- President Donald Trump’s two eldest sons, Don Jr. and Eric, have become the president’s most effective and requested surrogates, particularly in red states where Republicans are hoping to unseat vulnerable Democrats.
- The two men are helped by Eric’s wife, Lara Trump, and Don Jr.’s girlfriend, former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, who are campaigning as much – if not more – ahead of the midterms.
- But the arrangement appears to blur what the Trump family promised would be a firewall between Trump’s business, which his sons run, and politics.
For the last two years, President Donald Trump’s two eldest sons have taken over a multi-billion dollar business empire.
But over the last several months, the brothers – particularly the elder, Donald Trump Jr. – have spent a significant portion of their time criss-crossing the country to fire up crowds and raise funds for Republicans eager to wrap themselves in Trump’s flag ahead of next month’s midterm elections.
While Eric and Don Jr. have insisted that they respect a strict ethical boundary between their family’s business interests and their father’s government work, the two have become the most sought-after presidential surrogates on the red-state campaign trail.
Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and political adviser to Don Jr., said Trump’s eldest son will likely log more than 60 campaign events between May and Election Day on Nov. 6 – and that number doesn’t include all of the other fundraising events, including for the Trump-aligned super PAC America First Action, he has headlined over the last year.
“With the exception of the president and vice president, I can’t think of another Republican surrogate that’s been more active on the trail and more requested by Republican candidates this cycle than Don,” Surabian told Business Insider.
‘An extension of their father’
For many Republicans seeking office or attempting to maintain their hold on power this year, the surest way to victory is by fully embracing the president and the party base. The best way to do this is to have a Trump family member bless their campaign – if they’re lucky, repeatedly.
Surabian argued that Don Jr. is particularly effective on the stump because, like his father, he’s authentically devoted to his right-wing ideology. He added that the real estate mogul wields his Twitter account like a “political weapon” and, much like his father, can turn a particularly controversial or vicious tweet into a news cycle.
“Don is like the id of the Trump base,” Surabian said. “[He] has a natural connection with movement conservatives because Don himself is a movement conservative with a big libertarian streak running down his back. He speaks their language because he actually agrees with them – and that’s the type of thing you can’t fake.”
Also like their father, Don Jr. and Eric are comfortable both ginning up grassroots support at a rally and soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars at big-city donor events.
“The Trump sons are seen as an extension of their father,” a Republican strategist, who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly about the Senate races he’s working on, told Business Insider. “Voters view them as sort of the messenger for their father’s policies and they have done a very good job embracing that.”
Hammering Democrats in red states
Republican operatives say the Trump family’s ability to galvanize the conservative base is particularly valuable this year in red states where Democratic incumbents are attempting to hold on to their seats – places like Montana where Sen. Jon Tester is fending off a challenge from Republican Matt Rosendale and West Virginia, where Sen. Joe Manchin is in the lead against Republican state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
Don Jr. has been particularly active in Montana, where the native New Yorker developed a fondness for hunting and fishing years before his father won the state by 20 points. The 40-year-old has used his personal connection to the state as a platform to push his politics.
“As many of you probably know, I’m a big shooter, a big hunter, a big fisherman, so I feel ridiculous in this suit,” Don Jr. told the cheering crowd at a Bozeman rally for Montana Republicans in July.
Just a few months after Don Jr.’s ex-wife, Vanessa Haydon Trump, filed for divorce in March, the father of five made his relationship with longtime Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle public in a series of Instagram photos of the couple fly-fishing in Montana. In August, Guilfoyle officially left the cable news network where she’d become a well-known opinion host over her 15-year career to join Don Jr. on the campaign trail. Since then, the two have attended virtually every campaign event together.
The couple is set to make their third campaign trip to Montana this year for an eight-stop bus tour on Friday and Saturday while stumping for Rosendale and Rep. Greg Gianforte. Tester’s campaign has pushed back on the Trump family influence in Montana by characterising Don Jr. (without naming him) and Rosendale as out-of-staters – a damning charge in the rural Western state.
“Insurance Commissioner Matt Rosendale continues to bring in fellow out-of-staters to bolster his campaign because Montanans know Rosendale’s record reflects his East Coast values, not our Montana values,” Chris Meagher, the communications director for Tester’s reelection campaign, told Business Insider in an email.
And Don Jr. has made multiple trips to West Virginia and headlined two major fundraising events for the state’s GOP candidates, bringing helpful media attention to Morrisey’s campaign.
“Patrick was in a parade on Saturday and along the trail there were a dozen folks or so who were like, ‘Hey, I’m so excited to see Don Jr. on Monday, it’s gonna be a great rally,” Nathan Brand, Morrisey’s communications director, told Business Insider.
Meanwhile, Eric has travelled the country to support Trumpian Republicans in places like Tennessee, North Carolina, and Michigan, where an energised Trump base could protect vulnerable Republican seats. His wife, Lara Trump, who has spent the last 18 months advising the Trump campaign, often appears by his side or at events on her own.
“ISIS is gone,” Eric announced at a rally in Houston on Monday just after Lara told the Texas crowd that “we have never in the history of our country been closer to a denuclearized Korean peninsula than right now” – two demonstrably untrue presidential talking points.
While the president’s sons’ public political work doesn’t violate any laws or government rules, ethics experts say the activity risks breaching the firewall the Trump family promised to maintain between the Trump Organisation and their father’s administration.
At a political fundraiser last year, Don Jr. told an audience of Texas donors that he essentially no longer communicated with his father. “I basically have zero contact with him at this point,” he said.
Don Jr. and Eric have repeatedly claimed that the president doesn’t discuss government matters with them and they don’t talk with their father about the family business, despite the fact that they provide him with quarterly financial reports.
“We do not have any role in the current administration and take the separation of the Trump Org and the office of the president very seriously,” they said in a statement to Politico in March 2017.
But the close political relationship between the president, who has not divested from his sprawling business interests, and his two eldest sons calls these supposed boundaries between the president’s political and business interests into question.
Surabian said that while Don Jr. is on the road, sometimes visiting three states in a single day, he conducts his work for the Trump Organisation remotely.
“It’s hard to tell where the Trump Organisation stops and the campaign or the administration begins,” Jordan Libowitz, the communications director at the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Business Insider.
It’s the existence of these questions – and the seemingly permeable boundary between the president and the chief executives of his business – that concern ethics experts.
“The public shouldn’t have to wonder if the president’s businesses are using their connection to him to influence the political process or decision-making in any way,” Delaney Marsco, legal counsel at the non-profit Campaign Legal Center, told Business Insider.
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