Though the president is fiercely loyal to his children, some observers wonder if deepening and dangerous controversy might test such bonds to breaking point
It was an unseasonably cool day in New York. At 1.50pm on 9 June, Hillary Clinton tweeted that Barack Obama was backing her for US president. Half an hour later, Donald Trump tweeted: “Obama just endorsed Crooked Hillary.” At 2.27pm, Clinton replied: “Delete your account”. It was the most retweeted post of her campaign.
Just before 4pm, several figures passed through the shiny marble atrium of Trump Tower and took the elevator up to the office of Donald Trump Jr on the 25th floor, one below that of his father. Among them was Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer, and Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian American lobbyist and former Soviet military officer.
What passed between them remains a matter of uncertain recollections and international intrigue. The meeting was kept secret for more than a year. When news of it first emerged last Saturday, the world was provided with the first public evidence that Trump campaign officials met with Russians in an attempt to swing the election – the political crime of the century. A steady drip of damning details followed.
It also showed that a scandal frequently compared to Watergate goes right to the heart of the Trump family business. The president’s oldest son had handed investigators and journalists the much sought-after smoking gun. The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, also attended the meeting and failed to declare it. The president’s daughter, Ivanka, faces continued scrutiny over her own role in the White House.
Like everything else, Trump does not do nepotism by halves. His three sons and two daughters have been seen as a political asset – even Clinton once said during an otherwise rancorous presidential debate: “I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald.”
But recent events beg the question of whether they are becoming a liability. And, some ponder, is Trump certain to remain loyal to them, or would he throw his own son under the bus if it was politically expedient?
“The core organising principles of his life are winning and family,” said Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. “It will be interesting to see what happens if those two principles come into competition.”
The Trump family have earned comparisons with the Corleone clan, from The Godfather novels and films. Donald Jr was dubbed Fredo Corleone several times over this week. But perhaps a more accurate template for a man steeped in the glitzy, avaricious 1980s are the Ewing and Colby clans in the glossy soaps Dallas and Dynasty.
Donald Jr, Eric and Ivanka Trump’s involvement in their father’s property, hotel, golf and merchandise empire perhaps made it seem natural for them to join his seemingly quixotic campaign for White House too. They were among the former Apprentice host’s biggest cheerleaders at rallies, in TV interviews and amid the raucous circus of the Republican national convention.
So it was that on 3 June 2016 Don Jr received a bombshell email from an acquaintance, Rob Goldstone, a British music publicist, dangling the promise of documents that would “incriminate” Clinton and her dealings with Russia.
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and it’s government’s support for Mr Trump,” the email added.
Donald Jr should, by most independent opinion, have alerted the FBI to a potential assault on American democracy by a foreign adversary. Instead he wrote back gleefully: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
On 7 June, Don Jr and Goldstone agreed to set up a meeting with “a Russian government attorney” flying in from Moscow. That night, Trump swept Republican primaries in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota, earning enough delegates to officially clinch the party nomination.
In a victory speech, with Ivanka and wife Melania standing behind him, Trump declared: “I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.”
Two days later, on 9 June, Trump and Clinton were locking antlers on Twitter over Obama’s endorsement. Goldstone’s Facebook account shows that he arrived at Trump Tower at 3.12pm. At 4pm, he joined the meeting that included Trump Jr, Kushner, then campaign manager Paul Manafort, Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin.
The following Monday, Trump’s speech did not deliver the promised goods on Clinton. But on 15 June, a hacker calling himself “Guccifer 2.0” released files stolen from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Later that summer, WikiLeaks published huge dumps of emails stolen from the DNC and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.
US intelligence agencies concluded that Russian president Vladimir Putin was responsible for the hack. Ever since Trump’s astonishing election victory in November, there has been a cloud of suspicion about whether he colluded with Moscow to pull it off. There were his past business dealings in Russia; there was his strange reluctance to criticise Putin, his associates’ failure to declare contacts with the Russian ambassador, his dismissal of the director of the FBI. A special counsel and two congressional committees are working on the giant jigsaw puzzle.
But a series of revelations led by the New York Times this week landed the biggest piece yet. Confronted with the fact of the meeting, Trump Jr first claimed it had been about a block on American families adopting Russian children; then he was forced to admit that dirt on Clinton had been offered, though he claimed it came to nought; then he was forced to release his email correspondence with Goldstone; then it emerged that Akhmetshin had also been in the room when it happened.
Donald Jr, 39, enjoys shooting big game in Africa, but this week’s saga turned him from hunter to hunted. There was public humiliation as he made the cover of Time magazine, while the New York Post said bluntly: “Donald Trump Jr is an idiot.” Even his father was slow to take up his cause, remaining silent for nearly three days, then offering a 12-word statement. Eventually, he came through for his offspring, insisting that he is “a wonderful young man” and that “most people in politics probably would have taken” the meeting.
What Trump has said to his son behind closed doors is open to speculation. He learned from his ruthless mentor, Roy Cohn, never to leave a paper trail. That was the mistake Don Jr made in committing his thoughts to email, which could result in him having to testify under oath to Congress.
Donald Jr is the child most like his father and the one his father finds most challenging. When he turned 12, Donald Jr’s parents’ marriage collapsed in the wake of Trump having an affair that was a feast for tabloids.
“You don’t love us! You don’t even love yourself. You just love your money!” he shouted at his father after the divorce, according to a 1990 article in Vanity Fair. He did not speak to his father for a year and was sent packing to a strict boarding school – just as Trump had been as a boy. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, where his father also studied, he drank hard and raised hell.
But now Donald Jr, who has taken over the Trump Organisation with brother Eric, is his father’s most pugnacious defender on TV and Twitter. He pushes the agenda fiercely and unrepentantly, including tweets that compared refugees to Skittles and sniping at the mayor of London in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. In a Fox News interview this week, he said of criticism of his family: “It does make you want to fight back. That’s perhaps what we are. We are fighters. And they don’t take well to that either because most people they don’t like being called on their stuff.”
Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, interviewed Donald Jr in 2004. “He wanted to make clear he was not a workaholic like his dad, not a headline hunter, but was more laid back and took time for his personal life,” she recalled. “There wasn’t going to be an Apprentice Jr.
“But I think over time that transactional world is what he’s become part of. As you see from these emails, he’s ready to deal. All of which makes me think he is Apprentice Jr, a chip off the old block. He doesn’t seem have gotten the same soundbite style as his father on Twitter but he’s trying.”
For Trump, the children have become useful political weapons. Blair added: “I think his children are part of his strategy and he trusts them. Don Jr and Eric have been part of the outreach to the gun lobby and white nationalists. Ivanka has turned out to be very useful as this modern-but-not-too-modern woman who can speak up for women’s interests but is still very traditional. Wife, mother, daughter is a very prominent part of her ID.”
Ivanka, 35, who has her own office in the West Wing, is hardly free of baggage. Having recently declared that she tries to stay out of politics, she spent part of last Saturday in her father’s seat alongside world leaders including Putin and Theresa May at the G20 summit in Hamburg. Her company has been criticised for paying low wages to its predominantly female workforce in factories in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Her Sphinx-like husband, Kushner, has emerged as one of the most influential and politically radioactive figures in America. His broad portfolio ranges from working on Middle East peace to reorganising the federal government, but he is reportedly a “person of interest” in the special counsel’s investigation into links with Russia. He failed to mention 100 contacts with foreign officials, including the June 2016 meeting, on his initial application for security clearance. Democrats are demanding that it be revoked and even some Republicans are now expressing concern.
Congressman Bill Flores told the Texas-based broadcaster KBTX: “I’m going out on a limb here, but I would say that I think it would be in the president’s best interest if he removed all of his children from the White House. Not only Donald Trump, but Ivanka and Jared Kushner.”
But that seems unlikely for man who, it was reported this week, sometimes still calls his grown-up children “baby”. Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, said: “Donald Trump has spent all his life in a family firm and it’s clear he has brought what he thinks for from him in that context into the administration, believing it will work there. We’re now testing the proposition that his particular business model is suitable as a government model, and history says that it isn’t.”
Galston listed three objections. “Number one, you can’t really fire them. Trump is famous for saying, ‘You’re fired!’ but I doubt very much he’s going to say that to Jared Kushner or Ivanka. Two, when you have an emotional nexus of family working for you, that might affect your ability to make decisions coolly and objectively. Three, family relationships can screw up non-family relationships.”
Trump is hardly the first occupant of the White House to keep it in the family. John F Kennedy’s brother Robert served as attorney general. Ronald Reagan’s wife Nancy was an influential source of advice. Bill Clinton gave his wife Hillary the daunting task of reforming healthcare, something Galston believes was a mistake.
Joshua Kendall, author of First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama, said: “There have been petty scandals involving kids. Franklin D Roosevelt had a son getting suspiciously high commissions for his insurance business. John Adams had a son who got into a fight with a congressman. But Donald Trump Jr could be the smoking gun that brings his father down.”
Should that be close to happening, the world may finally discover whether blood is thick than water, and whether the Trump children’s loyalty is a two-way street. In January, at a press conference in which the billionaire said he was transferring control of his business to Donald Jr and Eric, he wrapped up: “I hope at the end of eight years, I’ll come back and say, ‘Oh, you did a good job.’ Otherwise, if they do a bad job, I’ll say, ‘You’re fired!’”