NEW YORK- Donald Trump Jr. has been in the public eye since becoming the first-born child of a magnate, but the flashes of him that captured Americans were fleeting — a boy caught in his parents’ messy divorce, a 20-something accessory on a reality show, a hunter in gory photos with exotic prey.
The scion’s image was cemented for many with his full-throttle embrace of his father’s campaign and his sometimes ruthless, no-penance, headline-making turns, appearing on a white nationalist’s radio show, likening Syrian refugees to poisonous Skittles and using Holocaust imagery to describe purported media bias. When approached with an offer of Russian help defeating Hillary Clinton, he oozed enthusiasm, writing “I love it” in an email.
The 39-year-old presidential namesake stepped into his most scrutinized role yet Thursday, appearing to answer questions by staff members of the Senate Judiciary Committee as lawmakers probe Russian meddling in the election that handed his father the White House.
In the beginning, Trump Jr. — he declined to be interviewed for this story — sought to escape the notice of onlookers and a press that documented so much of his life. Tired of the assumptions that came with his surname, he presented himself opaquely: “I’d just introduce myself as Don,” he once told Barbara Walters. “Avoid the last name at all costs.”
Like his father, he attended the University of Pennsylvania but, over his parents’ objections, he spent time afterward in Aspen, Colorado, working as a bartender and immersing himself in his passions of fly-fishing, hunting and skiing. He had a reputation as a stumbling drinker in his youth before giving up alcohol.
Even after going to work for the Trump Organization in 2001, he showed a desire to escape his father’s shadow. In 2010, when he partnered with Randy Narod’s company, Cambridge Who’s Who, a press release billed it as a step to “expand his own Donald Trump Jr. brand.”
When photos from a Zimbabwean hunting trip later surfaced, with a smiling Trump Jr. holding an elephant tail in one hand and a knife in the other, the public scorn convinced Narod the affiliation was hurting more than it helped and he said he let Trump Jr.’s contract run out.
Still, he recalls his one-time partner as humble, respectful and impressive.
“I know the father’s an animal — we all know that. But the son is a doll,” he said.
Trump Jr. also struck out in his partnership with the mobile app company Macrosolve, which morphed into a patent enforcement firm before collapsing. And Titan-Atlas — a South Carolina company he launched with a partner, making concrete walls for pre-fab houses — flopped too.
As solo ventures diminished, Trump Jr. showed a willingness to accept his birthright, immersing himself in deals at the Trump Organization, appearing beside his father on “The Apprentice” and granting the interviews he once eschewed.
When his father became the Republican presidential nominee, he became one of the campaign’s most important surrogates.
Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist who traveled with Trump Jr. to dozens of campaign events last year, said Trump Jr. deserves more credit for his father’s victory, describing how he repeatedly heard rally-goers approach him at the rope line with similar words.
“They’d say, ‘I’m voting for your father because of you,’” Kirk said.
Friends of Trump Jr. speak of a highly engaged father who jets home for one of his five children’s birthdays. But many see hard-edge tactics from the same playbook as his father when it comes to his work for the Trump Organization, which he now heads with his brother Eric.
After Eugenia Kaye led a successful campaign to oust Trump Jr. from the condo board of her New York apartment building 11 years ago, she said she felt the wrath of Trump Jr. and his father. A flurry of lawsuits followed, and Kaye was accused of assault by the building manager, a claim she said was bogus and provoked by Trump. No charges were ever filed, but police came to her apartment and upset her daughter. It became so unpleasant that she moved out.
“They make your life so impossible and so miserable and so terrifying,” Kaye said.
The Trump Organization did not answer questions about the dispute, but provided contact information for a couple who lived in the building, Don and Ruth Panush, who disputed Kaye’s account of mismanagement.
In Scotland, David Milne felt similar strong-arming after Trump Jr.’s father unsuccessfully tried to buy Milne’s home on the North Sea coast, saying it marred the view from his golf course to the roiling sea. Milne said Trump Jr. was polite at first, but grew frustrated and threatening as he rebuffed the businessman’s offers. The Trump Organization said in a written statement that Trump Jr. was “nothing but respectful and gracious.”
After Milne’s wife made clear the views of the dramatic coastline were the reason they would never budge, he said the Trumps planted dozens of towering spruces to block the panorama. The couple still refused to leave, however, and they felt vindicated as the trees grew bare and died, one after another, and the view began to return.
It was fleeting. The Trumps’ crews headed back out and planted a new batch.