Award-winning Channel 4 News journalist Matt Frei has been closely following Donald Trump since his rise to the White House. Now, in a new documentary, he’s turned his attention to Ivanka.
Why did you choose to make a documentary about Ivanka?
Donald Trump treats the presidency like a royalty, essentially – like a family firm – and Ivanka is the best example of that, because not only is she his daughter, but she’s also married to his most senior and most trusted advisor, Jared Kushner. Melania is so absent you might as well think she’s gone into a witness protection programme – and there’s a reason for that: partly because Donald doesn’t trust Melania (maybe because her English isn’t that good) and, ultimately, he looks down on her intellectually, but also because he’s always groomed Ivanka for great things. She was the one who sat next to him on The Apprentice, not Eric or Donald Junior. She was the one who was given a senior position in the business early on. So, it’s only logical that she would go to Washington. Now, the question is what does she do with that power? We need to find out what does she believe and how will she bring those beliefs to bear – that is an unfolding story.
How have we seen her influence so far?
One example: the most high-profile thing Trump’s done in terms of foreign policy is to launch missiles against the Syrian regime for their alleged chemical-weapon attack. At the beginning of that week, he was basically saying, “I’m not getting involved,” and it’s possible that gave the signal to the Syrians to think OK, let’s try this. There was no initial reaction from the president, but there was a very swift response from Ivanka, who posted pictures of dead babies on Instagram and said, “This is terrible.” Lo and behold, a few hours later, Trump announces his launch. In the Arab world, he was hailed not as Donald Trump, but as the father of Ivanka the American.
Who is she doing this for – Brand Trump or Brand Ivanka?
She’s doing it for her father, she’s doing it for her and she’s doing it for the family brand. It’s all about the family business. That’s where it’s like a royal family – it’s about dynasty.
Is she a classic Trump?
No – and that’s where she’s a secret weapon. With the Trump men, even if you look at the fathers and the forefathers, they’re brash; they are not particularly articulate or intellectual. They are risk-takers and, instead of seeking compromises and consensus, they get aggressive and double down. She’s the opposite and you could say that’s because she’s a woman, but it’s more than that – she knows how to talk him off the cliff. I call her the “Donald whisperer”. She knows how to calm him down and talk some sense into him, and that is an amazingly important thing with a guy who likes to shoot from the hip, whether it’s missiles or tweets. So her role is very subtle, but very important. She’s the loyal, influential daughter and he trusts her more than anyone else on the planet – more than Steve Bannon, more than Jared Kushner.
So, you think she helped get her father elected?
She did help him to get there. He will never admit to that and she would never be so stupid to say that, but a lot of people think that. She’s a softer, more malleable side of the grumpy dad and that’s never happened before. Alice Roosevelt was in the White House and she was quite influential, but she didn’t really have a profile. Amy Carter was too young, the Bush daughters were too young, the Obama kids were too young. I mean, it’s partly because of Donald’s age, but it’s more than that – it’s the way that he’s groomed her and the way he decided to use her.
She’s so polished, which is part of her appeal. Does anyone really know who she is?
Yeah. So, who is she? First and foremost, she’s interested in her husband and children and that the family brand is doing fine. And that is number one. And, in order to do that, she can employ principles such as supporting gay marriage and women’s empowerment. Her critics would say she’s not quite as good as her words, but she’s not totally Machiavellian – she’s not a complete liar.
When will Americans stop putting members of the same family in the White House?
This election was many things, but one of the things was a rejection of entitlement. Everyone thought Jeb Bush would be elected president because he’s the taller, clever, more Spanish-speaking version of his more stupid ex-alcoholic brother. Well, that didn’t go well, did it? They ditch these political dynasties and put in a business one instead. It’s hardly as if they’ve gone to the vast forge of American souls and plucked one out, someone new and fresh.
How soon could we see Ivanka running the White House?
The earliest would be not the next election, but the one after that, because Donald wants to run. But let’s hold our horses. This depends on many things. First and foremost, if Donald Trump pushes us further and further towards a nuclear meltdown, then I don’t think his daughter stands much of a chance. Because, if you are tied to your father, if he rides, you ride; if he falls, you fall. But we simply have no idea how this thing is going to end in three and a half years, let alone eight – if he goes that long. Who knows? Who the hell knows?! Ivanka might get sick of it. The thing about people who aren’t politicians is that they all get tired of politics quite quickly. If you’re a New York girl, going Washington is like an execution, like a slow death.
How has following Trump been as a journalist?
There are moment of respite. The last few months have been relatively quiet. You can get enough of it. I’ve definitely had Trump indigestion, there’s no doubt about it, but at the same time, just as you’ve got over your indigestion and taken the right amount of Gaviscon, and you’re doing boring things, like post-brexit EU politics and this UK election, frankly, you think, "Ooh, I’m missing something – I’m missing that sugar high of Trump," and then – bang! – he comes with another whopper. On a serious level, although he’s abhorrent in politics, his story is quintessentially American. It’s so brash and risqué, and no one else can do that, to that extent, in a country that powerful. It’s never dull a moment.
Ivanka Trump: America’s Real First Lady is on tonight on Channel 4 at 9pm