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World & Nation

Donald Trump Jr.: Provocateur and preacher for his father

Donald Trump Jr. speaks at a campaign rally for his father in August in Cincinnati
Donald Trump Jr. speaks before the arrival of President Trump at a campaign rally Aug. 1 at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

The shout of “2024!” from the crowd was unmistakable. It stopped Donald Trump Jr. cold.

President Trump’s eldest son had been in the midst of a humor-laced screed in which he decried Joe Biden as too old and Elizabeth Warren as too liberal and insisted his father’s 2016 campaign was too disorganized to possibly collude with the Russians. As many in the crowd of several hundred laughed, Trump Jr. held a dramatic pause before exclaiming his response:

“Let’s worry about 2020 first!” he yelled.

The son has become the prime warm-up act for the father at political rallies, often appearing more than an hour before the president speaks, another bombastic provocateur who revels in the tribal loyalty of the supporters who pack Trump rallies. It is a call to arms to a fawning crowd and Trump Jr. has become a master preacher.

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His speeches are laced with the same incendiary, sometimes false rhetoric as his father’s, at times even questioning whether Democrats can call themselves Christians. But in these venues, his word is gospel.

The “2024" call from the audience at a San Antonio convention center room Tuesday underscored the rising stardom of the president’s eldest son, who has become the swaggering embodiment of the “Make America Great Again” ethos.

By far the presidential scion with the closest connection to conservative voters, Trump Jr. is already playing a key role in his father’s reelection effort, especially in strongly Republican districts. But where he was once under the scrutiny of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, now he is drawing criticism for seemingly hypocritical attacks on another son of a famous politician.

And he doesn’t seem to care.

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“In 2016, my father said something very serious. He goes, ‘What do you have to lose?’ And he was right,” said Trump Jr., broadening a pitch the president first made to black voters to reach the entire electorate. “So America, you gave him a chance and he has delivered on those promises. Now, what do you have to lose? A lot.”

And then Trump Jr., who was the headliner on this warm October day, gleefully skewered one of the president’s Democratic foes. “Joe Biden, when on the campaign trail, his whole thesis was that government has failed. No [duh], Joe!”

Trump Jr. was one of the campaign’s potent tools in 2016, frequently sent out to small towns and rural areas where the Republican candidate looked to turn out disaffected voters who hadn’t cast ballots in years. An even more aggressive campaign schedule is in the works for 2020.

“He’s the future,” said Annie Davidson, 65, of Alamo Heights, Texas. “He’s just like his father, and I can’t wait to vote for him someday too.”

By far the most outspoken of his siblings, Trump Jr. has never shied away from a political fight, even when it leads some to question his own sense of self-awareness.

He has been one of the loudest critics of Biden’s son Hunter, suggesting that Hunter Biden had opportunities in other countries, including Ukraine, only because of family connections.

“When you’re the father and your son’s entire career is dependent on that, they own you,” Trump Jr. told Fox News last week.

Some critics could not resist noting that Donald Trump Jr. shares both the first and last names of a man who gave him his high-paying corporate job and elevated his standing during the 2016 presidential campaign. It was the president’s push for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens that prompted House Democrats to launch an impeachment investigation.

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“We’re left with a situation where every presidential action is under a cloud of suspicion for corruption, and that suspicion increasingly seems justified,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Trump Jr. has pushed back, suggesting that his criticism of Hunter Biden was not for having a famous father but rather for trading access to his father’s office to enrich himself. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden.

Hunter Biden told ABC last week that although his decision to take the job was not unethical, it showed “poor judgment.” But he also made clear that “Trump Jr. is not somebody that I really care about.”

Moreover, despite a pledge to immediately cease all international business once the president took office, the Trump Organization has continued to work on previously struck agreements and profited from the presidency. Congress has called for investigations into foreign officials being steered to stay at the Trump hotel in Washington and Air Force crew members spending nights at Trump’s Scotland golf resort.

Trump Jr.'s eyebrow-raising attacks on another political son came just days after he had to distance himself from a headline-grabbing tempest when it was reported that he had recently attended a Florida conference for Trump supporters where a parody video was screened that depicted the president killing members of the news media and political opponents.

Trump Jr. said he never saw the video, which aired as part of a three-day conference at the president’s golf club outside Miami. But Trump Jr., who prides himself in his ability to use social media to poke at liberals, was quick to draw an equivalency on Friday. He used Twitter to point out an apparel company’s Midtown Manhattan billboard that depicted the president being assaulted.

“Since you had time to thoroughly cover a stupid and tasteless meme seen by 8 people with incredible outrage, I figured you should dedicate the same time and outrage to THIS BILLBOARD IN TIMES SQUARE you hypocrites!” he tweeted. “Unless of course you’re just full of [it].”

Trump Jr. has long relished posting button-pushing tweets. His Twitter feed has traded in conspiracy theories and hard-line messages about immigration and gun control, and he has a book on the way that hits the same themes. He once circulated a post that compared Syrian refugees to a bowl of Skittles candy that contained some that “would kill you.”

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Trump Jr. declined a request for an interview for this story.

He is unbowed and unapologetic, and his approach appears to mirror his father’s combative defiance toward the controversies that swirl around the White House and the Trump family.

Though he runs the Trump Organization with his brother, Eric, Trump Jr.'s political obligations frequently keep him far from his office on the 25th floor of Trump Tower. The more politically minded of the two brothers, Trump Jr. has embraced his role as a popular emissary for his father, crisscrossing the country on campaign trips, showcasing his relationship with former Fox News host Kim Guilfoyle and headlining Republican fundraisers.

Though he grew up in Manhattan and Florida’s gilded coast, Trump Jr. has established deep ties among rural Republicans and become an outspoken defender of the 2nd Amendment. He is viewed by many close to the president as a more logical political heir apparent than his sister, Ivanka Trump. Where Ivanka Trump, a senior White House aide, has taken to promoting women’s and economic issues while hovering in diplomatic circles at international summits, Trump Jr.'s Instagram feed is filled with hunting and fishing photos.

In 2018, he did more than 70 events for GOP candidates and state parties and will easily eclipse that next year when his father’s name is on the ballot. Those close to him say he may run for office someday, but probably not until after his five children are considerably older.

His front-and-center role for the campaign is a relatively unusual one for recent presidential offspring. Presidents Obama and Clinton had children too young to campaign. And although President George H.W. Bush’s adult children — including a future president — were in Washington at times, they did not assume the star presence of Trump Jr.

He has not shied away from the spotlight or criticism, having been battle-hardened by the pressure he faced during Mueller’s Russia investigation, which looked into a 2016 meeting Trump Jr. had with a Kremlin-connected lawyer seeking damaging information on Hillary Clinton. No charges were brought against him.

On the campaign trail, Trump Jr. derides the impeachment inquiry and credits his father’s business acumen for economic gains, declaring in San Antonio, “It’s nice to have someone running the country who has signed the front of a paycheck and not just the back.”

The crowd roared and Guilfoyle applauded. After the rally, the eldest Trump son headlined a big-dollar dinner in Texas and, days later, was barnstorming in West Virginia for more Republican candidates.

There was more talk of, someday, a possible Trump political dynasty.

“I expect Don to be a player in the conservative movement for years and years to come,” said Andrew Surabian, a Republican strategist who advises Trump Jr.

Lemire writes for the Associated Press.


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