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Ivanka Trump's Trafficking Troubles

The first daughter's anti-trafficking braintrust represents a certain credentialed mix, one with considerable overlaps in organizational membership.
Ivanka Trump.

Ivanka Trump.

The first daughter wore periwinkle blue, per the White House pool report, for her May 17th meeting on ending (as she called it) "modern slavery." In the Roosevelt Room with Ivanka Trump were three senators—including two Democrats, both women—and six representatives. With them, though not named in most press accounts, was the former Koch operative hired by the president to act as his director of legislative affairs, along with the heads of six anti-trafficking efforts, including former Department of Justice prosecutors, Evangelical brothel raiders, a former Republican congresswoman turned Google lobbyist, and a longtime anti-porn activist currently consulting with the Department of Defense.

"This is a major priority for the administration," Trump announced, before reporters were escorted out. They were allowed to observe the meeting for three minutes.

Media reports, characteristic of many covering the Women Who Work author who also holds an office in the White House, were skeptical: "Don't forget that Ivanka Trump is now a human trafficking expert," wrote USA Today's Jessica Estepa, reminding readers that Trump had just added another lightweight line to her resume. It is strange to see other members of the press treat an effort against human trafficking, what is normally considered a grave issue garnering near universal support, so breezily. But this is the Trump era. Fittingly, the only content offered by Trump in the meeting's few public minutes was duplicated on her Instagram: the assertion that "in 2016, there were over 8,000 cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a 35% increase from 2015."

In truth, reports called in to this hotline, operated with federal funds by a group called Polaris, are just that: calls. A call might be a request for information and support from survivors of trafficking, who may call more than once. Social workers and advocates for trafficking survivors also call the hotline. Sometimes concerned citizens call on behalf of someone they think is trafficked, and Polaris has no way of verifying what they describe. By comparison, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's most recent full-year crime reporting shows 965 trafficking offenses reported (which resulted in 387 clearances; that is, an arrest or some other means of closing the case) across the United States. Polaris itself note that the 2016 increase in call volume "is mostly due to people spreading awareness of human trafficking and the Hotline."

Still, the meeting's purpose likely wasn't about getting the numbers just right. Trump's effort to produce a serious humanitarian mission was, true to her style, the production of a series of photographs of such an effort. That, too, was quickly overshadowed by a Twitter meme: Where other attendees' titles were typed on their placecards, Trump's was conspicuously left blank.

Flanking that empty title card were some people the public did learn were there, like her father's legislative affairs adviser and former Koch Brothers operative, Marc Short, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California), who, as the Washington Post would report later that day, told his Republican colleagues in 2016 "I think Putin pays" Trump. Alongside Short were the Democrats from the Senate, Senator Amy Klobuchar and Senator Heidi Heitkamp, as well as a clutch of Republicans: Senator Bob Corker, in addition to representatives Susan Brooks, Bob Goodlatte, Kristi Noem, Vicky Hartzler, and Martha Roby.

Roby, who later thanked the first daughter with a tweet, has pledged her support for the president's border wall, as she views immigration to be linked with sex trafficking. She also told Congress, in an emotional speech in 2015, that Planned Parenthood engages in the "trafficking" of "fetal organs" (it does not). Usually, these kinds of congressional anti-trafficking efforts—in this case, a meeting of those, like Roby, who consider abortion providers co-conspirators in trafficking; and those, like Klobuchar and Heitkamp, who have defended Planned Parenthood and so presumably do not—are lauded as "bipartisan." But at this meeting, that collegial message took a backseat to the chaos surrounding the president himself, of Congressional and FBI investigations, and what look like his attempts to undermine them.

That lack of usually reverent coverage is likely also due to the closed-door nature of the meeting. There was no indication, in the pool report documenting the few public minutes of the event, of what may have been said by Kari Johnstone, from the Department of State's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Nor did we learn what may have been promised to the private citizens present: the anti-trafficking think tankers and government contractors and lobbyists, like Polaris' Bradley Myles. Former Department of Justice prosecutors Victor Boutros and John Richmond were also there, representing the private, not-for-profit Human Trafficking Institute, which says it "exists to decimate modern slavery at its source by empowering police and prosecutors to stop traffickers;" in other words, they get paid to train law enforcement.

"This is a major priority for the administration," Trump announced before reporters were escorted out.

Relative old-timers in the anti-trafficking fight were there, too, like Gary Haugen and Tim Gehring of International Justice Mission, an Evangelical anti-trafficking organization widely criticized for its brothel raids targeting sex workers who are not trafficked–and yet it has received millions of dollars from the federal government since 2002. The IJM leadership shares business with the former Department of Justice prosecutors of HTI: Haugen co-wrote a book with Boutros, and Richmond directed IJM's work in India. And Haugen, too, is a former Department of Justice prosecutor. As a flattering New Yorker profile of Haugen tells the International Justice Mission origin story, "Haugen left the Department of Justice on a Friday and launched the mission the following Monday."

This kind of blurring—from publicly funded government efforts to private-sector consulting—feels very Trump, but in the anti-trafficking world, it long predates the Trump reign in Washington.

Rounding out Trump's guest list was Google's chief lobbyist Susan Molinari, who also once served in Congress as a Republican from New York. Holly Austin Gibbs, who heads Dignity Health's trafficking project, was the only participant who has identified as a survivor of trafficking. In fact, there are now many people in the anti-trafficking movement who have been trafficked themselves, and who are fighting for a seat at tables like these, where they are still rarely represented. But none but Gibbs, who also sits on the advisory boards of both HTI and the McCain Institute, the foundation of Senator John McCain and his wife Cindy McCain, were present at the meeting. (Cindy McCain is rumored to be in the president's pick to work as a special trafficking ambassador in the Department of State.) After the meeting, Suamhirs Piraino-Guz tweeted at Trump, "I'm the co-chair of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking and a survivor of CSEC [commercial sexual exploitation of a child]. Call me...." and added his cell number.

Trump's anti-trafficking braintrust represents a certain credentialed mix, one with considerable overlaps in organizational membership, and between IJM and Polaris alone, a group that has already garnered millions of dollars in federal funds. These are also groups that are in competition with one another to set the domestic and foreign agenda on anti-trafficking. One also invited to the White House is Global Centurion, helmed by anti-pornography activist Laura Lederer, who edited the book Take Back the Night in 1980.

Based on her own resume, Lederer has advised the U.S. government for as long as anyone with her in the Roosevelt Room on May 17th, and her organization is now contracted by the Department of Defense for anti-trafficking trainings. At some point in her government contracting tenure, as she told an interviewer later, "a Christian friend who worked in the Justice Department said to me, 'You need the Lord guiding you. You need the reassurance he's right there beside you. You can't do this work by yourself.'"

Lederer pivoted to the anti-trafficking fight from her opposition to pornography and all forms of sex work. She was also a key figure in drawing together the oft-described "strange bedfellows" coalition against trafficking dating back to the late 1990s. That coalition notably included President Richard Nixon's "hatchet man"-turned-Christian-convert Chuck Colson, former journalist and author Gloria Steinem, who opposes the term "sex worker" itself and who recently headlined a campaign to shame Amnesty International for supporting sex workers' rights, and anti-choice Republican congressman Chris Smith, who continues to carry the landmark piece of federal legislation concerning human trafficking. It's the legacy of that coalition—one in which opposition to sex work united and trumped divisions over social justice and women's rights—that we see seated to the left and right of Ivanka Trump in the White House.

This meeting represented not only the anti-trafficking fight's legacy, but two of its core members: the Evangelical Haugen and the feminist Lederer. In religion and politics scholar Allen D. Hertzke's book Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights, Lederer is credited with recruiting women's groups into the emerging anti-trafficking cause in the late 1990s, drawing on her anti-pornography connections. Hertzke says she also used her moment, supported by this new anti-trafficking coalition, to expose what she perceived as insufficient opposition to sex work inside the Department of State.

Her fight continues. A few days before the White House meeting, the Center for Family and Human Rights said Lederer's Global Centurion has demanded the government exclude groups that support abortion and sex work from future anti-trafficking efforts, as well as deem them ineligible for federal anti-trafficking funds.

When asked about this, Lederer said she wanted to clear up "representations" of her letter made by C-FAM. (C-FAM, it should be noted, was also one of two groups the president picked to represent the U.S. at this year's United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.) Lederer did not offer specific corrections to C-FAM's representation of Global Centurion's demands: that the government ensure opposition to prostitution and abortion. Then she said she would prefer to refer to the letter itself, which she would provide. As of publication, she has not.

According to C-FAM, which says Global Centurion provided it with a copy of the letter, its issue is not confined to groups who appear to support reproductive rights and sex workers' rights (not their language, of course). The concern is, as they put it, "bigfoot groups [who] are silent on prostitution and abortion," including "Polaris, International Justice Mission, and the new Human Trafficking Institute," groups whose leadership joined Lederer at the White House with Trump.

Whether or not the first daughter knows any of this tangled history, or if she had been briefed on these current fights over funding, these are the anti-trafficking groups she and the White House tapped as experts.

Whatever those groups gathered in the Roosevelt Room contributed, they are positioned to stake further claim to the anti-trafficking agenda. And we know who they are. They are former federal prosecutors and Department of State consultants. They are people with a tremendous level of access to policymakers. They are people who have described themselves as recruits to a moral battle. They are lobbyists. Some of them have had a direct hand in setting the expansive and almost limitless definition of what it means to "fight trafficking," one focused on empowering law enforcement and eliminating sex work. They have, whether they meant to or not, gifted this to someone like Trump, who could effortlessly proclaim that fighting trafficking is "both a moral and strategic interest domestically and abroad," and then, while ignoring reports that apparel bearing her name is made by workers allegedly paid less than one dollar per hour over 12-and-a-half-hour shifts per day, can say she will lead the charge against human trafficking for her father, the president.