Donald Trump taught his children to fight dirty and win, no matter the cost. Subscribe now for a look at how the ruthless family culture has shaped Don Jr., his siblings, and the Presidency – only in PEOPLE.
When Donald Trump Jr.—just hours after tweeting the email chain that exposed his glee (“I love it”) over the prospect of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer in 2016—went on Fox News’ Hannity July 11 and said, “In retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently,” some friends took notice.
“Those are not words normally heard from a Trump,” a source who knows the family well tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story.
Those who know and have studied Donald Trump Sr. and the grown children running his empire while he’s president—Don Jr., Ivanka and Eric—say the family is guided by their father’s creed of winning at all costs and never admitting mistakes.
Though the president publicly defended his eldest son, telling reporters 39-year-old Don Jr. is a “good boy” and insisting “nothing happened with the meeting,” sources say performance is what matters to the patriarch.
“He doesn’t like failure and mistakes, and he doesn’t accept them,” says a source who has had business dealings with Trump. “You have to justify your existence to be in his realm.”
These days, the child most in Trump’s “realm” is his daughter Ivanka, 35, who, by all accounts, has always been his favorite.
Long outshone by his sister—first at the Trump Organization and now in the White House, where she and her husband, Jared Kushner, have West Wing offices and White House titles—Don Jr. has had a harder time adapting to life after the election.
For all his campaign rallies last year and bellicose tweets this year, Trump Jr., who along with his brother Eric, 33, remained in N.Y.C. to run the family business, still relishes the quiet of his lifelong loves of hunting and fishing.
Most weekends, he escapes Trump Tower Manhattan to a rustic cabin upstate with his wife, Vanessa, and their five children. He’s a regular at the Riverside Café in Roscoe, New York, where the manager says Trump Jr. is “good people,” doesn’t seek attention, and “never has his hair slicked back like he does on TV.”
A friend of the Trump brothers tells PEOPLE they hate their role as First Sons: “Eric and Don, they never wanted this.”
Adds a source in their circle: “Don can’t do any deals, because he’ll be overly scrutinized. He just goes to work every day and is miserable.”
That scrutiny includes potential legal jeopardy over his June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and a Russian-American lobbyist who was once a Soviet military officer in a counterintelligence unit. The emails Don Jr. released detailing how he eagerly set up a sit down with the Kremlin-linked lawyer have only made matters worse for him.
Trump Jr. agreed to accept an offer to meet with someone described in the emails as a “Russian government attorney” who was bringing “high level and sensitive information … part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“That’s an illegal offer and his response (in an email) is “I love it” so that right there is the offer and the acceptance of this criminally prohibited foreign government help,” says Norman Eisen, chief White House ethics lawyer for President Barack Obama.
Legal experts tell PEOPLE that campaign finance laws prohibit the acceptance of anything of value from a foreign government or a foreign individual, or coordinating to work with a foreign government.
Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, considers the actions “treason.” “It is betraying your own country in the hands of a foreign adversary,” Painter tells PEOPLE. He notes that under the Bush administration, Don Jr. would have been in custody and brought in for questioning. “I think there are grounds here on campaign finance violations alone that it is illegal,” he says.
Whatever his personal and legal predicament, Don Jr. will remain loyal to his father, say his friends.
“The loyalty within this family is insane,” says a family friend especially close to Don Jr. and Eric. “They would never speak against their dad.”
Adds the source in the brothers’ circle, “You can’t bite the hand that feeds you, but he [Don Jr.] can’t wait for these four years to be over.”
- Reporting by DAN WAKEFORD, SARA NATHAN, LIZ MCNEIL and DIANE HERBST