Is it inappropriate to ask Ivanka Trump about the president's sexual misconduct accusations?

Alexandra Mondalek

As the 2018 Winter Olympics concluded in PyeongChang, South Korea, first daughter and senior adviser to the president of the United States Ivanka Trump gave an interview with NBC’s Today show about her experience attending the global event as a national representative, and the discussion veered into a handful of other, more politically charged topics as well.

At one point, NBC’s Peter Alexander asked Trump whether she believed the women who have publicly accused her father, Donald Trump, of sexual harassment and misconduct. To that, Trump replied, “I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he’s affirmatively stated there’s no truth to it.”

Soon after the interview aired, social media users reacted to Ivanka Trump’s comments, noting the difficulty of being both an administration official and the president’s daughter, and also calling her out for her nonresponse.

While Trump has been vocal when expressing her positions on paid family leave, tax cuts, and job creation — in addition to visiting South Korea in an official diplomatic capacity — she shies away from discussing her boss’s alleged personal misconduct.

Jenna Bednar, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, highlights the problematically entangled conflict created when a White House adviser also happens to be part of the president’s immediate family.

I think that she’s right for the same reasons that her father was right to recuse himself from deciding the fate of her husband’s security clearance,” Bednar says in an email to Yahoo Lifestyle about whether it really is inappropriate to ask Trump about her father’s sexual history. “Both are perfect evidence for why a democratic system can’t tolerate nepotism, and officially outlawed it,” she says, referring to the change that resulted from President John F. Kennedy’s appointment of his brother Robert F. Kennedy to the position of attorney general. “She’s right — it is inappropriate to ask her to judge her father. And President Trump cannot judge whether Jared Kushner can be trusted with our nation’s greatest secrets. But if members of our government, whether paid or not, cannot be asked to evaluate whether the conduct of other members of the government meets the standards of our democratic institutions, then the democracy is less robust.”

The Today show interview was not the first time someone asked a politician’s daughter or wife about that man’s misdeeds in the political realm, and it’s rare that any of the answers that come are more than deflections.

In 2008, while campaigning for her mother’s first presidential run, Chelsea Clinton responded to a question about her father’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, saying, “I do not think that is any of your business.” Laura Bush defended her father-in-law, former President George H.W. Bush, after groping allegations surfaced in 2017 (which his granddaughters Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Bush have yet to comment publicly about). After news broke that former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) had sexted an underage girl — a discovery made during the Hillary Clinton email investigation — his wife, Huma Abedin, a Clinton aide, asked for privacy during the ordeal.

Still, political ramifications of nepotism momentarily aside, why is it so cringeworthy (or, as Ivanka Trump would say, “inappropriate”) to pose those questions in the first place? What are the psychological implications of asking a woman about a loved one’s bad behavior — especially, in this case, an adult child?

“When parents do any behavior, no matter the extremes of it, that shakes that image of a parent as a role model, and can cause stress and discomfort,” explains Allison Thorson, a communications studies professor at the University of San Francisco who has published research on the impact of parental infidelity on adult children. “In our parental infidelity research, we found adult children respond to [those questions] by not talking about it, and not talking about this is a function to maintain the family. It’s what we call the ‘protection rule.’ It’s really to keep family close and prevent stress.”

Thorson goes on to explain that in Ivanka’s case specifically, the public might view the questions over President Trump’s sexual history as belonging to the greater sociopolitical conversation, whereas Ivanka herself might view them as a private matter — adding a layer of complexity to an already difficult conversation.

If she views this as private information, keeping information from others who don’t have the right to know, that’s where it’s trickier,” Thorson says. “Maybe she has opinions, and maybe she feels others don’t have the right to know them.”

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