A New York businessman who has known the Trump family for decades told me the key to understanding Donald was his relationship with his father, Fred. “He would humiliate him every chance he got. ‘You’re a f***ing idiot,’ he’d say, in front of everyone.’ ” His elder brother, Fred Jr, wilted under the bullying and drank himself to death. But Trump reacted in the opposite way, toughening up, becoming a “killer”, in his own words, and winning his ruthless father’s approval. So Trump inherited Fred’s empire.
Fred’s millions and Fred’s connections gave Trump his start as a property developer and set him on the path to the Presidency.
In some families, patterns repeat. Trump did not exactly bully his eldest son, Donald Jr, but he spoke – publicly – with such indifference to the effect of his words that it might as well have been calculated cruelty.
In 1990, he rendered hurtful judgment on his children in an interview in Playboy, of all places: “Statistically, my children have a very bad shot. Children of successful people are generally very, very troubled, not successful. They don’t have the right shtick… 95 per cent of those children fail.”
Donald Jr was 12-years-old when he had to watch his father cavorting through the New York tabloids with his mistress, the blonde and buxom Marla Marples. “Marla boasts to her pals about Donald: BEST SEX I’VE EVER HAD” read the front page splash in the New York Post, a story planted by Trump himself.
Wayne Barrett, a gifted digger of Trump dirt for the Village Voice, told me once that Trump would go for weeks without seeing his children. That made it easy for Donald Jr to stop speaking to his father altogether, “a development that shook even Trump”. Barrett wrote in his Trump biography that Donald Jr’s “self-absorbed, poetic and artistic temperament made it easy to distance himself from his father”.
All this is amateur pop psychology, and not in the spirit of the Goldwater rule, the American Psychiatric Association’s prohibition on diagnosing public figures at a distance. Still, it is tempting to see Donald Jr’s boyhood humiliations as the fire that forged the abrasive and ambitious public figure of today. He has three million Twitter followers and, perhaps, a political future of his own… if, that is, the small difficulty of the Mueller investigation can be overcome.
Donald Jr is the Special Counsel’s target because of talks he convened in Trump Tower during the campaign with a Russian lawyer, one supposedly working for the Kremlin. It was entirely natural that a member of Trump’s own family should hold such a sensitive meeting. Whatever you might think of Trump’s parenting – Barrett says the children were “raised by nannies and bodyguards” – the family today is close.
In the campaign, Trump’s children would often line up on stage with him, a glossy tableau of glamour and wealth. In business, Donald Jr, Eric, and Ivanka all had offices on the same corridor as their father in Trump Tower. Since the early 2000s, in fact, Trump seems to have been a figurehead in the organisation that has his name, content to be off courting porn stars or fake firing people on The Apprentice.
His signature was always on the documents but the deals were negotiated by Donald Jr or Ivanka. And Trump really trusts only family. Someone who worked for Trump for years told me that for everyone else, he followed a rule set by Fred: meet with just one person at a time. Then it’s their word against yours. With three people in a room, there are two to give evidence against you. Finally, “Trump is cheap,” as his advisor of many decades, Roger Stone, told me. It’s no surprise, then, that some of the top positions in the campaign were filled by family.
In June of 2016, Donald Jr sat at a conference table in Trump Tower, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner and the campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, on one side; on the other a Russian delegation led by a lawyer called Natalia Veselnitskaya.
They were there because, a few days earlier, Donald Jr had received an email saying that “the Crown prosecutor of Russia” had “offered to provide the Trump campaign with information that would incriminate Hillary… and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously high-level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump.” Donald Jr replied: “If it’s what you say, I love it.”
But there was no dirt on Hillary, just a rambling statement from Veselnitskaya about the so-called Magnitsky Act. This law puts a number of senior Russian business and political leaders under economic sanction, stopping them from moving their money and travelling to some countries. Getting it repealed has been an obsession of the Putin government – they even retaliated by stopping Americans from adopting Russian children. Donald Jr initially told reporters that the discussions had been about the adoption of Russian orphans. He was forced to release the emails about the meeting’s true purpose when he learned they had been leaked to The New York Times, which was about to publish.
Much of what we know about what happened in the meeting comes from Rob Goldstone, one of the large cast of faintly bizarre minor characters who make a brief appearance in the Trump-Russia drama. Short and – as he readily admits – fat, a former tabloid hack from Manchester, Goldstone is now a music PR man who cultivates a cheeky-chappie Northern persona. (His Instagram shows him posing in a gold baseball cap with an obscene logo on it.)
His one client was a Russian-Azeri singer, Emin Agalarov, whose father, Araz, was Trump’s partner in the Miss Universe pageant held in Moscow in 2013. It was, it has been claimed, Araz who got the offer of dirt from the Russian authorities, who spoke to Emin, who then spoke to Rob, who emailed Donald Jr.
If that was the route by which this happened, it might not seem to speak of a highly organised Trump-Russia “conspiracy”. If there was a treasonous conspiracy, would such an elaborate route have been needed to hand over kompromat on Hillary? Anyway, the meeting was a “nothingburger” as Donald Jr himself called it. In Bob Woodward’s book, Fear, one of the President’s lawyers warns Mueller’s prosecutors they had better not be building their case for collusion on “that chickenshit meeting”.
When I interviewed Goldstone for the publication of his memoir, Pop Stars, Pageants & Presidents, he told me: “If the basis of collusion was this meeting, the Mueller inquiry would be over by now.” But he also said: ‘Collusion … is like a big jigsaw puzzle. There are multiple, interlocking pieces.” He may be right about that.
A former KGB officer who defected to the West explained to me how he thought the Kremlin’s “Trump operation” had worked. The Russians woke up late to the fact that Trump was a serious candidate, he said, probably after Trump’s victory in the Florida primary in March of 2016. President Putin would have made known the objective to his inner circle – disrupt the US presidential election – and would have offered money and other rewards for those operatives successful in doing that. Veselnitskaya might have been freelancing, but under licence.
It was the mirror image on Trump’s side, the former KGB officer said, a rush by people around the candidate to make money out of his unexpected success. That is the picture painted by prosecutors’ filings to court about Michael Cohen’s effort during the campaign to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow. On this view, there was a scramble by both sides to exploit the situation. The former KGB officer described two groups of greedy, unscrupulous people rushing at each other. “It was chaotic.”
Roger Stone, a long-term Trump ally who spent years in the family orbit, says, if the Russians were to hand over dirt on Hillary, “Where’s the crime?” This is a question asked by the President’s more sophisticated defenders, such as the Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz. A former senior official in the Obama administration gave me an answer. This official had been briefed on the most secret intelligence and said it was thought the Russians were directed where and whom to hack in the Democratic Party by members of the Trump campaign. The release of that material would then have been co-ordinated by both sides so as to do the most damage. This is the “conspiracy” that Trump’s enemies imagine took place during the Presidential election. It is why Mueller’s team is trying so hard to show that Stone was in contact with Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who released most of the stolen material.
The revelation – in 2017 – of the Trump Tower meeting destroyed months of White House denials of any contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. The Russians would have known those denials were false. Donald Jr’s statement that the meeting was all about orphans was drafted by the President. The Kremlin would have known this too was false. In one of the most important stories on Trump-Russia so far, The New York Times reported earlier this month that the FBI’s investigation was never just about whether the President obstructed justice or committed perjury but whether he was “secretly working on behalf of Russia”.
President Trump dismisses this as a “deep state witch-hunt”. He has said he can pardon himself of any federal crimes. He also believes he has the power to fire Robert Mueller. Under current Justice Department guidelines, the President cannot be indicted in a criminal court until he is out of office. As long as he remains in the White House – and the political arithmetic is against impeachment – he might feel he is safe.
But several sources have told me that the Trump children were being investigated by the New York state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, before he had to resign in a #MeToo scandal. This was more than a rumour but less than corroborated fact. Nevertheless, it raised an interesting possibility – one that the sources all speculated on – that Mueller would use the threat of state charges against Donald Jr, Eric and Ivanka as insurance.
What if he went to the President and said, “resign, or your children go to jail”. Knowing what we do of the Trump family psychodrama, what would Trump do then?
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent, who has covered the Trump presidency