Last Wednesday, as the Republican presidential nominee spiraled down into a week that would ultimately be dominated by his personal attacks on a former Miss Universe and his seething response to poor reviews of his debate performance, NBC News reported that among those growing increasingly concerned about the trajectory of his campaign were his three adult children — Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric. The kids, NBC’s Katy Tur reported, were starting to worry about the campaign’s adverse impact on the family business.
It didn’t take long for Trump to respond. On a three-state swing through Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, the celebrity businessman, who obsessively monitors media coverage of his campaign, grew irritated as he sat on his plane watching the report and others quoting anonymous advisers critical of his lack of debate preparation, according to an adviser. Soon, via a spokeswoman, emerged a pair of statements — one on behalf of Trump’s kids and the other a personal response from the candidate himself.
“They are happier than ever before, as they should be, given the success in the polls and in Monday’s debate,” the statement issued on the kids’ behalf read. Any suggestion to the contrary was “a fabricated lie,” the statement continued, adding that the Trump “business continues to be tremendously successful” and his assets “among the best in the world.”
Responding to Tur personally, Trump said, “Your sources, if they even exist, are probably sources that have been fired long ago and have no knowledge of what is happening in the campaign. Hard to be unhappy when we are doing so well.”
Although the campaign strongly denies it, those in and close to Trump World describe anything but a happy relationship between Trump and his adult children in recent days. A source close to the campaign, who declined to be named discussing the inner-workings of the operation, said the candidate’s children have been “frustrated” with their father for his lack of attention to debate preparations and struggle to stay disciplined, and at Trump’s senior staff who have been unable to control the candidate from giving in to his worst impulses on the campaign trail, including his increasingly personal attacks on Hillary Clinton and his unconstrained use of Twitter to settle personal scores.
Asked for comment, Hope Hicks, Trump’s spokeswoman, strongly denied any tensions. “There is no truth to this,” she said, adding that “the team, including the kids,” are working well together.
Closer to their father than just about anyone, the Trump kids have more than once stepped in to help right the course of their father’s insurgent campaign over the last year. The kids, along with Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, have advised Trump on strategy and key staffing moves — including the firing of former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski earlier this year and the hiring of Kellyanne Conway as manager in August. They have also served as perhaps his most important surrogates to Americans skeptical of his character and temperament — insisting their father is more open, caring and constrained than his critics would attest and offering their own lives as proof. “Judge his values by those he’s instilled in his children,” Ivanka Trump said as she introduced her father at the Republican National Convention in July.
Yet the central struggle of Trump’s unlikely rise from political novice to the Republican nominee has always been the battle to save the candidate from himself — and one that his kids are said to be increasingly frustrated by.
After a period in which the GOP nominee saw his poll numbers rise by sticking with carefully prepared remarks that offered a more conciliatory message aimed at women and minorities, Trump has reverted back to old destructive habits in recent days, going off script to attack Clinton and other critics in increasingly personal ways.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania on Saturday, the candidate imitated Clinton’s stumbling into a van at a 9/11 remembrance ceremony last month. “She’s supposed to fight all these different things, and she can’t make it 15 feet to her car,” the GOP nominee sneered — a complete reversal of his initial reaction, in which he simply offered best wishes for Clinton’s recovery from pneumonia.
Donald Trump’s children, from left, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump and Tiffany Trump, at the Republican National Convention. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)
At the same time, Trump, who has struggled to brush off even the tiniest bit of criticism, has turned back to Twitter to vent and wage war against his critics. Alone with his phone in the middle of the night last Friday, the candidate went on a tirade against Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe turned Clinton surrogate who went public last week describing how Trump, at that time in charge of the pageant, humiliated her when she gained weight.
As the world, including those close to Trump, woke up on Friday morning to discover what the candidate had been up to in the predawn hours, the GOP candidate kept the war going, trashing the “dishonest media” for using unnamed sources in stories about his campaign — though he often speaks to reporters as an unnamed source. And he took aim at the growing list of newspapers telling their readers not to vote for him — including USA Today, which has never before taken sides in an election — saying people were “smart” to cancel their subscriptions.
Trump’s stream of tweets finally came to a close when the candidate flew to Michigan for a day of campaign events. Instead of taking his Trump-branded Boeing 757, the candidate and his aides flew on his running mate Mike Pence’s campaign plane, which lacks television and offers only spotty access to the Internet. Aides declined to say why Trump did not fly his usual plane, but Trump landed in Grand Rapids trying to make light of his tweet-storm. “For those few people knocking me for tweeting at three o’clock in the morning, at least you know I will be there, awake, to answer the call!” he wrote.
To the dismay of his staff and family who have urged him to stay focused solely on Clinton, Trump’s focus on Machado sucked the oxygen out of other messages he’s been pushing in recent days, including calling out his Democratic rival’s cozy relationship with donors and his own effort to cast himself as a change agent who will shake up Washington and bring back “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
After an unquestionably bad week for the campaign, which ended with the leak of Trump’s 1995 tax forms to the New York Times suggesting he may have avoided paying taxes for years, the candidate’s aides and children have pushed him to focus on next week’s debate in St. Louis, where he will face Clinton in a town-hall-style setting.
But so far, it does not seem that Trump is heeding the call. Though aides say Trump will spend Sunday working on debate preparations, the candidate has so far resisted any additional outside help in coaching and hasn’t held any practice sessions against stand-in opponents, the same approach he took before the first debate.
While Clinton is slated to spend a few days off the trail this week preparing for next Sunday, Trump is expected to publicly campaign every single day leading into his second face-off with his Democratic rival. His itinerary starts Monday with a western swing that will take him through Colorado, Arizona and Nevada — leaving little time for additional debate prep.
For his part, Trump has publicly insisted he doesn’t need to practice more, citing online surveys that say he won the face-off with Clinton. And he hinted he might attack Clinton in more personal terms by bringing up the sexual indiscretions of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Last week, Trump proudly talked up his restraint in omitting the subject — telling reporters in the spin room that he’d wanted to talk about it but changed his mind because he didn’t want to embarrass the couple’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton. But some close to the campaign have speculated there was another reason Trump skipped the topic: his own kids, who were sitting in the front row.
Old enough to remember the tabloid circus brought on by their father’s divorce from their mother, Ivana, as he carried on a public affair with Marla Maples, Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. have both spoken of the pain they felt at the time — including how Don Jr. did not speak to his father for more than a year. Though Eric Trump earlier this week echoed his father in saying he had exhibited “courage” by avoiding the Bill Clinton sex scandals at Monday’s debate, the children have otherwise been largely silent on the matter.
But as he fumes over the Machado flap and other setbacks, that may not be enough for Trump, who has suggested in provocative ways that the kindler, gentler candidate of the last few weeks is now gone heading into the final stretch of the campaign.
Hinting at a more raucous debate in coming weeks, Trump told the New York Times that he would push back at Clinton more aggressively than ever. “She’s nasty, but I can be nastier than she ever can be,” he said.