Donald Trump raised sons who became his emissaries, but not the way you might think

By Dan Zak

Donald Trump Jr., left, and Eric Trump, right, applaud their father during a caucus night rally in Las Vegas on Feb. 23, 2016. Photo /  David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Washington Post
Donald Trump Jr., left, and Eric Trump, right, applaud their father during a caucus night rally in Las Vegas on Feb. 23, 2016. Photo / David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Washington Post

The children released their own statement from Colorado ski country.

"In discussions among ourselves, we decided to stay in Aspen with our mother and grandmother."

Don Jr. was 15, Ivanka 12, Eric 9. It was December 1993, their father was remarrying after a spectacular divorce from their mother, and the children had a public to answer to. The paparazzi had been in their faces for years. The press had put words in their mouth.

Don Jr. to their father, according to Vanity Fair: "You don't love us! You don't even love yourself. You just love your money."

Eric, to their mother: "Is it true you are going away and not coming back?"

Ivanka: "Mommy, does it mean I'm not going to be Ivanka Trump anymore?"

By their father's second wedding they were exercising self-determination in public, after a childhood headlined by corporate bankruptcy and marital discord.

"Statistically, my children have a very bad shot," Trump once told Playboy. "Children of successful people are generally very, very troubled, not successful."

And yet this man, this Colossus of ego - who has commandeered the presidential campaign with his schoolyard taunts and scorched-earth tactics - has produced at least three well-adjusted human beings who seem kind and good and - "Thank you" - down-to-earth, polite.

"Thank you," Eric Trump says again, sounding both grateful for the compliments and perhaps relieved that he's not being asked about his comparison of waterboarding to fraternity hazing (rhetoric taken out of context, he says) or his brother's radio interview with a white supremacist (inadvertent and regrettable, Don Jr. says).

Eric is sitting behind a desk at the Old Post Office construction site in Washington, D.C., in mid-April, wearing Ferragamo loafers, silver Tiffany cuff links and a wristwatch the size of a doughnut.

Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. Photo / Getty Images
Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. Photo / Getty Images

OK, so why this gulf between the good father who raised good kids and a nasty campaign persona that's the total opposite?

"I think I juggle with that question too," Eric says. The answer may lie somewhere between the Czech countryside where the children spent their summers with their maternal grandparents and the abandoned steel mills of Pennsylvania, near where they attended boarding school during their teens. In spite of their gilded pedigree, they were guided by experiences and forces and forces that helped keep them grounded.

Eric and Ivanka Trump as children in the early 1990s with their mother Ivana and grandmother Maria Zelnicek. Ron Galella, Ltd / WireImage via Getty Images
Eric and Ivanka Trump as children in the early 1990s with their mother Ivana and grandmother Maria Zelnicek. Ron Galella, Ltd / WireImage via Getty Images

Ivanka has always been the sibling on magazine covers, her father's most frequent family co-star on "The Apprentice," with her own line of shoes, handbags and jewelry. Donald Trump calls her "a star." Eric has called her "the princess" while jokingly referring to himself and Don Jr. as "brutes." The boys, though, are more and more visible in their father's campaign. They've been on TV multiple times in the past week as campaign surrogates, intense and defensive, with Eric saying that he and his siblings are their father's chief campaign advisers.

The brothers were born six years apart and have always been inseparable, they say. Their first memories are not of Fifth Avenue but of Czechoslovakia. The kids spent their summers with their maternal grandparents: Milos Zelnicek, an engineer, and Maria, a former shoe-factory worker. It was a pastoral blue-collar environment, in the last throes of communism, with no video games and only one English-language TV station - the opposite of the skyscraping capitalism that was their birthright.

"You lived a life that wasn't what you saw in the U.S.," Eric says of their summers around the city of Zlín.

Milos, who died in 1990, taught them to shoot and fish. Maria, who still lives near Zlín, taught them to never waste food.

"I even still think that way til this day," Don Jr. says. "I look at a plate of food that's three-quarters eaten and think, 'Well, she'd be screaming at me.' "

Their father was present in their lives, but he was always working. Ivana and her parents raised Don Jr., in effect, and Don Jr. helped raise Eric.

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"I would say my father still was very involved, albeit on different terms," Don Jr. says. "It wasn't a 'Hey, son, let's go play catch in the back yard' kind of father-son relationship. ... It was 'Hey, you're back from school? Come down to the office.' "

Their parents, for all their preoccupations, were masterful disciplinarians. The children were conditioned to resist drugs and alcohol. Their mother promised them each a car if they never touched a cigarette. She once wrote that she made an adolescent Don Jr. read an article on AIDS - out loud - dozens of times to make him terrified of unprotected sex.

Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union disintegrated alongside their parents' marriage. New York tabloids narrated the disaster.

"TRUMP FIRES FIRST $ALVO: He locks wife out of her Plaza office."

"Marla boasts to her pals about Donald: 'BEST SEX I'VE EVER HAD.' "

The attention was humiliating for the kids, who lived with their mother after she was granted custody. Don Jr. blamed his father for the separation and took a break from communicating with him. In grade school on the Upper West Side, he fought two older classmates who made a crack about his mother.

"If somebody said that to me, I'd beat them up too, and I'm proud of him for standing up for me and for his family," Ivana told the headmaster, according to her book "The Best Is Yet to Come."

The Trumps, though feuding, instilled in their children a fierce loyalty to family. They also knew that the best place for them, during adolescence, was away from family - in a structured environment that would help them defy Trump's dire prediction in Playboy.

"My parents were so solid at keeping us away from it," Eric says about the divorce fallout. "And I think boarding school was their subtle way of also doing that."

Donald Trump with his son, Eric, addresses the media following victory in the Florida state primary. Photo / Getty Images
Donald Trump with his son, Eric, addresses the media following victory in the Florida state primary. Photo / Getty Images

Pottstown, Pennsylvania, is a blue-collar borough founded by iron workers in the 18th century, but the Bethlehem Steel plant closed long before Don Jr. and Eric moved there in the 1990s to attend the Hill School, on the recommendation of Ivana's friends who were alumni. Faculty "house parents" live and work there alongside students, who wear crested blazers and have seated lunches in a Hogwarts-like dining hall.

As Pottstown's factories forged the locks of the Panama Canal, so the Hill School shaped the Trump boys. It was a privileged environment, but there was no trading on one's surname.

"It matters more if you're an a--h---or not than if you have a trust fund," says one former administrator.

The Trumps forgot to bring bed sheets when they dropped off 13-year-old "Donny" in 1991, so they went to the nearest Kmart. The errand made the local newspaper. The faculty braced itself for a media onslaught that never really came. Don Jr. was relieved to have a haven, away from nannies and cameras, amid trees, rivers and sky.

Donald Trump and Ivana Trump in 1986. Photo / Getty Images
Donald Trump and Ivana Trump in 1986. Photo / Getty Images

When Eric arrived for his first year in 1997, Hill employees were waiting to take his bags, but he only had one (plus a lamp). The brothers, known for being welcoming to new students, became prefects of their dormitories.

"They were contemporaries of the Hiltons and that whole high-profile scene in New York," says Jennifer Lagor, the Hill's assistant headmaster for student life. "I remember Eric and Donny being like, 'We're not going to hang out at those parties.' ... I have such a strong memory of really happy guys."

When they were home for the summer, they labored on their father's construction sites: cutting rebar, hanging chandeliers, rehabbing the family's sprawling estate in Westchester.

"He made us work," Eric said last fall on "Morning Joe," recalling his upbringing, "and I think that's what a great father does."

"They are acutely aware of what being a Trump does for them, as well as what it costs them, and they do not hold it against anyone who may think it's all a gravy train," former teacher Matt Ralston says. "There's a graciousness about both of them that is endearing."

Don Jr. graduated in 1996, thought about the Marines, but followed his father's footsteps to the Wharton School of Finance. Eric graduated from the Hill in 2002 and moved into the Village C dorms at Georgetown University. The double-occupancy rooms were 186 square feet, about 29,800 fewer than his father's Manhattan penthouse. On the occasional weekend trip to Atlantic City, he and his college friends always stayed free at the Trump Taj Mahal, but that, apparently, was the extent of the privileges.

"Eric has Trump genes, but he doesn't have the Trump brand," says fellow 2006 alum Clare Fieseler, who remains in touch with Eric. "I've always admired that he is uniquely his own in that way. Less bombastic, more thoughtful. Less self-aggrandizing, more humble. Less Trump. More Eric."

Don Jr. was more of a brat in college, by his own telling: flaunting the Trump name, partying and drinking too much. Unsure if he wanted to spend his life closing real-estate deals 24/7, Don Jr. went West after graduating from Wharton in 2000. Over a year and a half, he says, he lived out of the back of a truck, explored the Rockies, hunted and camped, and bartended at an Aspen joint called the Tippler. His parents weren't thrilled with this bachelor vision quest.

"I think I was making sure that I didn't regret not at least trying those things," Don Jr. says, but he got bored. "You actually want the pressure. You want a little more intensity. ... And that's when I was like, 'It's time to get back in.' "

Don Jr. started at the Trump Organization in September 2001, gave up alcohol a couple years later, and Eric joined in 2006 after a couple months of post-graduation travel.

"Once (the children) were the age of 21 and out of the university, I said, 'Donald, this is the final product, now you deal with it,'" Ivana told the New York Post last month.

With their sister, the boys had been groomed to be model employees - disciplined, hardworking and loyal - by forces beyond Trump himself. Now, as adults, they were finally spending considerable time with their father, because he was their boss.

Don Jr. pinpoints one key difference between himself and his father, and it informs how he raises his own five children. It's the reason he absconds with them to the Catskills most weekends, to a cabin that was wired for WiFi only last month.

"I still have the ability to turn (work) off, and separate business from life," Don Jr. says. "Whereas, for him, I think business was life."

Eric Trump and his wife Lara. Photo / Getty Images
Eric Trump and his wife Lara. Photo / Getty Images

They only look like brutes. Maybe it's their slicked hair. In person they come off like chummy upperclassmen who beat up bullies on behalf of dorks.

Eric, in a suit, sits behind a desk to talk. In a separate interview, Don Jr., in jeans and hiking shoes, sits in front of it. Eric speaks with semicolons. Don Jr. speaks in italics. Eric is blond, and a few inches taller than Don. Eric has his father's hyperbolic vocabulary. Don has his father's hand gestures.

They're sitting for interviews, a couple weeks apart, in a makeshift office at the Old Post Office site, which rumbles and groans with construction.

"Huh," Don Jr. says, when asked to distinguish himself from his brother. "I don't know. We certainly are different."

They have breakfast together nearly every weekday at 7 a.m. in Trump Tower. Today, Don Jr. is 38 and Eric is 32. Don lives on the Upper East Side. Eric is on Central Park South. They are both executive vice presidents. They were each other's best man: Don Jr. married former model Vanessa Haydon 10 years ago and Eric married former personal trainer and "Inside Edition" producer Lara Yunaska in 2014.

Donald Trump Jr. and wife Vanessa Trump. Photo / Getty Images
Donald Trump Jr. and wife Vanessa Trump. Photo / Getty Images

Don Jr., unlike his father, can bait a hook and drop a pheasant. Eric, unlike his father, is passionate about charity (his growing foundation, which he launched at age 22, grants a few million dollars every year to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital). The brothers are cool, poised, mostly humble, barely registering on the scandal-o-meter.

They've felt the heat nonetheless. Within weeks of the campaign launch, photos circulated of the brothers hunting big game in Africa: Don Jr. holding up the severed tail of an elephant and Eric hoisting the corpse of a leopard. The photos aligned with the caricature of spoiled rich kids, which the brothers have spent the past year trying to defy. When their father couldn't make a February town hall in Nevada, Don Jr. took the microphone and performed like a congressman-in-waiting.

"I'm probably the only son of a billionaire that's more comfortable in a D10 Caterpillar than I am on a golf cart," he told the crowd with finesse.

And yet 67 percent of America dislikes their father, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month. His detractors portray him harshly - not as the great father his sons describe, but as a misogynist, race baiter, Islamaphobe and demagogue.

Eric shakes his head.

"He doesn't have a bad bone in his body."

Eric flew coach to check on the post office and Trump Winery in Charlottesville, Virginia.

"Things are said. People clearly understand the intent and the meaning, and they'll try to drive it a different way for the sake of sensationalizing the story. ... It actually makes you wanna sit there and, you know -"

Eric strangles the air in front of him.

Have an unfavorable view of Trump? You're criticizing the wrong thing, the boys say.

"I think sometimes people need to look at the system," Eric says, "and at the media."

"He's brought how stupid the system is to light," says Don Jr.

It's the clever paradox at the center of the Trump campaign: The media that made Donald Trump a celebrated patriarch, and the process that has delivered him to the doorstep of the White House, are the enemies. You can't have loyalty without an enemy, after all. That goes for family, for business, for campaigning.

But what if a man who has built his brand on victory loses the general election? When does a scorched-earth presidential campaign become a liability for the family? The company? The country?

It doesn't, Don Jr. says.

"I think we're probably net neutral, and maybe internationally we're ahead, because the name recognition is so powerful today," he says. "DJT Jr." is embroidered on the breast pocket of his pink button-down shirt.

Eric agrees.

"If we don't win the last part of it, we'll do what our family has always done and that's build the greatest projects in the world," he says, echoing his father.

In this way, the Trump boys are not chief advisers so much as chief cheerleaders, chief humanizers. They reflect glory back on their father. They declare that he is more than the sum of his sound bites,just as they are more than scions of wealth. Just as the Trump presidential campaign is more than the terminus of an ego's journey.

Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump in 2015. Photo / Getty Images
Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump in 2015. Photo / Getty Images

The campaign coincides with a company expansion. The family has a bevy of projects on four continents, including the Old Post Office a half mile from the White House, the Turnberry golf resort in Scotland (opening June 24), a hotel skyscraper in Vancouver, and properties in Rio de Janeiro and Punta del Este, their first claims to the southern hemisphere.

Don Jr. also handles assets in India and Indonesia. Eric, who covers Panama and the Philippines, is in charge of all the golf sites. Ivanka, who just gave birth to Trump's eighth grandchild, says the family weighs an opportunity by its ability to create new value for the company.

With this campaign, the Trump name is on the front of every news site. The boys are crafting their own public personae, in support of the brand, and their future. Winning the presidency is incidental to a family plan that's been in the works for a long time.

"I happen to think he's already won," Eric says of his father's chances in November, and this is so key that he says it again: "I happen to think he's already won."

- Washington Post

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