During a five-day South American trip to promote women’s empowerment, Ivanka Trump was greeted like a head of state everywhere she went.
At lavish banquets in her honor, she was toasted by the presidents of Colombia and Paraguay. People tracked her motorcade with their cellphone cameras as she was met with military bands and red carpets. A U.S. Air Force jet was dispatched to transport Trump and a delegation of senior U.S. officials, all of whom — including the deputy secretary of State — were diplomatically outranked by the president’s daughter and formal advisor.
American aid efforts to help poor, disenfranchised women around the globe are nothing new, typically involving grassroots work that generates little attention. Rarely have they involved the diplomatic trappings, designer clothes and U.S. Secret Service protection that Ivanka Trump brings to her pet project, which is amassing a total of $1 billion in both taxpayer and private corporation money to train and provide credit for female small-business owners around the world.
The South American trip renewed questions about Ivanka Trump’s unusual role as a privileged first daughter and the effectiveness of her empowerment campaign in an administration that some see as hostile to women’s issues.
Since joining her father’s administration, Trump has struggled to find her niche in a White House decidedly more conservative than herself. Helping women around the globe may have seemed like a safe and somewhat apolitical haven.
Trump launched the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, a program she will promote this week at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. She traveled to Ivory Coast earlier this year to help to push through a law to allow women to own property. In the U.S., she has launched a job creation program.
No question, her high profile, personal charm and famous father have drawn far greater attention to the cause — by both the media and foreign governments, whose leaders are unlikely to brush off the daughter of the U.S. president.
The No. 2 at the State Department, Deputy Secretary John Sullivan, said her “star power” and policy knowledge are a powerful combination. “She is a White House official who speaks with great authority on the president’s policies,” he said.
But the 37-year-old, who has no previous experience in leading such a massive humanitarian program, has so far not managed to win over those who wonder whether her work is a vanity project to further her personal ambitions or a true commitment to helping disenfranchised women. They say her work largely bypasses sensitive but critical issues, such as healthcare, reproductive rights and violence against women.
“Ivanka abroad seems to be Ivanka’s platonic ideal of herself: doing things that are considered patriotic but not overly political, important but not controversial, and personally on-brand,” writer Monica Hesse said in a scathing column in the Washington Post.
Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration who is highly critical of President Trump, said the main problem is whether her appointment as a special advisor is even appropriate in the first place. The Justice Department said hiring her did not violate nepotism rules.
“It is extremely unusual,” Painter said. “What is our image abroad when you have the president’s daughter running around handling the kind of portfolio that has been handled by the first lady going all the way back to Eleanor Roosevelt?”
At times Trump has had to fight for a place on the world stage or rely on her father’s connections.
Most famously, earlier this year she awkwardly tried to join a conversation on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Japan with then-British Prime Minister Theresa May, then-International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and French President Emmanuel Macron. She appeared embarrassingly out of her league.
Her father frequently gives her a hand, sometimes introducing her on foreign trips as on equal standing with U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, raising eyebrows about her status and aspirations.
And some of her accomplishments have been questioned. For example, critics noted that the Ivory Coast law permitting women to own property was already in the works well before her visit, and that the same measure also effectively outlawed same-sex marriage, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
With reporters in South America, Trump preferred to avoid talk of politics and focus on the stories of the women.
“We are here to confirm our commitment to … some incredible women entrepreneurs,” Trump said in Bogota, her first stop on the trip. “We are proud to play a small part in women building their families, their businesses and ultimately their societies.”
In Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital , Trump joined President Mario Abdo Benitez for a sumptuous luncheon with a Champagne toast.
Trump listened to stories from Paraguayan women, mostly speaking in the indigenous Guarani tongue, about their struggles in attempting to start businesses. She visited a coffee shop run by women who told her it welcomed members of the gay community. Trump smiled politely and said the shop was indeed a “special place.”
On stops in the remote rural towns of Jujuy and Puramarca in northern Argentina, and in the Colombian capital of Bogota, the agenda was similar. A formal dinner with Colombian President Ivan Duque balanced with a chat with Argentine seamstresses and bakers. In her convoy of armored SUVs, Trump also went to a strawberry farm, about an hour outside of Bogota, owned by a mother-daughter team who benefited from a U.S. Agency for International Development loan and who now supply a national chain of restaurants called Crepes & Waffles. In contrast to her father, Trump showed herself on the trip to be gracious and friendly. Her activities were carefully choreographed and her aides fiercely protective. She is steadfastly on message, preferring photo-ops to political debates.
But she was also willing to laugh at herself, as when portions of her green designer dress in Bogota floated up around her face in the wind, making her look like a giant lily pad; or to relax and let her hair down as when a market vendor in Asuncion grabbed her and began dancing to a Paraguayan ditty.
In the most emotional part of the trip, Trump traveled to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, to the town of Cucuta, where tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing the poverty, violence and hardship of their homeland have ended up. The Trump administration supports the overthrow of Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro.
At a migrant camp for women and children, Ivanka Trump embraced several mothers who told harrowing tales of escape.
Andry Rodriguez, a 12-year-old boy in a wheelchair, his legs as skinny as curtain rods, told Trump how he wanted to be a veterinarian and missed the dog he had to leave behind in Venezuela. His mother, Wendy Quevedo, said she pushed the wheelchair across Venezuela for a week to reach Cucuta. The account clearly moved Trump, who repeated it several times throughout the trip.
But this too brought criticism of Trump: How could she show sympathy for distant migrants but not speak out against her father’s policies that deny similar people asylum or refuge at the U.S. border?
“Migrants are the same all over ... people who have lost hope,” said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “I don’t know if it’s hypocrisy ... but it is irrational and counterproductive.”
Painter, the lawyer, said, “This was pure PR, just trying to put a humanitarian face on the Trump administration, glossing over [the policies]. This is not going to change policy.”
Speaking later to two reporters accompanying her on the trip, Trump said the difference was that the Venezuelans want to go home, not to the United States.
For the empowerment project, Trump is able to marshal resources as only a president’s daughter can. Her delegation included Sullivan, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the acting president of the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the federal government’s financing arm. Trump calls it a “whole-of-government approach” that is rare for such projects and should improve its chances for success.
But critics say any holistic approach to women’s empowerment must also address the fundamental obstacles of health and reproductive systems.
Working within an administration that refuses to finance agencies globally that even mention abortion, Trump has largely accepted the policy rather than challenge it. Her three “pillars” for women’s empowerment make no mention of health, reproductive rights or violence against women, which is endemic in Latin America.
Instead, she focuses on economic policy, hoping that she can muster bipartisan support in Washington and produce concrete results instead of political fighting. Her team says other U.S. agencies can address health.
But Beirne Roose-Snyder, policy director for the Center for Health and Gender Equity, an organization that advocates for women and the LGBTQ community, said omitting health in discussions of economic empowerment was a “gaping hole.”
“Is this going to be good work that just happens to have a lot of [political] baggage” from being associated with Ivanka Trump, Roose-Snyder asked of the initiative. “Or is she going to [discredit the cause] in an administration that is systematically hostile to women?”
Others suggested Ivanka Trump’s efforts are being used to whitewash the administration’s record on women and human rights.
“The question is how does this comport with the administration’s other actions,” said Melanne Verveer, executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security and a former ambassador for women’s issues under the Obama administration and at the United Nations.
“They’re doing this at the same time as they are proposing cuts for the development budget, for women’s health, for Central America, even climate change, which affects whether women can farm their land,” she said. “It’s all related. How does this fit in the administration’s overall commitment to women’s empowerment?”
Wilkinson was recently on assignment in South America.