe. But Painter told ABC News that superseding laws, as interpreted by the Justice Department, essentially give the president "unfettered discretion to hire whoever he wants."

Yesterday the White House released a statement about the move, saying that it is "pleased."

"Ivanka's service as an unpaid employee furthers our commitment to ethics, transparency and compliance and affords her increased opportunities to lead initiatives driving real policy benefits for the American public that would not have been available to her previously."

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images. WATCHIvanka Trump takes official role in White House

Ivanka Trump is making her White House job official

Ivanka Trump is changing course and will become a government employee in the coming days, a White House official told CNN Wednesday.

President Donald Trump's eldest daughter will be an unpaid employee working in the West Wing.

"I have heard the concerns some have with my advising the President in my personal capacity while voluntarily complying with all ethics rules, and I will instead serve as an unpaid employee in the White House Office, subject to all of the same rules as other federal employees," Ivanka Trump said in a statement. "Throughout this process I have been working closely and in good faith with the White House counsel and my personal counsel to address the unprecedented nature of my role."

A source with knowledge of the decision told CNN's Gloria Borger the decision was made after the "unease" expressed by people about the nature of her voluntary role, and ethics advocates Norm Eisen and Fred Wertheimer had sent White House counsel Don McGhan a letter last Friday.

Power couple
Now, Ivanka Trump will be an "adviser" to the President, and will file her own Form 278, which means she is legally bound by the ethics rules.

An unsigned statement from the White House said: "We are pleased that Ivanka Trump has chosen to take this step in her unprecedented role as first daughter and in support of the President."

Trump's attorney, Jamie S. Gorelick, said: "Ivanka's decision reflects both her commitment to compliance with federal ethics standards and her openness to opposing points of view. She will file the financial disclosure forms required of federal employees and be bound by the same ethics rules that she had planned to comply with voluntarily."

Jared Kushner, Ivanka's husband and a top Trump aide, is also serving the White House as an unpaid government employee.

News of Trump's new title was first reported by The New York Times.

A White House official confirmed last week that, after a few months settling into Washington, Trump was officially moving into a West Wing office and would obtain top-secret security clearance. She will also receive government-provided communications devices, per the official.

Ivanka Trump's elevation has prompted critics to note the potential violation of the nepotism law, passed in 1967, that says no public official -- from the President down to a low-level manager at a federal agency -- may hire or promote a relative.

But the law states that any appointee found to have violated the law is "not entitled to pay" by the federal government, which appears to offer the opportunity for Trump and Kushner to forgo paychecks while still serving the administration.

When Kushner officially joined Trump's team in January, the Justice Department concluded that his post as senior adviser was not in violation of federal anti-nepotism laws.

"In choosing his personal staff, the President enjoys an unusual degree of freedom, which Congress found suitable to the demands of his office," wrote Daniel Koffsky, deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel, which serves as interpreter of federal law for the White House.

Koffsky reasoned in January that the anti-nepotism law covers only appointments in an "executive" agency and that the White House Office is not an executive agency within the law. He cited a separate law that gives the President broad powers to hire his staff.

That law authorizes the President to appoint "employees in the White House office without regard to any other provision of law regulating the employment or compensation of persons in the government service."

Ivanka Trump took a formal leave of absence from her eponymous apparel and accessories brand, as well as the Trump Organization, in January. She has long been a key trusted adviser to her father, through her young adulthood to her time as executive vice president of real estate development and acquisition at the Trump Organization, and, ultimately, to his 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump will continue in that capacity, serving as the President's "eyes and ears," per Gorelick.

"She will not be his only source of input and insight, obviously, but she may be able to provide insights into the concerns of people whom he might not meet as President," Gorelick told CNN via email last week.

Already at work
In the first several weeks of the administration, she's already been on hand for key happenings, including roundtable discussions with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Florida school visit with her father and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an Oval Office bill signing encouraging women in STEM, a visit to the National African American Museum of History and Culture and West Wing meetings on human trafficking and manufacturing, among others. She took an even higher profile this week, making formal remarks at an event encouraging women in STEM at Smithsonian's Air and Space museum on Tuesday.

The broadening of Trump's role in her father's administration is unprecedented by any modern member of a first family.

President George W. Bush, who worked on his father's campaign, is the most recent parallel to Ivanka Trump, said Kate Andersen Brower, author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies" and a CNN contributor.

"But even he wasn't sitting in on high-level policy meetings when his father was in the White House. It definitely complicates matters when someone who can't be fired -- aka a family member -- is this involved in an administration," she said.

Ivanka Trump Is a Bad Ambassador for Working Women

Ivanka Trump will now have an official job at the White House. It’s an unpaid role as an adviser to her father, the president, but it comes with an office, a title and, presumably, an even higher perch from which to fashion herself as a crusader for working women.

“Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties — they should be the norm,” she said at the Republican National Convention last summer. She has written a book, to be published in May, called “Women Who Work.” In her very own West Wing office she will shepherd policy related to “women in the workplace,” according to her lawyer. In April she’s headed to a summit meeting in Berlin on women in the work force.

While Ms. Trump may want to be the new face of working motherhood, the reality of the policies she has devised for her father diverge starkly from her rhetoric. They offer very little to most parents, especially the ones who really need the support.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump unveiled his daughter’s plan for six weeks of paid leave for women who give birth. When pressed, Ms. Trump made it clear that her policy was tailored specifically for coping with childbirth and was not meant for new fathers or parents who adopt.

Employers are already more hesitant to hire mothers than other candidates, male or female. Part of what they fear, fair or not, is investing in an employee who will then leave to care for her children for some unknown period, taking all her training and knowledge with her and requiring the company to spend resources hiring a replacement.

Their anxiety will be amplified if women are afforded time off from work for a new child and men aren’t. If only mothers get a paid leave benefit when their family welcomes a new child, the stigma falls squarely on one gender.

That stigma then spreads from mothers to all women, even if they don’t have or plan to have kids. Any female employee within a certain age range becomes a risk if she could decide to take six weeks off at some point. Women are transformed into potential mothers and therefore potential costs.

Experience elsewhere offers some evidence that this is what will happen. On the whole, other developed countries — all of which ensure new mothers get paid leave — are attracting and keeping more women in their work forces than the United States. But there can be negative consequences depending on how they do it. Research has found that giving mothers long leaves that don’t apply to men depresses their earnings and makes them less likely to move up to higher positions. Other policies aimed just at women, such as a law in Chile that required employers with a large share of female employees to provide child care assistance, have had similar effects. Employers turn women away if they become more expensive than men.

The solution here isn’t complicated: Extend paid leave to all new parents. When California established gender-neutral paid family leave, the number of fathers taking time to be with their infants doubled. Women’s earnings and employment go up when men take more leave.

Ms. Trump and administration officials are reportedly now considering a plan that also covers fathers and adoptive parents and changes the funding structure, though a more expansive benefit program is going to be a very tough sell to Republicans in Congress.

The child care plan that Ms. Trump put forward isn’t much better than her paid-leave idea. Her proposal to allow parents to fully deduct the cost of care up to a certain limit would apply to all parents, unlike maternity leave. But it would give the biggest benefit to those who need it least. Even though it includes a tax credit for families with the lowest incomes, the bulk of the policy is a tax deduction, which is worth much more to those who owe the most taxes.

According to analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, families that make more than $100,000 a year would gobble up 70 percent of the total benefits. Those making less than $40,000, on the other hand, would get about a $20 boost to their incomes — not much compared with the thousands of dollars it can cost to put a child in day care. Yet poorer families spend a much larger share of their incomes on child care than those with more means.

These proposed child care tax credits, shortcomings and all, would cost the government $115 billion over the next decade.

Rather than offer a step toward something better later, Ms. Trump’s plan could stymie progress. If she were somehow able to persuade members of Congress to pass a pricey child care plan that does nothing to address the real concerns for most families, it would allow them to claim they already did something about the issue and ignore other, superior solutions. Worse, she risks giving them sticker shock without actually doing anything for families that aren’t wealthy. Conservatives are already calling her plan “mammoth.” If a real, comprehensive solution were to come down the road, would they have any appetite for it after this?

The climbing cost of child care has led to a 5 percent reduction in women’s employment in the United States in the past two decades. The lack of investment in child care is another reason other developed countries surpass this country on the percentage of women in the work force. No wonder, when far more women than men say they’ve had to take long chunks of time off from work to care for their families. Meanwhile, mothers with steady child care are twice as likely to stay in their jobs. If they were all able to get their kids into early childhood education programs, mothers’ employment would increase by 10 percent. A tax benefit for rich families won’t do it.

The politics of paid leave and child care have certainly shifted: They’re now bipartisan issues, at least among some lawmakers. But it is important not just that the country adopt these policies, but what kinds of policies it adopts. If Ms. Trump wants to champion working women, she needs to offer more than photo ops and empty promises.

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