Daughter diplomacy: Trudeau's unorthodox play for Donald Trump's approval
by Daniel Dale (feat. Colin Robertson)
March 17, 2017
WASHINGTON—A businesswoman whose lifestyle brand is struggling with liberals. A liberal-multilateralist prime minister who needs an in with a conservative-nationalist president.
Diplomacy is rooted in interests. And Ivanka Trump and Justin Trudeau both have an interest in hanging out with each other.
The prime minister sat with the president’s daughter Wednesday night at the Broadway musical Come From Away, the Canadian show about the Newfoundland town that took in stranded Americans on Sept. 11, 2001. It was his second olive branch to her in just over a month.
Some U.S. news outlets suggested Trudeau had been sending a kind of passive-aggressive message: “Justin Trudeau brought Ivanka Trump to a Broadway show that celebrates generosity towards foreigners in need,” the New York Times tweeted to its 34 million followers. Whether or not that was true, he was also offering a kind of cashless donation to her company.
Trudeau joked of his “bromance” with former president Barack Obama. Shared youth and mutual interest in women’s issues notwithstanding, his new bilateral bestiehood appears much more a marriage of convenience.
“It is just so Game of Thrones,” said John Higginbotham, a former Canadian diplomat in Washington, referring to the television show in which warring family dynasties strike strategic alliances in ruthless pursuit of power.
Like Donald Trump before her, Ivanka Trump has made a brand out of her name. Her name has been tarnished, in the eyes of millions of progressive American consumers, by her father’s xenophobia and sexism. Who better to be seen with than the fashionable foreign progressive feminist who hugs refugees?
For Trudeau, daughter diplomacy offers the prospect of a lifeline to a president who shares almost none of his principles but who often appears to value personal relationships over ideology and policy — and who appreciates a political gift. Donald Trump has lavished praise upon chief executives who have let him take undeserved credit for their investments.
“It looks as if foreign leaders think the way to approach Trump is by direct or indirect appeals to his ego and personality, rather than in terms of national interests,” said Charles Stevenson, a former State Department policy planner who teaches foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University. “Business leaders have already discovered this, so they bring their announcements of job creation as if they had birthday presents for the king.”
Donald Trump, not Ivanka Trump, was Trudeau’s original invitee to the play, communications director Kate Purchase said. Trump told Trudeau he couldn’t make it, Purchase said, “but suggested that perhaps Ivanka Trump could join instead.”
“We were happy to arrange that,” she said.
“We’re friends and neighbours, partners and allies. We are committed to continuing to build on that relationship in a positive, constructive way. That means talking to U.S. senators, members of Congress, governors, Cabinet secretaries, business leaders, and importantly: the president and those close to him.”
Ivanka Trump has been portrayed in anonymously sourced stories as a powerful figure in the administration, a kind of de facto first lady. In February, Politico reported that she helped convince her father not to roll back protections for LGBT people. In March, Reuters reported that she was “a key advocate for the more measured, less combative tone” he adopted in his address to Congress.
But there is considerable skepticism in Washington that the leaks are anything other than self-serving public relations — and that Ivanka Trump has either the inclination or the ability to push her father toward moderation. The president has so far pursued a hard-right agenda that has betrayed few hints of liberal influence.
“Ivanka’s the only one of his children I think he listens to. But it’s just very, very small, and around the edges,” said Joshua Kendall, author of the book First Dads, about presidents as parents. “I think every once in a while he pays a little lip service to child-care, but I think those tiny inroads have led to sort of a feeding frenzy. Everyone says, ‘Maybe we can go much further than that.’ And I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
It is not only the president with whom Ivanka Trump might help Trudeau. Her husband, Jared Kushner, has emerged as one of the most powerful people in the country. As Donald Trump sidelines the professional diplomatic corps, Kushner, a 36-year-old with no government experience, has been shovelled responsibilities that range from soothing Mexico to striking Middle East peace.
Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat, praised Trudeau for astute “realpolitik,” saying his rapport with Ivanka Trump serves Canadian interests. But the NDP has criticized his friendly posture toward a president whose policies foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière calls “racist.”
“Justin Trudeau took Ivanka Trump to an excellent Canadian play about kindness to strangers. It’s a play President Trump really should see. However, Trudeau continues to give Trump and his family political cover,” Laverdière said.
Trudeau’s early work with Ivanka Trump has paid at least superficial dividends. Trump boasted in his high-profile address to Congress of the new Canada-U.S. council on women in business; Trudeau was the only foreign leader he mentioned by name.
The council was an invention of Trudeau’s office designed specifically to include Ivanka Trump. She sat next to him at the inaugural meeting at the White House in February, cameras clicking away. Their Broadway appearance made new international headlines — some of the stories wrongly framing it as a quasi-date, omitting the presence of Trudeau’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau.