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Donald Trump Jr.: The unapologetic son who courts controversy

Who is Donald Trump Jr.? (July 13, 2017)

Donald Trump Jr. has never shied away from controversy.

When photographs surfaced of him in 2012 holding up the severed tail of an elephant alongside his brother Eric and a dead cheetah — the animals their kill from an African safari — he shot back at outraged critics.

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"I'm a hunter," he said. "For that I make no apologies."

During his father's presidential campaign, he compared Syrian refugees to Skittles candy and made allusions to gas chambers when complaining about the media. He infuriated many Londoners after he seemed to blame the mayor for the March terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge.

Now Trump Jr., the president's 39-year-old son, has landed himself in the middle the investigation of Russian interference in last year's presidential campaign.

To his critics, his willingness to meet with a Russian fixer to get dirt on Hillary Clinton could be characterized as "criminally stupid," as the New York Post put it in an editorial on Wednesday.

Trump Jr.'s defenders say that his public release of emails about the meeting was perfectly in keeping with his personality — direct, transparent and brave.

"He is not afraid,'' said Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist from Illinois who worked with Trump Jr. during the presidential campaign. The media, he said, "had the emails and were releasing them piece by piece. Strategically, it made sense to get it out all at once instead of undergoing a death by a thousand cuts."

Donald Jr. is the first-born of Trump's three children by Ivana Trump. By his own account, he was not always the adoring son.

He was 12 years old when his father dumped his mother for Marla Maples. The bitter divorce soured his relationship with his father for years.

"You don't love us! You don't even love yourself. You just love your money!" he yelled at his father after the divorce, according to a 1990 article in Vanity Fair magazine.

He didn't speak to his father for a year and would hang up the phone when he called, he said in other interviews.

Soon afterward, Trump Jr. and the other children were sent off to boarding school. Donald then attended the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton College, his father's alma mater, and earned a reputation as a party boy.

A former classmate, Scott Melker, wrote in a Facebook message last year of an incident during their freshman year in which the elder Trump came to pick him up for a baseball game. Trump Jr. was sloppily dressed in sports jersey. His father slapped him in the face and said, "Put on a suit and meet me downstairs," Melker wrote. (The Trumps later denied it.)

The classmate also wrote that Trump Jr. was frequently drunk.

"Every memory I have of him is of him stumbling around campus falling over or passing out in public, with his arm in a sling from injuring himself while drinking. He absolutely despised his father, and hated the attention that his last name afforded him," he wrote.

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Melker declined to comment Wednesday.

After college, Trump Jr. went to live in Aspen, Colo., where he hunted and fished — hobbies he learned from his Czech grandfather — and lived out of the back of a truck, occasionally working as a bartender. He was arrested in 2001 for public drunkenness during a Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans.

"I used to drink a lot and party pretty hard, and it wasn't something that I was particularly good at," Trump Jr. said in a 2004 interview with New York magazine.

He decided to quit drinking entirely, realizing, he told the magazine, "I have too much of an opportunity to make something of myself, be successful in my own right. Why blow it?"

He entered the family business and got more serious about his life. He married Vanessa Haydon, a former model, in 2005 at his father's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. The couple now have five children and live in the staid Sutton Place neighborhood of New York.

An old friend, Thomas Hicks Jr., describes the apartment as "controlled chaos."

In the business world, Trump Jr. rose quickly to be executive vice president of the Trump Organization, working out of offices in the building where he grew up.

His work included extensive dealings with Russian business people. In a 2008 interview, he said that he had made half a dozen trips to Russia looking for business.

"And in terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.… We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia," he said in the interview with Eturbonews. He added that he was wary of corruption in Russia. "It really is a scary place."

He won praise for hard work and discipline, but never stepped out of the shadow of his father or even his more successful sister, Ivanka.

"Everyone thinks Ivanka is the star of that family. Donald Jr. and Eric are just Donald Trump's sons," said a New York real estate executive who asked not be quoted by name.

In adulthood, Trump Jr.'s relationship with his father has had its occasional bumps. Trump publicly rebuked his son for accepting a free engagement ring for Vanessa from a jewelry store in exchange for publicity.

"You have a name that is hot as a pistol, you have to be very careful with things like this,'' he told Larry King on CNN.

Trump Jr. clearly bristled at being treated perpetually like his father's apprentice, under constant pressure to perform in the family business. "In my father's own words, he would fire us like dogs,'' he said in a 2006 interview with Associated Press.

Just before the election, Trump Jr. accepted an invitation to Paris to an obscure pro-Russian think tank, the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs, for which he was reportedly paid at least $50,000.

After the inauguration, Trump Jr. and his brother Eric were designated to run the Trump Organization and officially keep an arm's length from the White House.

In politics, however, Trump Jr. has been his father's fiercest champion — a virtual attack dog whose status as a private citizen allows him to be less politically correct than the president.

Unlike Ivanka, who gives the impression of being torn between loyalty to her father and her own more liberal politics, Trump Jr. appears to be unequivocally behind his father's agenda.

He also campaigned for Montana's Greg Gianforte, who won a special election for Congress after a controversial campaign in which he body-slammed a journalist.

"He is a genuine conservative. He loves to hunt and fish. He likes going to parts of the country where he connects with people who like to be outdoors," said his friend Hicks.

"It is not just that he is trying to help his father. He has a real passion for the ideas. He believes in the 2nd Amendment, free enterprise, the small government," said Kirk.

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He recalled that during the presidential campaign, Trump Jr. would get up at 4:30 in the morning and work until late at night. He would sometimes fly home on a red-eye to wake up a child on their birthday.

"Don was very disciplined, very high-energy," Kirk said. "I don't think he got the appreciation he deserved during the election."

On Tuesday, the president released a brief statement defending Trump Jr.: "My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency."

Times staff writer Melissa Etehad contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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