BEHIND THE FACADE
The US First Family was groomed by Donald Trump in his fast-and-loose ways. Now the eager-to-please scions—and the whole country— are living with the consequences
The US First Family was groomed by Donald Trump in his fast-and-loose ways. Now the scions are living with the consequences.
Just months after Donald Trump proposed to Melania with a $US1.5 million Graff diamond that he got halfprice in exchange for publicity, Don Jr stole his dad’s idea—and took it a step further. On Nov. 11, 2004, Trump’s oldest child, then 26, proposed on bended knee to Vanessa Haydon, a model he’d met through his father. He did it in front of cameras at a jewellery store in The Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey. Don Jr got his $US100,000 ring free, but he paid a steep price. “Trump Jr is the cheapest gazillionaire heirhead,” mocked the New York Post, and Don’s role model publicly expressed his disappointment. “I guess he’s trying to learn from me . . . but I didn’t like it,” Trump Sr said on Larry King Live not long afterwards. “He’s a good kid . . . And I said, ‘ You have a name that’s hot as a pistol— you have to be very careful with things like this.’ ”
Today the headlines dogging Don Jr talk not of publicity but of possibly breaking campaign-finance laws by coordinating with a foreign government. And yet the underlying father-son narrative feels so familiar: on July 11, with the The New York Times set to publish details of a June 2016 meeting that Don Jr convened with Russian nationals promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, he spoiled their scoop by tweeting his own four-page email chain on the meeting. It was the kind of impulsiveness his father is known for. And it looked to many like incrimination. “I love it,” Don Jr responded in one email to a promise that the meeting would deliver “high level and
sensitive information . . . part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump.” Those words contradicted his July 2016 denial on CNN of any Russian effort to boost his father’s presidential campaign: “It’s disgusting. It’s so phony,” he said. And while Don Jr’s tweets handed special counsel Robert Mueller a smoking gun in his investigation of the Trump team’s Russia connections, there was, this time, no scolding from Dad. “He’s a good boy,” President Trump told reporters. “Don listened out of politeness . . . Nothing happened with the meeting. It was a short meeting.”
Stephen Colbert made a late-night joke of Trump Sr’s line of defence, calling it “like a five-second rule for your soul,” but it’s one that reverberates with a Trump family ethos dating back at least three generations. Those who know and have studied Trump and the grown children running his empire—don Jr, 39, Ivanka, 35, and Eric, 33—say they are guided by their father’s creed of winning at all costs and never admitting mistakes. Their grandfather Fred Trump, a Queens realestate developer, was that way—“very tough,” Donald has said. For his part, the President has expected his children to prove themselves to him from a young age. “He doesn’t like failure and mistakes, and he doesn’t accept them,” says a source who has had business dealings with Trump. “You have to justify your existence to be in his realm.” So when Don Jr chased his damaging July 11 tweets with an admission on Fox News that “in retrospect I probably would have done things a little differently,” friends took notice. “Those,” says a source who knows the family well, “are not words normally heard from a Trump.”
Ask Ivanka about growing up Trump and she’ll say, as she did in a 2014 interview with WHO’S US sister magazine People, “My parents created great values for us.” Chief among them, she and her brothers say, were hard work and the value of a dollar. “In college,” Don Jr told New York magazine in 2004, “I had 300 bucks a month. Anything I wanted beyond that I had to work for.” In Trump’s eyes, explains Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a President, “everything is a transaction. The only consideration is how much good it does you and how much you can get away with.”
Trump Sr has always gotten away with plenty, both in and out of the White House. There are denials of the obvious (Trump’s Inauguration crowd did not outnumber President Obama’s); fraudulent promises to make the sale (see: Trump University); concealment (tax returns); trickery ( hanging a fake cover of Time on his wall); abuse of women (see: “Grab ’em by the pussy” ); and lies: when former People writer Natasha Stoynoff revealed she had been physically attacked by Trump in 2005 (several other women made similar claims), he denied it. “Look at her!”
he said of Stoynoff. “I don’t think so!” He can count on his children to defend him. “They stick together at all costs,” says family friend R. Couri Hay. “When they are under attack, they put up a solid wall to protect each other.” As one family friend especially close to Don Jr and Eric says, “The loyalty within this family is insane. They would never speak against their dad. The boys are totally scared of him because he’s so macho.”
Trump’s three children with first wife Ivana grew up in the penthouse of Trump Tower. Ivanka, by all accounts, has always been his favourite. “He has always liked that she was pretty and looked good on his arm,” says a Trump Administration source. “Donnie was so nondescript, just a kid who didn’t really have a group,” says a childhood friend who recalls Don Jr needed a security code to speak on the phone with his father at work. Each morning before school he and his siblings would make a daily trek to their dad’s Trump Organisation office on the 26th floor to say hello and hear his daily admonition: “No drugs. No alcohol. No cigarettes.” It was often their only contact with him for the day.
Don Jr was 12 when his parents split—a heated divorce that played out in the New York tabloids. One headline quoted Trump Sr’s mistress (and wife No. 2) Marla Maples declaring him the “Best Sex I Ever Had!” Don Jr has said he blamed his father for the divorce, and the two didn’t speak for a year. Later, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, that estrangement saw Don Jr both rebelling against his father’s edicts (“I used to drink a lot,” Don Jr told New York magazine in 2004. “I couldn’t do moderation”) and gaining a reputation with women similar to his
father’s. A Penn alum who went to fraternity parties with him says he came on so strong with women that “everyone was warned to stay away from Donnie Trump.” After college he spent more than a year in Aspen tending bar, hunting and fishing—harking back to summers in the woods of Czechoslovakia with his maternal grandfather. Don Jr joined the Trump Organisation in 2001, the same year he spent 11 hours in a New Orleans jail on charges of public drunkenness. (He says he has been sober since 2002.)
At Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, Don Jr was quickly outshone by Ivanka. After the US economy sunk Don Jr’s condo project in Fort Lauderdale in 2008, Ivanka was put in charge of their father’s prize Florida project at Doral. “She meant glamour, sex and style, and that is what Trump Sr wanted as the face of Doral,” says a Florida development source. Eric joined the company after graduating from Georgetown University. Despite the competition for their father’s favour, the sibling triumvirate is, by all accounts, very close. (Half-sister Tiffany, 23, who is Maples’s daughter, graduated from college last year and is planning to go to Georgetown law school. Half-brother Barron, from Trump’s third wife, Melania, is only 11.) The threesome can laugh over their father’s ski slope lessons in cutthroat competition. “We were sort of bred to be competitive . . . I remember skiing with him and we were racing. I was ahead and he reached his ski pole out and pulled me back,” Ivanka told New York magazine in 2004, with Eric chiming in, “He would try to push me over, just so he could beat his 10-year-old son down the mountain.” The New York business source says, “Donald’s love is tied to performance. They love him fiercely and they are desperate for approval.”
Now that Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, who sat in on part of Don Jr’s 2016 Russia meeting, have West Wing offices and White House titles—while Don Jr and Eric remain in New York to run the business—the family undercurrents play out with global consequences. It wears on Don Jr, who, for all his campaign rallies last year and bellicose tweets this year, still relishes the quiet of hunting and fishing—a childhood love he now shares with Vanessa and their five children by escaping his Trump Tower office to a rustic cabin upstate on weekends. At the nearby Riverside Cafe in Roscoe, New York, he’s a regular—“good people,” says the café manager. “And he never has his hair slicked back like he does on TV.” A friend of the Trump brothers says they hate their role as First Sons: “Eric and Don, they never wanted this.” Says a source in their circle: “Don can’t do any deals, because he’ll be so overly scrutinised. He just goes to work every day and is miserable.” But it’s not easy to leave a gilded cage. “You can’t bite the hand that feeds you,” says the source, “but he can’t wait for these four years to be over.”
By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall. With KC Baker, Diane Herbst, Linda Marx, Liz Mcneil, Rose Minutaglio, Sara Nathan and Dan Wakeford
Trump gathered (from left) Barron, Melania, Tiffany, Eric, Don Jr and Ivanka in his Manhattan penthouse for a December 2014 photo shoot six months before launching his presidential campaign.
Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, 36, is himself a New York real-estate developer who, despite spotty success in his own family company, is President Trump’s go-to in the West Wing. He is tasked with restructuring the US federal government and brokering Middle East peace, among other things. “Jared is hard to crack at first, seems uptight,” says a friend close to the Trump sons. “But he’s hilarious.” A family friend says the Trump children (on Jan. 20) “just assumed that once everything died down, they would be loved as the First Family who came in as outsiders and shook everything up. It’s impossible for them to process that people haven’t embraced them.”
“Donald was not around that much,” said Ivana (in 1986).
The late Fred Trump (far right, in 1994) once said he and wife Mary raised Donald to be a king.