Until a few days ago, Donald Trump Jr was best known for a dark and aggressive speech to the Republican national convention, his love of hunting and a couple of particularly terrible photographs.
In one photo, he holds up the bloody tail of an elephant from an African safari; another has him posing ridiculously on a sawn tree stump.
This week, the eldest son of the president of the United States made international headlines, and provided what some see as the “smoking gun” in the Trump-Russia saga. Specifically, we learned he responded to an offer of Russian government help in taking down Hillary Clinton not by calling the FBI, but rather, by saying, “I love it!”
Trump Jr – Don, as he’s known – emerged last year as a minor figure on the campaign trail, introducing his father at rallies, giving sporadic media interviews, and making controversial claims on Twitter, including, infamously, one comparing Skittles and refugees. More recently, as many of his father’s defenders have kept their distance, Trump Jr has taken up the role of attack dog. Last month, when the former FBI director James Comey testified on his firing, the elder Trump was uncharacteristically quiet on Twitter. But his son kept up a steady drumbeat of tweets defending his dad.
But all that pales beside what has emerged as the single most damning piece of evidence in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. The emails, which Trump Jr tweeted out minutes before the New York Times could publish them, clearly show that he and other top Trump officials agreed to meet with a Kremlin-connected lawyer as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”, as an intermediary wrote.
They also present a point of comparison between the often-overlooked younger Trump and his dad. Longtime observers of the Trump family say Trump Sr never would have been careless enough put those details in an email. But the differences between the two men run much deeper.
When Don Jr was born, on New Year’s Eve in 1977, his father, who was 31, had already very publicly arrived. He had launched a $100m lawsuit against the federal government. He had proposed the world’s largest housing complex. He had managed to pull off a huge tax break for his first project. And with frequent appearances in New York’s tabloids, he was already well on his way to making the Trump name into a worldwide brand.
Donald Trump Jr and the Russia connection
“Every waking hour was about getting his name in front of the public,” Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, said. “Building, buying: an airline, a football stadium, the Plaza hotel, the world’s sixth largest yacht, Mar-a-Lago – you name it. If it’s big, if it’s showy, if it gets headlines, he was going to buy it. All of that was getting under way when Donald Jr. was born. So this kid was never going to escape notice, he was never going to be anonymous.”
It also meant his father wasn’t around much.
“You just love your money,” Trump Jr once shouted at his father, according to Michael D’Antonio, author of Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success.
In The Art of the Deal, with the help of the ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, Trump Sr spun it into a more playful situation. “I adore [my kids], but I’ve never been great at playing with toy trucks and dolls,” Trump wrote. “I tell Donny I’ll be home as soon as I can, but he insists on a time. Perhaps he’s got my genes: the kid won’t take no for an answer.”
In fact, Trump Sr was more right than he knew. But that Don Jr is truly is father’s son wouldn’t become apparent for some time.
Growing up, Don Jr spent summers staying with his maternal grandparents outside Prague. In particular, Ivana Trump’s father, Milos Zelnicek, was a role model, instilling in his grandson a love of hunting and fishing. Back in New York, he and his siblings were often accompanied by bodyguards.
It wasn’t your average existence, but Don Jr’s life might still have been considered normal among children of the richest New Yorkers – at least, until he turned 12.
That year, tabloids chronicled his father’s extramarital affair with Marla Maples, an aspiring model and actress, and his parent’s marriage collapsed in an extremely public fashion. Unlike his younger siblings Eric and Ivanka, who could remain for the most part blissfully unaware, Don Jr was just old enough to follow what was happening.
“Listen, it’s tough to be a 12-year-old,” Trump Jr told New York magazine in 2004. “You’re not quite a man, but you think you are. You think you know everything. Being driven into school every day and you see the front page and it’s: ‘Divorce! THE BEST SEX I EVER HAD!’ And you don’t even know what that means. At that age, kids are naturally cruel.”
After that, he didn’t speak to his father for a year, and refused to attend the wedding with Maples. He was sent off to a strict boarding school, the Hill School in Pennsylvania, something he later said was a relief from his home life and the fishbowl of New York. But escaping his parents didn’t mean escaping his problems.
Cameron Greenlee, who attended the boarding school with both Trump brothers and served as a resident assistant to Eric, recalled Don Jr as quiet and his father as absent.
“I remember nothing of his dad except him showing up to give a bad career day speech,” Greenlee, whose older brother played squash with Don Jr., told the Guardian. “I don’t remember his father coming to see Donny play squash or visiting Eric in the dormitory.”
Of Don Jr, he added: “There was an air of arrogance or snobbiness, but I would call it slight. He was pretty quiet, from what I remember.”
Trump Jr went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, like his father. In the prestigious school’s undergraduate program, the younger Trump’s rebelliousness grew more pronounced. He developed a drinking problem, something he’s talked about openly in years since. “To be fairly candid, I used to drink a lot and party pretty hard, and it wasn’t something that I was particularly good at,” he told New York magazine.
One former classmate, Scott Melker, recalled in a viral Facebook post that other students regularly saw Trump Jr stumbling around campus and passing out in public.
After graduating, instead of jumping into business, Trump Jr went to work as a bartender in Aspen, Colorado, reacquainting himself with the woods he’d grown to love as a child. But in February of the year after he graduated, he was arrested at a Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans for public drunkenness and spent half a day in jail.
After his time in the literal and proverbial wilderness, Don Jr decided to join his father’s real estate company.
As he finished completion of his first project, he bickered with his father on minor issues of decor, and joked that the building should read “Trump Jr” (his father didn’t agree). From there, he quickly moved up the ranks of his father’s firm. Later he would take an interest in the television side of the Trump business as well, co-starring in “The Apprentice” and serving as a judge for some of his dad’s Miss USA pageants.
Meanwhile, his personal life was coming together. In 2003, he quit drinking and proposed to his girlfriend, the model Vanessa Haydon, a year later. He proposed in a New Jersey mall surrounded media thanks to a publicity deal cut with a store that paid for the $100,000 ring (his father told Larry King he thought that was “tacky”).
It wasn’t the young Trump’s only public misstep. In 2012, when the elephant tail photo sparked public outcry, he went on Twitter to declare he would “make no apologies” to the “Peta crazies”.
“In some parts its over populated. Bottom line with out hunters $ there wouldn’t be much left of africa. Eco is nice but no $,” one tweet from the time read.
More recently, he’s displayed a natural knack for his father’s game of fanning the flames of conspiracy theories. He tweeted that he wanted to give a “Pulitzer” to the propagator of “Pizzagate”, the conspiracy theory that Clinton aides ran a child sex ring out of basement of pizza shop that, in reality, has no basement.
The 39-year-old has five children, like his dad. And though he prides himself on being a committed family man, at least some of his values regarding women seem to be in line with his father’s, as evidenced by old tweets about his “hookups” with forgotten female classmates and his playing arbiter of women’s beauty in his dad’s pageants.
He has mused about running for office, “maybe when the kids get out of school”, as he basked in some conservative adulation after his Cleveland convention speech last summer. At the Republican national convention, he spun his silver-spoon background as privileged but tough. “We’re the only children of billionaires as comfortable in a D10 Caterpillar as we are in our own cars,” he said.
His ambitions were on the back burner this week, however, as he sought to downplay the significance of his Russian meeting, but at the same time, hired a lawyer.
On Tuesday, just hours before his emails were made public and it became clear he knew exactly with whom he was meeting, he tweeted: “Media & Dems are extremely invested in the Russia story. If this nonsense meeting is all they have after a yr, I understand the desperation!”
The media persisted – the concerns, as the public would find out later that morning, were warranted.
Born: Donald John Trump Jr, in Manhattan, 31 December 1977
Career: After brief stint bartending in Aspen, Colorado, he moved back to New York to join the Trump Organization, supervising Trump Park Avenue and other projects. He took an interest in other family enterprises in later years, appearing as a guest adviser on his father’s reality television show The Apprentice and as a judge of various Miss USA pageants.
High point: Just before the news of his meeting with the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, he was riding high as executive director of The Trump Organization and one of the president’s closest confidants.
Low point: On Tuesday 11 July 2017, he produced the most damning evidence yet in the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling in the US election, catapulting himself on to the international stage with emails showing he knowingly met with a Russian lawyer claiming to have “dirt” on his father’s rival.
He says: “I think I probably got a lot of my father’s natural security, or ego, or whatever … I can be my own person and not have to live under his shadow. I definitely look up to him in many ways – I’d like to be more like him when it comes to business – but I think I’m such a different person, it’s hard to even compare us. His work persona is kind of what he is. I have a work face, and then there’s my private life,” – Trump Jr to New York magazine, 2004.
They say: “It’s a do-anything-you-can-to-win world that he’s part of, and his eagerness to meet with this lawyer, who was very explicitly described as having information that came from Russian government sources – there’s no mystery there. There’s no veil. There’s not even one veil. Her name wasn’t mentioned but everything else was very explicit and he leaps at it. That’s all part of this all-that-matters-is-winning, there’s winning and there’s losing, that’s it. That’s the value system and in that way, he very much echoes his father.” – Gwenda Blair, Trump biographer, to the Guardian, 12 July 2017.