The president's son: How Eric became a Trump
The president's son: How Eric became a Trump
“My boy, I love you. Come up, Eric, come up Eric! I love you, my boy!” the future president of the United States bellowed to a Cincinnati crowd of 7,000 in midsummer 2016. His son arrived next to him at the podium, smiling awkwardly.
“He was pushed into the world of politics not because he wanted it,” candidate Donald Trump said, “but because I said, ‘Good luck on television tonight! You’re doing the show.’ So, here’s Eric!”
For those transfixed by the bombastic circus that was the 2016 presidential election or those continuing to stare agape at the breaking news of this shock-and-awe administration, the president’s second son may be a familiar figure – but perhaps less so than his former fashion designer sister and firebrand brother.
You probably know him from his controversial soundbites. Waterboarding “is no different than what happens on college campuses and frat houses every day,” he told Greta Van Susteren on Fox News. Sexual harassment is a “no-go,” but his sister wouldn’t tolerate sexual harassment because “Ivanka’s a strong, powerful woman,” he told “CBS This Morning.” There’s so much hatred directed at his father by his political opponents that it’s like “they’re not even people,” he told Sean Hannity on Fox News.
To most of the world, that’s all there is to Eric Trump.
A cranky subway car crawled along the tracks somewhere north of Franklin Street on July 11 at 9:17 p.m. I sat alone, catching up on the latest report detailing Donald Trump Jr.’s emails about meeting with a Russian attorney.
“Donald Trump Jr. was informed in an email that the material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s –”
An email alert blurted across my screen. “Eric Trump: Frank, So great to hear from you buddy!”
The startling juxtaposition of my former classmate’s email with the explosive news about his brother was rattling.
Eric had agreed to the interview.
At 33, Eric now shares control of his father’s multibillion-dollar conglomerate with his brother Don Jr. Since their father left the company in their care after taking the presidency, he’s made clear that he expects them to do a good job while he’s gone. Otherwise, he said, “They’re fired.” The middle child to the president of the United States, Eric Frederic Trump grew up in the long shadow of his father’s New York City real estate empire amid a ceaseless parade of sensational tabloid headlines celebrating Donald Trump’s successes and failures on the city’s newstands.
I first met Eric 18 years ago when we attended a small, close-knit boarding school in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt. Living in close quarters for a few years develops a certain familiarity. But looking back, I didn’t have strong feelings about Eric. We shared a class or two, but I had been largely ambivalent toward him back then. As many of our former classmates recall, he was pretty average. He was Donald Trump’s son, but that didn’t count for much at The Hill School.
Founded in 1851, The Family Boarding School, as it was first called, became one of the country’s elite preparatory schools. Ivy-clad stone buildings and leaded glass windows were built to help mold brilliant young men, eventually sending them off to Princeton or its ilk.
When we attended, Hill wasn’t exactly a feeder school to the Ivies, but it was still known for its rigorous academics and zero tolerance discipline. Moreover, The Hill School was hardly chockablock with the progeny of the cosmopolitan elite. Many students hailed from surrounding Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and obscure Podunks like it. Still, there were international students, and scholarship students from all over the country, in addition to legacy students – myself included – and the occasional son of a somebody.
In recent interviews with over two dozen Hill School classmates and teachers – friends, acquaintances and antagonists – I pieced together a portrait of a young Eric, from ages 13 to 18. Although The Hill School declined to provide any information or speak about the Trump family, yearbook quotes and photographs also help to illustrate that time. I have tried to lean on the collective memories of others, instead of my own.
Nearly all those Hill School classmates see Eric as deeply changed. The friends who remained close to Eric over the years have nothing but praise for him, often speaking of his deepened self-confidence and impressive public speaking skills. But the majority of his classmates I spoke to sensed that something is awry. Listening to his speeches and interviews, they say he seems more Trump than Eric now. Less the young man they knew – kind, laid-back and gracious – and more the man they might expect to be President Donald Trump’s son: brash, combative and remorseless.
The Eric they knew was different.
On Aug. 14, I stepped inside an elevator in Trump Tower, headed for the executive suite. A dim purplish light gave the mirror-encased space an eerie feel. The elevator operator – wearing a bellhop’s coat outfitted with brass buttons – politely turned a key and selected “25.”
The doors opened on a stark monochrome room with marble floors. After a moment, Deborah Stellio appeared – a middle-aged woman with kind eyes who, I later learned, watched over Eric for a summer in upstate New York when he was 12. Now, she worked as his personal secretary. She led me past a Secret Service agent and buzzed me into the lobby, where two more agents stood against floor-to-ceiling glass windows, appearing to float hundreds of feet above a stunning vista of Central Park.
Stellio asked me to wait a moment. A girl in a lacy blue cocktail dress loudly clip-clopped across the fine white marble in sky-high heels. It was cold in that way fancy Manhattan offices are on a hot summer day.
After a few minutes, Eric swung open a glass door with a smile. “Where’s Frank? There he is!” Dressed in a finely textured suit, he held the door for his wife, Lara. Then eight months pregnant, she somehow appeared svelte and graceful as she glided across the room in a form-fitting dress and high heels. I had forgotten how tall they both were.
The last time I saw Eric and Lara in person was in 2012 at a Hill School alumni reception they hosted at the Trump SoHo New York hotel. I shook hands with Eric at the end of a long line. I told him I was a journalist. “Good!” he told me. “We could use more friends in the media.”
Lara joined us in the elevator as we headed down to have lunch at Trump Grill. I commented that I was impressed she was so agile at eight months. Several inches above me, the friendly titans chuckled. Eric said I didn’t know the half of it. The doors opened on the 20th floor, revealing a “Trump Pence 2020” logo on the wall.
“She’s running 2020,” Eric said as Lara strutted off the elevator with a warm smile and wave goodbye. The doors closed.
This power couple epitomized the warm, welcoming nepotism of the Donald Trump era. All under one roof, the son was on the 25th floor, responsible for the father’s financial well-being – funneling Trump Organization profits into a trust. Five floors down, the daughter-in-law was directing the strategy to funnel votes into the father’s column, effectively running the campaign to re-elect him president. Nothing seemed to slow Donald Trump’s finely tuned business machine, not even his soon-to-be grandson, Eric Luke Trump, who would arrive four weeks later.
"I probably wouldn’t have turned out to be the person I am if you didn’t have a damn good parent.” – Eric Trump
In the lobby, we breezed by clumps of tourists. No one appeared to notice Eric until we reached the restaurant, where a flurry of smiles cascaded, from the hostess, to the bartender, to the waitstaff, each of whom he greeted by name with a warm efficiency that was nevertheless disarming.
An elderly woman stopped mid-munch and nodded knowingly at the president’s son.
We slipped into a red leather booth at the back. He ordered his usual, chipotle chicken bowl and an iced tea. I made it two. It was cold, unsweetened tea, the kind they serve at golf courses. Which reminded me.
Last spring, veteran golf reporter James Dodson recalled a conversation out on the links with Eric in 2013 when he asked how the Trumps were finding money to buy up golf properties. Eric’s response? “Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia,” according to Dodson. Eric denied he said that shortly after it was reported, telling the New York Post it was “categorically untrue,” and that “we have zero ties to Russian investors.” I couldn’t help but wonder what our conversation might reveal – perhaps about the ongoing drama surrounding the Russia inquiries, but also about himself.
As I watched Eric speak, repeatedly preaching the seriousness of “the division of church and state” – that is, keeping the Trump Organization separated from the Trump administration – his stiff posture and stately gestures seemed alien to me. This slickly dressed, high-functioning businessman with an elegant life was a far cry from the Eric we knew back at Hill. Of course, people change as they grow up.
But the Eric Trump you meet in person is not quite the Eric Trump you see on TV, acting as his father’s fiery defender. Nor is he really the buffoonish punching bag portrayed by late-night comedians, although many at Hill remember Eric’s tendency to talk first and think later. Talk TV is a tough medium for anyone and Eric seems to be trying his best to emulate and defend the president.
Today, it’s easy to see his father in him. Before, no one ever did.
The day Eric moved in to Hill back in September of 1997, he arrived with Donald and Ivana, hauling just two duffel bags and a lamp stuffed in a hamper.
Like the rest of the Hill boys, he wore “academic dress” – coat and tie – throughout the six-day school week and ate group meals at long, crowded tables draped with cloth and surrounded by wood-paneled walls where N.C. Wyeth paintings hung beneath antique chandeliers fastened to imposing beams that framed a dining hall worthy of Hogwarts.
Eric lodged with the other eighth-grade boys, or second formers as the school called them, in a set of charming but rickety small houses opposite the headmaster’s house.
Twice weekly, the entire student body filed into the Alumni Memorial Chapel, a citadel of rough stone squaring off the main campus quadrangle, to sing hymns and listen to an inspirational speech by a professor, a senior student or visiting scholar. Speckled light filtered through stained glass onto rows of wooden pews, drawing attention to glass visages of history’s great academics lining the nave. Behind the altar was a biblical credo in gold leaf: “Watch ye – Stand fast in the faith – Quit you like men – Be strong.” Soaring above the entire sanctuary was a great stone arch with an inscription bearing the school motto: “Whatsoever Things Are True.”
The phrase comes from a letter by St. Paul to a church in Philippi asking them to be humble, stay united and focus their minds on what was true, honest, just, pure, lovely and commendable. Truth was The Hill School’s highest ideal, enshrined in a rigid honor code with the motto, woven into the fabric of the school’s navy blue blazers, fluttering below a sword and shield.
This was the school that Ivana Trump decided her husband should send their two boys to. Eric’s five-year span there is what he considers the most important time in his life.
From the beginning, Eric’s classmates remember him as a little quieter than his often raucous peers. He was earnest and awkward, goofy and unpretentious, gracious and sweet-spirited. Many said he didn’t stick out among Hill boys, except for his height. He was an average student and a decent athlete. He tried out for football, but that didn’t last long. He was a natural ice skater, but didn’t excel past the junior varsity team in hockey. Eventually, he discovered an aptitude for golf.
During his early years at Hill, academics were not Eric’s strong suit.In particular, students mocked Eric for his clumsy grasp on Spanish – he once mistook a classmate’s wild gibberish for the language. Another time he earnestly asked his Dominican friend and classmate Oliver Jacquez, “Is Fidel Castro the king of Spain?” Nevertheless, Eric worked hard to get higher grades.
“On one hand, he was silly, kind, trusting of the people around him,” Oliver recalled. “But sometimes, that led him astray.”
There was always a charming quality to his naive questions and half-baked statements. Eric was not dumb, classmate and close friend Taylor Handwerk remembered, but “he would say some stupid shit.”
During a school hockey game, Eric and other Hill boys were razzing their opponents, when all of a sudden the arena went silent and Eric shouted out, “No. 15 is a choad!”
It stuck. Eric’s friends would teasingly but lovingly call him “choad” for the rest of his time at Hill – a moniker featured at the top of his yearbook profile.
Despite his family’s vast wealth, Eric had little access to cash at Hill. When his dormmates ordered food from Hing San, he would haunt the doorway, looking for french fries. On excursions to the cineplex, classmates remember having to buy the billionaire’s son a movie ticket. His scavenging even earned him a yearbook superlative: “biggest mooch.”
The Hill School was a place of strictly enforced rules – mandatory meals, class times and chapel times, schoolwide study hall from 7:30-9:30 p.m., and lights out at 11 p.m. There were demerits for a forgotten belt or missing socks, and the dreadful prospect of Saturday night and Sunday morning detentions for poor behavior.
The dormitories were a steam valve of pent-up teenage angst. Existence was an endless stream of pranks, taunts and foul language. Classmates tormented Eric by downloading pictures of his famous mother and sister, then posting doctored photos of them around the dorm or on his computer background. Eric would respond by tackling the giggling offenders and wrestling matches would ensue.
This was the jungle law of boarding school. Telling lewd jokes about someone’s sister was expected, but so was the requisite beatdown. However, Eric says he gave as good as he got, being taller and, perhaps, particularly well-motivated.
“He really can’t pursue his own dreams. There’s no reality in which he would become a woodworker.” – old friend Danielle Arnold
Outside of the pubescent roughhousing of the all-boys dormitories, in 1998 a new reality shifted the culture of the 150-year-old boarding school: girls. To make room, Hill eliminated eighth grade, making Eric’s class the last of the “five-year boys.”
Classmates remember a gangly, blonde-haired boy that most often wore an old baseball cap, a crew neck shirt under a black fleece, and well-worn khakis. It was easy to forget his last name. At Hill, they say, Eric was not a Trump, he was just Eric.
Eric never sought the company of the cool kids, the prettiest people or even the other kids with money. He quickly became close friends with Danielle Arnold. She was a scholarship student, from a poor family in Montana, and she described herself as “physically larger than the other girls.” After dinner one December evening, Eric approached Danielle and another friend, and without a word pulled two powder blue jewelry boxes from his pockets. Inside were matching Tiffany’s keychains.
“It was totally unexpected and so sweet,” Danielle said. “I have it to this day.”
Hollis Sherman-Pepe, a breathy-toned artist and self-described “hippy wild child,” vividly remembers first seeing Eric sitting on a stool alone happily eating a mookie – the Hill grill’s famously greasy ham and cheese sandwich. Eric had a crush on her and he asked her out again and again. “There was an honesty and an innocence and a sweetness to that when you tell a girl you like her and she says ‘Noo,’” Hollis recalled, her voice lilting in a girlish squirm. “We were just buddies.”
Eric was close with a local student named Matthew Williams, a five-year boy so devoted to the Hill that he tattooed “Whatsoever Things Are True” on his left leg. On one of Eric’s many visits Matthew’s humble home in Pottstown, he looked around thoughtfully. “Wow,” Eric said to Matthew’s mother. “You know Bernie, this is a really nice home. You know, I’ve lived in a lot of places, but this feels really homey.”
Generally, Eric hung out with the five-year boys – a brotherhood of misfits who numbered fewer than 20 in our graduating class of over 160. And among that quirky clique, a few of Eric’s closest friends could be particularly cruel. One of them, Nolan Evans, is best remembered by his classmates for his taunts, jeers and crude language.
When Nolan would mock another boy or girl, drawing laughter from his friends, no one seemed to remember a time when Eric asked him to stop. He would quietly come alongside someone afterward, to say he didn’t mean it, classmates recalled, but never stood up to a bully. Eric was a deeply loyal friend, no matter how flawed his choice of company.
Like most of his classmates, Eric slogged through school, but was unquestionably the most talented woodworker anyone could remember. Year after year, Eric won awards for his craftsmanship.
“I loved building. I was in woodshop any free minute that I had. It’s still my passion in the world,” Eric said.
He spent hours there carefully carving, shaving, sanding and finishing his projects with painstaking detail. A bench. A one-man rowing scull. Arched trusses for a bell that would be placed prominently on display at the center of campus.
“I remember feeling kind of sad that he really can’t pursue his own dreams. There’s no reality in which he would become a woodworker,” Danielle said. “I wonder – because I care about him, obviously – who would he be if he wasn’t in this family? Would he choose to be doing what he’s doing?”
For a man so often defined as his father’s son, students recalled that Donald Trump had been conspicuously absent from Eric’s life at Hill.
When Donald and Ivana dropped him off in 1997, as knowing parents whispered and giggled at the celebrity sighting, Donald Trump asked Eric’s 13-year-old roommate, “Are you going to take care of my boy?”
Students recall he wouldn’t return to Hill until Eric’s graduation day in 2002, an event his mother missed, apparently for the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Grand Prix, a student recalled and news reports suggest.
Daniel May, a science teacher assigned to be Eric’s academic adviser – a role he considered “surrogate parent” – understood that Eric was raised largely by his nannies. When May needed to speak with Eric’s parents, he spoke with a nanny who acted as intermediary.
Don Jr., or “Donny” as Eric called him, would take his younger brother off campus to go fly fishing or hunting in the nearby state park when he could. They were pastimes learned as children escaping the chaos of New York City and their parents’ tumultuous marriage. Infamously, a front-page New York Post headline boomed that Marla Maples said their still-married father was the “BEST SEX I’VE EVER HAD.” Eric was just 6 at the time, but Donny was 12, old enough to understand the news and hate it.
It was not so much the things their parents did, but rather what they left undone that created a need for the older Trump siblings to help raise their little brother Eric.
“I’ve always said he’s not the kind of conventional let’s go play catch in the backyard kind of dad,” Don Jr. told me from behind his cluttered desk, packed with outward-facing photographs of his kids. Their father would instruct them in an all-encompassing business education later in life, he explained, once they were old enough to understand and appreciate the cutthroat world of New York real estate. “He’s, he’s very welcoming, but it’s sort of on his terms,” Don Jr. said. “How he wants to do things, in the things he’s interested in.”
In his 1987 bestseller “The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump wrote of his three young children that “as they get older, being a father gets easier. I adore them all, but I’ve never been great at playing with toy trucks and dolls. Now though, Donny is beginning to get interested in buildings, and real estate, and sports, and that’s great.”
Throughout Eric’s childhood, Don Jr. said, “Perhaps I was able to fill some of that void for Eric because I had the benefit of maybe being a little bit older and having more time with my grandfather.” Ivana’s father, Miloš Zelní?ek, was a Czech electrician who taught young Donny how to fish and shoot guns in the rustic woods near the small industrial city of Zlín, Czech Republic. When their grandfather passed away, shortly after their parents’ divorce, Donny passed those skills on to Eric. Those moments in nature remain a respite from the chaos for the Trump brothers, who call Westchester County their real home now.
After graduating from Hill in 2002, Eric left the shelter chosen by his mother and began a new education – being groomed for his father’s business.
Eric had been accepted to Georgetown University, raising more than a few eyebrows at Hill, among other students who applied and among two Hill school employees with direct knowledge of Eric’s academic record. Although, at graduation Eric had won the academic award for improvement, strength of resolve, character and a desire to achieve.
In his chosen fields of study, finance and management, he found it was much easier than Hill and graduated from Georgetown with honors.
In college, Eric grew more confident – and taller – but retained his reputation for kindness among his peers. He joined the Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity, or “B frat.”
“I’d see Eric at parties,” said Kevin Lundquist, a Hill School classmate who also attended Georgetown and kept in touch after college. But Eric didn’t go out to clubs or live in a showy way. “He was very comfortable just going to the B frat kegger type of atmosphere.” Despite his family owning an upscale apartment nearby, Eric chose to live in the freshmen dorms with everyone else.
After a few years working in investment banking, Eric says he took the advice of mentors and jumped into the red-hot 2006 U.S. real estate market, once again donning the coat and tie, required for admittance at the Trump Organization. The ensuing market crash, Eric said, led to “the greatest opportunity in the world for us as a company but more specifically me,” as they spent the next four years “buying up every piece of land we could get our hands on.”
Kevin stayed in touch with Eric while they were both in New York, through 2011, but he has noticed that the way his old friend communicates has changed even since then.
“It looks like he’s done a master class in believing his own bullshit.” – classmate Khoy Blasi-Diggs
“The mannerisms and the messaging style is so similar,” Kevin said. “The use of hand gestures and the rapid-fire speaking style that he’s sort of adopted over the years just makes me think that it’s not just a result of who he is. I think it’s a result of training himself to communicate in a certain style.” That is, his father’s style.
“One of the things about Donald that just drives me crazy is that he refuses to concede even the smallest of points,” Kevin added. “And I think Eric has adopted that too.”
After lunch, we talked in his office high above Fifth Avenue, Eric perched in his chair at his wraparound desk. He repeatedly drew parallels between his hands-on woodworking craftsmanship and his real estate development deals, insisting that he remained “a builder.” A set of prefabricated shelves hovered above him filled with pictures and memorabilia from construction projects around the world.
Which of those things was he most proud of?
Without hesitating, he grabbed a photo off the far left corner. It was a picture of the Eric Trump Foundation’s first $1 million check to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, benefiting the leading pediatric cancer treatment center.
He created the organization just after college with a few friends. He’d heard about how many other charities had sky-high administrative costs, often throwing lavish parties where only a small percentage would go toward the cause.
Paige Scardigli, a college friend who volunteered early on and later became executive director for the Eric Trump Foundation, said Eric knew that with free access to his family’s golf courses he could throw tournaments to benefit a great cause with minimal expense, maximizing the good he could do.
But late last year, media organizations began questioning the charity’s practices. On Dec. 23, The Associated Press’ headline blasted: “Eric Trump Foundation flouts charity standards.” The report said the foundation had financially benefited charities connected to the Trump family and members of the charity’s board. In an effort to allay concerns, in December Eric removed himself – and his name – from the foundation, now named The Curetivity Foundation. A New York Times headline on his birthday, Jan. 6, seemed to offer a measure of vindication: “Hospital Confirms Eric Trump Helped Raise $16.3 Million for It.”
The respite was short. Forbes published a damning portrayal of the charity’s operations and continues to churn out follow-ups. “I’ve never seen him so upset,” Scardigli said.
In a family that famously loathes the press, Eric directs his ire squarely at Dan Alexander, the journalist behind the Forbes articles.
In Eric’s mind, Alexander’s reporting embodies everything wrong with American journalism. “There are elements of this world that are very perverse,” he said. “The company subsidized the charity by millions,” in terms of “donations, use of assets, etc,” Eric explained. “Honestly, the guy wanted to write a sensational article and he kills me for it.”
Alexander said he first wrote a very positive story about the Eric Trump Foundation, but the fact-checkers said Eric’s statements weren’t supported by the facts.
“Hey, this is a charity that’s done a lot of good work,” Alexander said. Nevertheless, he said documents and reporting showed a more complicated picture. “When you add all that up, I think the portrait that we painted gave people a clear sense of that.”
But could he see Eric’s point that his stories may result in children with cancer receiving less funding?
“Look, if I had started a charity and my dad had made me pay his club for the charity (event) and then my dad ran for president and it was uncovered, I would not be happy,” he said. Alexander noted that state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is looking into issues raised by his reporting, which the attorney general’s office confirmed. “I think they started with good intentions and they made a mistake.”
The loss of his charity work is Eric’s gravest disappointment and doubtless, in his mind, the greatest personal cost of his father’s presidency.
But some of those who knew him best at Hill feel a sense of loss themselves. In a moment of terrible partisan divisions – amid a rise in white supremacy, a battle over the future of health care, fears of mass immigrant deportations, reversals of LGBT achievements and the specter of a nuclear showdown with North Korea – Eric is in a position to bring his graciousness to the national discourse and stand up for the school’s sacred values of truth and honor. But, they say, he has not. Instead, he dutifully steps into the bright lights to proclaim his father’s uncompromising message. But many classmates doubt he believes what he’s saying on camera.
“It looks like he’s done a master class in believing his own bullshit,” classmate Khoy Blasi-Diggs said. “Anytime he talks about politics or his dad, it seems extremely disingenuous.”
“It’s not my job to speak out when I disagree. It’s just not.” – Eric Trump
Eric insists the views he speaks out on publicly are his own as well as his father’s.
“If I was on the opposite side of the aisle, believe me, I wouldn’t be out there,” he said. “I do believe in him, I believe in the message, I believe in the platform, I believe in everything that he’s trying to accomplish.” Moreover, he said he has never said anything he knew to be false to the press.
Instead of focusing on parsing the words in his father’s latest controversial statement, Eric says he walks into confrontational interviews to stridently defend the man he knows his father to be.
“That’s my biggest role. That’s my role that I complete better than any person alive. That’s speaking on behalf of a person I know. I know his heart and I know his soul and I know his values. And I probably wouldn’t have turned out to be the person I am if you didn’t have a damn good parent. I don’t think good kids pop out of awful parenting.”
When I told Eric that many of his classmates had indeed had fond memories of him, but feared that he had become the person they see on television, he fell silent.
“Huh,” he said, rocking back slightly in his chair. “That’s, that’s actually disappointing.” In his view, there’s nothing he has said that he has found controversial or wrong. He’s simply taken out of context or people are willfully misinterpreting his well-intentioned words – from waterboarding to sexual harassment.
But why did he not condemn his father’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comments on the “Access Hollywood” tape, as Ivanka and Don Jr. did? Was it excusable?
“I don’t think so,” Eric said, his words turning softer and reluctant, his fingertips absentmindedly plucking at each other in a frenzied silence. “I think there were comments that he apologized for and …” his voice trailing off, before regaining his footing. “Yeah, but he’s not that PC person. Do I have to speak against every single thing that you see that could be slightly off? No.”
“It’s not my job to speak out when I disagree. It’s just not,” Eric said, picking up pace. “I can get up and speak about the 99.5 percent of things that I’m totally in sync with and agree with. And I can also talk about the unbelievable man that he is, because he’s just a great person.”
Danielle, Eric’s onetime close friend and confidant, will now leave the room to avoid seeing Eric on television. She says that his words just don’t seem like his own anymore. “I don’t know if the person I know is still there – I’m sure he is, I’m sure he is – but,” she said pausing, “I don’t necessarily want to find out.”
Hollis, the girl Eric once chased after, is “disgusted” with his father. “I would really love to support my friend – well, he’s not anymore – but if Eric were to be the shining beacon of hope, I would be the first to jump up and say, ‘Listen to Eric!’” she said. “If he’s just going to be part of the machine, he’s just made himself irrelevant.”
Lara, Eric’s wife, sees another reason for his classmates’ disillusionment.
“Unfortunately politics divide a lot of people. I have it in my own life,” Lara said. “Eric is always going to be a loyal person to his dad and truly believes what his dad is doing for this country. If people don’t agree with him, I can see how they think he’s changed, but Eric hasn’t changed from the guy I met nine and a half years ago, to the guy I married almost three years ago – he’s still the same humble, kind person.”
Eric blames politics itself – with its swampy politicians, shadowy political machines and dishonest political journalists – for distorting his image.
In the political world, Eric said, “The most innocent, purest, the best intentions are often muddied to the worst, most unthinkable. That happens. That’s the evil game that that system really is.”
“It’s a major sacrifice. And I don’t think it’s just a major sacrifice to you,” he said. “That’s one thing, but the sacrifice very much transcends to spouses, to the immediate family and you do very much need to sign up for that, otherwise it’s not a very fun ride. I think that’s why I probably would stay away from politics.”
Two doors down, however, his older brother has a very different take on political power.
“In terms of politics? It is fascinating. It’s brutal. It sucks. It’s great. It’s a great roller coaster,” Don Jr. said, with a smirk broadening into a wry grin. “A presidential race. With a small underdog crew. It doesn’t get more intense than that. You go back from doing that for two years. It’s like, OK, go back to what you were doing for the last 10. It’s like, ‘Eh!’” he says playfully raising his voice to squeak.
“You’re in the greatest fight not actual war that there is. To say, all right go back to your old life – it isn’t that easy,” Don said.
For a man who testified just the day before in front of a closed-door U.S. Senate hearing into Russian meddling in the presidential election, Don Jr. was unbowed, and scoffed at the idea of any wrongdoing. He declined to speak on the record about his emails related to meeting with a Russian attorney.
But, despite the rumors, Don Jr. said he has no plans to run for mayor or governor at the moment – he’s more interested in working behind the scenes to get others elected, for now.
Whether or not the Trump brothers want to be in politics, they are. Several family members make or influence the most consequential decisions on Earth from the West Wing of the White House, although Eric steadfastly maintains there is a division between the family business and the administration.
Nevertheless, by virtue of the blood in his veins and the business card in his pocket, Eric holds remarkable power. Standing beside him, in front of the tall, tinted glass windows of Trump Tower, I asked if he understands how powerful he really is.
“I don’t know. That’s one of the hardest questions I’ve ever gotten,” he said. “Power could be channeled wisely into great things or negatively into bad things. So, I guess it depends on how you define power. I don’t know.”
Eric rattled off a list of things he cared about deeply – his own young family, his family’s legacy and the family company. But he never really answered the question.
Once again, it seemed as if what Eric had left unsaid was what mattered most.