The pres­i­dent sees his chil­dren as ex­ten­sions of him­self, says Trump bi­og­ra­pher Marc Fisher

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - marc.fisher@wash­post.com Marc Fisher, a se­nior edi­tor at The Wash­ing­ton Post, is a co-author of “Trump Re­vealed: An Amer­i­can Jour­ney of Am­bi­tion, Ego, Money, and Power.”

Over the past week, Pres­i­dent Trump seemed un­usu­ally sub­dued as the na­tion ab­sorbed the news that his old­est child, Don­ald Jr., last year ex­ulted in the prospect of get­ting deroga­tory in­for­ma­tion about Hil­lary Clin­ton from the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. His son, the pres­i­dent said, “is a high-qual­ity per­son,” “a won­der­ful young man.” It wasn’t un­til the end of the week that Trump de­fended his son’s de­ci­sion to meet with the Rus­sian lawyer who sup­pos­edly had the dirt: “Most peo­ple would have taken that meet­ing.”

There was sim­ply no way this pres­i­dent was go­ing to dis­tance him­self from his son’s ac­tions, as he of­ten does when a White House aide dis­pleases him. In busi­ness and now in pol­i­tics, Trump re­serves his most ef­fu­sive praise and his deep­est trust for his flesh and blood, hand­ing Ivanka a White House port­fo­lio and his boys the run of the Trump en­ter­prises.

Through the years, Trump has spo­ken about Don­ald Jr. very much as he de­scribes him­self: as a smart, am­bi­tious, crafty guy who loves to win and has a mis­chievous streak that some­times gets him in trou­ble. The pres­i­dent talks about his other adult chil­dren in sim­i­lar ways. Ask about his kids, and Trump talks about how they’re like him — Ivanka, for ex­am­ple, has his busi­ness savvy and, as he once put it in an in­ter­view, his in­ter­est in sex.

Some psy­chol­o­gists have con­cluded that Trump sees his adult chil­dren as ex­ten­sions of him­self. “They are his world be­cause they are him,” said Elan Golomb, a psy­chol­o­gist who wrote “Trapped in the Mir­ror: Adult Chil­dren of Nar­cis­sists in Their Strug­gle for Self.” “They don’t ex­ist as sep­a­rate en­ti­ties. To a nar­cis­sist, the child is seen as ‘me.’ ”

Even his chil­dren agree that there is lit­tle sepa­ra­tion be­tween them and their celebrity fa­ther. “We’ve all made peace with the fact that we will never be able to achieve any level of au­ton­omy” from him, Ivanka told an in­ter­viewer in 2004. No won­der Trump places them in po­si­tions of power.

But the same in­stinct that in­duced the pres­i­dent to have Ivanka sit in for him briefly at the Group of 20 talks in Ham­burg this month makes it dif­fi­cult for him to dis­tance him­self from them or con­tra­dict them, as he of­ten has when his staff ad­vis­ers leave him an­gry or dis­ap­pointed. Which raises this ques­tion: When Trump Jr. walked into that meet­ing to get the dirt on Clin­ton from the Rus­sian lawyer, was he by de­fault act­ing on his fa­ther’s be­half?

Pres­i­dents’ rel­a­tives have long served as dis­trac­tion, em­bar­rass­ment and vi­tal sup­port. Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter had to cope with an oc­ca­sion­ally way­ward brother, Billy. Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton par­doned his half-brother Roger for a co­caine dis­tri­bu­tion con­vic­tion. At the other end of the scale, Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy re­lied on his brother Bobby as his at­tor­ney gen­eral and close ad­viser, and George W. Bush served a sim­i­lar, though in­for­mal, role as coun­selor to his fa­ther, Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush.

But Trump is the first pres­i­dent who has ar­rived in of­fice with his chil­dren as his most im­por­tant and trusted ad­vis­ers. Last year, when I asked Trump whom he would turn to in a mo­ment of great cri­sis, he said it would not be any close friends — his friend­ships were mainly just busi­ness re­la­tion­ships, he said — but rather his adult chil­dren. “One thing I get a lot of credit for is my chil­dren,” he said. “They’re good chil­dren. And they’ve been smart. They went to great schools. Al­ways got top-of-the line marks . . . . I get along with my chil­dren a lot.”

Trump grew up in a tight-knit fam­ily busi­ness. Groomed to take over Fred Trump’s New York real es­tate em­pire, Don­ald has al­ways spo­ken of his fa­ther more as a busi­ness­man than as a par­ent. He has a standard few pat lines about Fred: He praises his fa­ther as an ac­com­plished builder and role model who, alas, lacked his son’s un­bri­dled am­bi­tion to play on the big­gest stages. Trump has lit­tle to say about his mother, other than that he got his show­man­ship gene from her.

But ask Trump about his adult chil­dren, and a no­to­ri­ously non­lin­ear sto­ry­teller sud­denly grows ef­fu­sive. The pres­i­dent vir­tu­ally melts at any men­tion of Ivanka, and he rushes to de­fend her from crit­i­cism, as he did this month af­ter the ker­fuf­fle about the G-20 meet­ing. He ex­hibits a charm­ing pride about sons Don­ald Jr. and Eric, re­peat­edly say­ing that his busi­ness is se­cure in their hands.

The Trump chil­dren know this role and ac­cept it. Ivanka told Politico that what her fa­ther cared about when they were grow­ing up was “re­spect. You would never hear us yelling at our par­ents or us­ing a tone that was in­ap­pro­pri­ate or dis­re­spect­ful. Even a tone.”

“Ev­ery­thing we’ve ever done, we’ve done as a fam­ily,” Eric told The Wash­ing­ton Post last year. “Ev­ery project we’ve ever built, we’ve built as a fam­ily. ‘The Ap­pren­tice’ we did as a fam­ily.”

Pres­i­dent Trump has writ­ten about the im­por­tance of nar­cis­sism in his suc­cess and in the achieve­ments of any busi­ness leader. He be­lieves that an em­pha­sis on his own ego not only pro­motes his brand, but gives him the con­fi­dence and stand­ing to achieve more. And psy­chol­o­gists who study nar­cis­sism say such peo­ple of­ten view their chil­dren as mir­rors of them­selves.

“The main is­sue with nar­cis­sists is that ‘peo­ple have to 100 per­cent agree with me about ev­ery­thing,’ ” Golomb said. “‘They have to be on my side.’ And they of­ten are: Usu­ally the par­ent is so fear­ful of crit­i­cism com­ing his way that he makes the child fear­ful of ever ex­press­ing their mis­ery. They have to agree with and sup­port the nar­cis­sis­tic par­ent.”

Which may ex­plain why Trump of­ten speaks of his chil­dren and his par­ents through the prism of his own life. At his fa­ther’s fu­neral, Trump talked mainly about him­self. His sib­lings told sto­ries about their fa­ther; Don­ald in­stead re­cited a list of his ac­com­plish­ments, not­ing that his fa­ther had stood by him at each turn.

Gwenda Blair, the author of “The Trumps,” a multi-gen­er­a­tional study of the fam­ily, con­cluded that Don­ald, his fa­ther, Fred, and his grand­fa­ther Friedrich Trump had a foun­da­tional sim­i­lar­ity: “All three were en­er­getic peo­ple who would do al­most any­thing to make a buck; all three pos­sessed a cer­tain ruth­less­ness; all three had a free and easy way about the truth,” Blair wrote.

Of the pres­i­dent’s adult chil­dren, Don­ald Jr. is per­haps the most like his pa­ter­nal lin­eage.

Don­ald Jr. is dif­fer­ent from Ivanka and Eric in that he re­belled against his fa­ther. He was 15 in 1993, when his fa­ther mar­ried Marla Maples in the af­ter­math of his tabloid-chron­i­cled di­vorce from Ivana Trump. The old­est child hit back hard against a wrench­ing, all-too-pub­lic trauma. “You don’t love us,” he told his fa­ther, ac­cord­ing to an oft-cited ac­count in Van­ity Fair. “You don’t even love your­self. You just love your money.” But in that same era, Don Jr. de­fended his fa­ther with his fists, punch­ing back at kids who taunted him about the di­vorce.

Don­ald Trump in those years was frank about his dis­tance from his chil­dren, telling in­ter­view­ers that he didn’t do things like change di­a­pers or play ball with them. “Sta­tis­ti­cally, my chil­dren have a very bad shot,” he told Play­boy in 1990. “Chil­dren of suc­cess­ful peo­ple are gen­er­ally very, very trou­bled, not suc­cess­ful.” More re­cently, Trump joked that de­mo­graph­i­cally, his kids should have ended up “in re­hab.”

But to­day, he takes ev­i­dent, abun­dant pride in the fact that they in­stead have be­come es­sen­tial cogs in the fam­ily busi­ness. He told me in an in­ter­view last year that by bring­ing them into the en­ter­prise in their teens — as his own fa­ther did with him — he turned their re­la­tion­ship around. “I mean, I love my chil­dren,” he said, “but I got to know my chil­dren much bet­ter af­ter they grad­u­ated from col­lege, in a sense, be­cause they came to work here.”

Trump Jr. has said he was raised largely by his mother and her Czech par­ents. Af­ter the di­vorce, he re­fused to speak to his fa­ther for more than a year. But the icy re­la­tion­ship thawed with time. Trump Jr. told The Post’s Dan Zak last year that “it wasn’t a ‘Hey, son, let’s go play catch in the back yard’ kind of fa­ther-son re­la­tion­ship . . . . It was: ‘Hey, you’re back from school? Come down to the of­fice.’ ”

De­spite the early dis­tance — which in­cluded board­ing school and, in Don’s case, a cou­ple of years of bar­tend­ing, camp­ing and par­ty­ing in the Colorado Rock­ies — the Trump chil­dren de­vel­oped an abid­ing loy­alty to their fa­ther. By the time Trump Jr. joined the fam­ily com­pany in 2001, he sounded very much like his dad: brash, con­fi­dent, a son of a wealthy man who nonethe­less came off like a street fighter.

For the Trumps, gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion, the fam­ily is the busi­ness, and the busi­ness is the fam­ily.

Once the kids ac­cepted the terms of their re­la­tion­ship with their fa­ther, he be­came their booster — and he be­gan to praise them in fa­mil­iar terms. He loves to quote peo­ple he met on the cam­paign trail who told him how great his chil­dren are. He seems es­pe­cially im­pressed that even peo­ple who said they would never vote for him told him he did some­thing right in bring­ing them up.

“Chil­dren of nar­cis­sists are of­ten high achiev­ers be­cause they live in fear that their par­ent will cut them off for a while if they fail to re­flect him,” Golomb said. “It’s a very iso­lat­ing way of be­ing raised. They know ex­actly what will up­set him, and they behave to pro­tect him. They can’t be­come au­ton­o­mous.”

Peo­ple who study nar­cis­sism say such par­ents of­ten de­mand un­ques­tion­ing ac­cep­tance and threaten their chil­dren with re­jec­tion if they seem dis­obe­di­ent. But in some fam­i­lies headed by nar­cis­sists, it’s lit­tle more than a threat, be­cause the adult chil­dren have learned their roles so well. They la­bor as a mat­ter of course to stay in their par­ent’s good graces.

This past week, when Trump Jr. went on TV to de­fend him­self and his fa­ther, the pres­i­dent hardly needed to mount a vig­or­ous ar­gu­ment on be­half of his old­est. His next son did it for him. Eric Trump tweeted: “This is the EX­ACT rea­son they vi­ciously at­tack our fam­ily! They can’t stand that we are ex­tremely close and will AL­WAYS sup­port each other.”

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The pres­i­dent’s chil­dren un­der­stand and ac­cept their re­la­tion­ship with their fa­ther: that there is lit­tle sepa­ra­tion be­tween him and them.

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