When President George W. Bush took office, he quickly and quietly disbanded President Bill Clinton’s Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach — and now President Donald Trump appears to be doing the same thing to President Barack Obama’s White House Council on Women and Girls.
The council, created by Obama in 2009 to monitor the impact of policy changes and liaise with women’s groups has been defunct while the Trump administration evaluates whether to keep it, according to three senior White House officials.
“We want the input of the various agencies to understand the assets they have so that we make this office additive, not redundant,” said White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks.
She added that the White House “is evaluating the best positioning of this office going forward (and other legacy Obama offices)” and flagged other policy initiatives, including adviser Ivanka Trump’s push for paid family leave and STEM education for girls, that will address gender disparities.
But veterans of Obama’s White House say the existence of a robust office supporting women and girls sends a strong message about the president’s priorities — and that the lack of such an office does as well.
The issue is acute for Trump, whose campaign took a hit after the release last October of him bragging on tape to former Access Hollywood host Billy Bush about grabbing women by the genitals. On Wednesday, he faced fresh backlash by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers for a vulgar tweet he fired off against MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski, whom he claimed was “bleeding badly from a face-lift.”
Tina Tchen, who was the director of Obama’s White House Council on Women and Girls, said the office served as a signal to career staff that they needed to consider equity gaps.
“It shows the priority you place on the issues surrounding women and girls,” said Tchen, who also served as an assistant to Obama and as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.
She pointed out that Trump’s creation of an innovation office under his son-in-law Jared Kushner similarly telegraphs the president’s commitment to government reforms. “They have business councils, and other councils,” Tchen said. “That’s how you demonstrate to everyone in the agencies were there efforts should be focused.”
Initially, it seemed Trump might keep the office. Senior counselor Kellyanne Conway said in February that she expected to oversee it. In April, Hicks said that Ivanka Trump and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell were undertaking an internal review of how to handle the range of issues handled by the office — from health care to pay — and expected to be done by May, but by the third week of June, the status of the office was still in question, with one senior administration official suggesting that it hadn’t been that effective.
Obama signed the order to create the council in March 2009, three months into his first term, recreating the earlier Clinton-era office, which helped the Democratic administration maintain open lines of communication with women’s groups but was much-hated by conservative groups. Bush closed the Clinton office upon taking office, but later folded responsibility for women’s issues into his Office of Public Liaison.
The council Obama created was overseen by two senior staffers — Tchen and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. The office was tasked with reviewing policy proposals to ensure gender equity, Jarrett said. It also sponsored public forums on women’s issues and coordinated with outside groups among federal agencies.
Since Ivanka Trump joined her father’s administration, she’s been the most visible proponent for women’s issues. In April she traveled to Germany to appear alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel at a summit on women’s entrepreneurship. She was also credited with successfully soliciting a $100 million donation from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for a women’s entrepreneurship fund to be run by the World Bank.
But White House veterans say that’s no replacement for having a dedicated office with staff.
“That’s the problem, there’s nobody to reach out to except Ivanka,” said Betsy Myers, director of the office of Women’s Initiatives and Outreach under Clinton. “If you don’t have somebody with a full-time job and a team — and the right title because that allows you to get into the right meeting — then you’re not going to be able to move the agenda forward on behalf of women.”
National Organization for Women president Terry O’Neill, whose organization has partnerships with over 200 women’s groups, said she and others have yet to find a point person in the White House.
“I see no evidence, zero, that Donald Trump has anyone in his orbit to advocate for women and girls,” said O’Neill, who worked closely with the council to develop a provision in the Affordable Care Act that provides contraception to women without co-pay. “We need a real office that would really advocate.”
“I actually don’t know anyone who has been in touch with the White House,” O’Neill added.
Other groups say they’re moving on.
“We wish [the agency] was still intact, but it’s not and it’s not going to be,” said Deborah Holmes, head of communications and engagement for the Women’s Funding Network.
The group was among the private philanthropies that made a $100 million joint commitment in 2015 through the Obama women’s council to support gender equality through a fundraising campaign called “Prosperity Together.”
“It was nice having an administration that was sympathetic, but we learned a long time ago that we never assume that we would always be in somebody’s favor. It’s nice when it does and you take advantage of when it does,” Holmes added.
They’ve since built a partnership with an outside organization called the United States of Women to maintain the fundraising momentum created by the agency and continue to raise money that would help build women’s economic security by way of education and training and leadership.