(Written by Dana Rubinstein)
In July, Ivanka Trump released a photo of herself cradling a can of Goya beans in an effort to support a Trump-friendly company facing a boycott.
The photo raised concerns among ethics watchdogs that Trump had used her government position to market a consumer product.
Now, Trump’s act of guerrilla marketing is causing agita of another sort.
On Thursday morning, the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group made up mostly of Republicans, posted that image of Trump on a billboard in Times Square, with statistics about COVID deaths substituting for the beans.
Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser, beams from the adjacent billboard alongside body bags and a quote, attributed to him in a Vanity Fair article, stating that New Yorkers will suffer during the pandemic, and “that’s their problem.”
The billboards sparked a prompt reaction from the couple’s lawyer, Marc E. Kasowitz, who called them “false, malicious and defamatory” and threatened to sue.
“Of course, Mr. Kushner never made any such statement, Ms. Trump never made any such gesture, and the Lincoln Project’s representations that they did are an outrageous and shameful libel,” Kasowitz wrote. “If these billboard ads are not immediately removed, we will sue you for what will doubtless be enormous compensatory and punitive damages.”
The Trump family has a history of suing critics, and Kasowitz’s letter was not surprising. But the billboards were also a reminder of another point: Should Donald Trump lose the election, and should his daughter and son-in-law return to New York City, there is no guarantee they will receive a warm reception.
“The reality is if you kill thousands and thousands and thousands of New Yorkers, you’re not going to reenter polite society and go to the Met Ball,” said writer Molly Jong-Fast, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project.
The couple might be greeted warmly in some parts of the city, said Joe Borelli, a councilman from Staten Island — which voted for the president in 2016. Borelli said he has no insight into “polite society” but noted that Ivanka Trump and Kushner “are always welcome on Staten Island.”
Borelli, the New York state co-chair for the Trump campaign, called the ads “tacky.”
“It’s a reminder why no one will ever hire the consultants from the Lincoln Project ever again,” Borelli said. “This is what a bunch of GOP rejects do.”
New York City alone has lost nearly 24,000 residents to COVID-19. The pandemic has devastated the city’s economy and its finances. More than half a million city residents remain unemployed.
The city is also Ivanka Trump’s and Kushner’s home base. Ivanka Trump grew up on the Upper East Side. Her husband grew up in New Jersey but made a name for himself with the purchase of a Manhattan newspaper, The New York Observer, and a Manhattan office building. After they married, they lived downtown and on Park Avenue in Manhattan.
New York is Donald Trump’s hometown, too. But his presidency has been marked by a souring of relations with the city. He has rejected New York City residency in favor of Florida and sought to defund New York City for its immigration policies. Most recently, Trump’s administration named the city one of several “anarchist jurisdictions” to which the federal government should deny funding.
The curdling of relations between the Trump family and the city goes both ways.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has sparred with the president over matters ranging from funding to the president’s insistence that New York City has become a ghost town.
“New York City is not a ghost town; it’s a vibrant city with incredible sights, including beautiful billboards that speak the plain truth about Jared and Ivanka’s complicit role in the suffering of millions,” said de Blasio’s spokesperson, Bill Neidhardt.
Brad Hoylman, the state Senator whose district includes Times Square, said the 44th Street billboards reflect his sentiments precisely.
“Just from a visceral standpoint, when I see that billboard, I feel like it’s speaking for me and millions of New Yorkers,” Hoylman said.
But the billboards’ prominence also speaks to the resilience of Times Square, he said.
“They are still getting attention, even though they may not have the throngs of tourists in previous election cycles,” he said.
They’re not the first that Times Square billboards linked to the Trumps that have provoked controversy.
A 2019 ad, paid for by an athletic wear company, featured a picture of Donald Trump tied up in front of the White House.
Rick Wilson, a founder of the Lincoln Project, said that the group’s ad campaign — which was funded by an undisclosed private donor — almost didn’t survive.
On Friday evening, officials from Outfront Media, which leased the Times Square billboards to the Lincoln Project for two weeks at a cost of roughly $100,000, called the group after they learned of the letter from Kasowitz.
“Their response was very, ‘Oh, my God, we have to take these down,’” Wilson said.
“We said, ‘Listen, you can be on the side of Donald Trump right now as a major publicly traded company, or not,’” Wilson recounted. “‘But don’t expect us to be quiet if you take this billboard down. We will tell the truth about what happened.’”
A spokesperson for Outfront Media did not respond to requests for comment.
The billboards will remain up through at least Nov. 5, two days after the election.