NEW YORK — Donald Trump Jr. has been in the public eye since becoming the first-born child of a magnate, but the flashes of him were fleeting — a boy caught in his parents’ messy divorce, a 20-something accessory on a reality show, a hunter in gory photos with exotic prey.
His current image has been cemented for many with his full-throttle embrace of his father’s campaign and his sometimes ruthless, no-penance turns, appearing on a white nationalist’s radio show, likening Syrian refugees to poisonous Skittles and using Holocaust imagery to describe purported media bias. When approached with an offer of Russian help defeating Hillary Clinton, he oozed enthusiasm, emailing back “I love it.”
But even as many Americans who despise his politics have come to see him as nothing more than a consigliere, many who know him insist he’s all courtesy and humility up close.
“I know the father’s an animal — we all know that. But the son is a doll,” said Randy Narod, a one-time business partner of Trump Jr.
The 39-year-old presidential namesake stepped into his most scrutinized role yet Thursday, appearing for questions by staff members of the Senate Judiciary Committee as lawmakers probe Russian meddling in the election that handed his father the White House.
His testimony gave glimpses of a man who has both relished the name he was born into and distanced himself from it, who has sought a life different from his father and carbon-copied his braggadocio, who has built dueling personas of a brass-knuckled, slick-haired, win-at-all costs New York millionaire and unassuming, down-to-earth American everyman.
In the beginning, Trump Jr. — he declined to be interviewed for this story — sought to escape the notice of onlookers and a press that documented so much of his life, from a grainy black-and-white photo of him at his beloved grandfather’s gravesite to the news brief reporting his mother had given him condoms and sex education books in preparation for his first date.
Tired of the assumptions that came with his surname, he presented himself opaquely, trying to flee the baggage that came with his father’s identity.
“I’d just introduce myself as Don,” he once told Barbara Walters. “Avoid the last name at all costs.”
Like his father, he attended the University of Pennsylvania but, over his parents’ objections, spent time afterward in Aspen, Colorado, working as a bartender and immersing himself in his passions of fly-fishing, hunting and skiing.
He got a reputation as a stumbling drinker in his youth, with a 2001 arrest for public drunkenness in New Orleans and a 2002 dispute at a New York comedy club in which two men were arrested for bashing him in the head with a beer stein. But he stopped drinking about 15 years ago, he says.
Even after going to work for the Trump Organization in 2001, he showed a desire at points in his 20s and early 30s to escape his father’s shadow. In 2010, when he partnered with Narod’s company, Cambridge Who’s Who, a press release billed it as a step to “expand his own Donald Trump Jr. brand.”
Then photos from a Zimbabwean hunting trip surfaced, with a smiling Trump Jr. holding an elephant tail in one hand and a knife in the other, a rifle resting against the carcass of the animal. The public scorn and Trump Jr.’s regret-free reflexes convinced Narod his affiliation was hurting more than it helped and he said he let Trump Jr.’s contract run out.
Still, he recalls his one-time partner as humble, respectful and impressive.
Trump Jr. also struck out in his partnership with the mobile app company Macrosolve, which morphed into a patent enforcement firm before collapsing. And Titan-Atlas — a South Carolina company he launched with a partner, making concrete walls for pre-fab houses — flopped, too.
The failure of Titan-Atlas brought lawsuits, including one from the company’s own outside law firm alleging it was never paid in full. When the firm suggested it planned to name Trump Jr. in its suit, lawyers for the businessman’s father threatened to bring ethics charges against one the law firm’s partners. The case was settled out of court.
His sister Ivanka, meanwhile, was building her own successful brand.
As the solo ventures diminished for Trump Jr., he showed a willingness to accept his birthright, immersing himself in Trump Organization deals and traveling the globe on its behalf, appearing beside his father on “The Apprentice” and granting the interviews he once eschewed.
When New York magazine called in 2005 asking his annual salary, he happily shared it — $500,000, he said.
By the time his father became the Republican presidential nominee last year, he spoke at ease with members of the press even as he belittled them as unfair, becoming one of the campaign’s most important, but also controversial, surrogates.
Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist who traveled with Trump Jr. to dozens of campaign events last year, said he was awed by the enthusiasm he witnessed in Trump Jr.‘s push to round up millennials’ votes, watching him jump on picnic tables to address fraternity house crowds and hopping puddle-jumper flights to college tailgates.
Kirk said Trump Jr. deserves more credit for his father’s victory, describing how he repeatedly heard rally-goers approach him at the rope line with similar words.
“They’d say, ‘I’m voting for your father because of you,’” Kirk said.
Trump Jr.’s importance to his father was evident even before the election’s outcome put him and brother Eric in charge of the Trump Organization. He impressed his father with his design aesthetic, even as their visions were sometimes contradictory (polished nickel bathroom faucets, for example, versus the elder Trump’s penchant for polished brass).
He says he has inherited his father’s ego and insists he is “the one person who can stand up to my father,” as he told Politico.
Through the years, Trump Jr. has repeatedly fought perceptions of having been handed his success or of being seen only in the money-money-money mold of his father.
“We weren’t spoon fed,” he told Real Estate Weekly in 2004. “I’ve had to work for everything,” he insisted in a 2006 Florida speech covered by The Bradenton Herald.
He also continually portrays himself as someone unafraid of getting his hands dirty both on the job and off. “As comfortable in a D10 Caterpillar as we are in our cars,” he said at the Republican convention. “More comfortable in camo than I am in a suit,” he told the Times-Leader in Pennsylvania.
Thomas Hicks Jr., a longtime friend, said those self-assessments are true. He describes Trump Jr. as someone who is always opinionated and always right, a “fighter” and “a tough guy,” but with an authenticity that allows him to connect with people of many backgrounds.
Even among those who profess disdain for Trump Jr.’s father are some who see a difference in his eldest son.
“I wish I had some kind of unflattering story about him to share,” said Frank Hundley, a Trump Jr. classmate at The Hill School, a Pennsylvania boarding institution.
Hundley is active in Democratic politics in Nashville and describes himself as “horrified” by his former classmate’s father. But he said he’s at a loss for criticism when it comes to brushes with the son.
“He didn’t dress flashy or draw attention to himself and he was jovial and polite,” Hundley said.
Though Trump Jr.‘s affection for his father has become evident in moments like the kisses on the cheek they often exchange, he has spoken of the difficulty in seeing his parents’ marriage dissolve before him on tabloid front pages and of not speaking to his father for a year after the divorce became final. A 1990 Vanity Fair account claims a 12-year-old Trump Jr. once angrily shouted to his father, “You just love your money!”
The elder Trump once mocked fathers who change their child’s diapers and said he wasn’t interested in pushing a baby carriage or playing with toy trucks and dolls, but friends of Trump Jr. portray him as a highly engaged father of five.
As much as some see Trump Jr. diverging from his father at home, many see hard-edge tactics from the same playbook when it comes to work.
Eleven years ago, Eugenia Kaye was living in a spacious apartment on New York’s Upper West Side in a building the Trump Organization managed. Trump Jr. sat on the condo board.
When residents received word that the management company had let a utility bill go unpaid for months and they were now in arrears, Kaye was determined to find out why the building seemed so poorly run. It was “like pulling teeth” prying any financial documents from the Trumps, she said. When she finally did, she said she found questionable expenses, including $80,000 in spending on office supplies.
After she lobbied others to vote to remove Trump Jr. and other board members, he was ousted and she became president. But her success was fleeting. A flurry of lawsuits followed, and Kaye was accused of assault by the building manager, a claim she said was bogus and provoked by Trump. No charges were ever filed, but police came to her apartment and upset her daughter. It became so unpleasant that she sold her apartment and moved out.
“They make your life so impossible and so miserable and so terrifying,” Kaye said.
The Trump Organization did not answer questions about the dispute, but provided contact information for a couple who lived in the building, Don and Ruth Panush, who disputed Kaye’s account of mismanagement.
Kaye sees the actions of father and son as synonymous and believes neither does something without the other knowing.
“When I saw the headline that Trump was trying to justify what his son did in every possible way, I was like, ‘Yup. That sounds familiar,’” she said.
In Scotland, David Milne felt similar strong-arming after Trump Jr.’s father unsuccessfully tried to buy Milne’s home on the North Sea coast, saying it marred the view from his golf course to the roiling sea.
Though the Trump Organization said in a written statement that Trump Jr. was “nothing but respectful and gracious,” Milne recalled at least six visits by the scion to his home — visits that Milne said started with extended hands and polite greetings but devolved into threats.
During one meeting, Milne’s wife took Trump Jr. around the side of the house to make it clear why they would never budge. “Look at it,” she said, gesturing to the dramatic coastline and prized views 40 miles into the distance.
In short order, Milne said, the Trumps planted dozens of towering spruces that blocked the couple’s panorama. That did nothing to convince the couple to leave, however, and they felt a sense of vindication as the trees grew bare and died, one after another, and the view began to return.
It was fleeting. The Trumps’ crews headed back out and planted a new batch.
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