Democracy Dies in Darkness

Outlook | Review

Privileged lives of the Trump children, in ‘golden handcuffs’

June 21, 2018 at 12:00 PM

From left, Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, President Trump and Donald Trump Jr. In Emily Jane Fox’s book, the president comes across as a father who is both distant and loving. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Marc Fisher, a senior editor at The Washington Post, is co-author of “Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power.”

Maybe Ivanka Trump consciously set about to model her family’s public image after the Kennedys. Maybe Trump’s adult children staged an intervention and got their father to drop Chris Christie as his choice for vice president and replace him with Mike Pence. Maybe the first daughter attended a party in high school that was busted for drug use.

What do you make of a book that repeats rumors in which unnamed friends speculate that Ivanka was rejected in her first attempt to get into the University of Pennsylvania, her father’s alma mater? Is it okay to cite an anonymous friend saying that Ivanka had a “dalliance” with cocaine, even if Ivanka denies it? Many Americans are primed to believe anything awful about anyone named Trump. Others resolutely disbelieve anything vaguely critical of same. In a deeply divided society in which the very nature of facts is in play, isn’t it the essential job of a reporter to exercise an independent check on rumors, to give the reader a way to determine what to believe?

Emily Jane Fox’s “Born Trump,” a breezy tour through the lives of four of the five Trump children (young Barron is mostly ignored here), asserts that the president’s offspring grew up having been handed “a set of golden keys, and with them, golden handcuffs.” Fair enough. But the core question about this book keeps elbowing its way past the smart conclusions: How does she know?

At the moment it became apparent on election night that Donald Trump had won, perhaps Pence really did turn to his wife and ask for a kiss, only to be told, icily, “Mike, you got what you wanted.” Or maybe not. “Who knows?” as the president likes to say.

Were all three of Trump’s eldest children counseled out of their Manhattan private schools? Was Fred Trump, the president’s father, “an impossible, ghoulish patriarch”? Did Donald Jr. pull “the Trump card . . . over and over” in his youth, challenging college classmates with lines such as “Don’t you know who I am?” Should we believe assertions by unnamed sources that Don Jr. “earned the nickname Diaper Don for his proclivity for wetting” other people’s beds when he’d had too much to drink in his college years?

Every first family becomes the subject of extensive reporting and amateur psychoanalysis. The Trumps, who have spent four decades at the glowing-hot core of the country’s tabloid fascination with the rich and the famous, are an enduring puzzle. Are the president’s children like him? Do they see through him? Do they work behind the scenes to calm his rages or steer him away from conspiratorial thinking? Who are they really?

By the time Fox gets to some serious conclusions about the Trump children, there have been so many reports of raw rumor that it’s hard to know what to believe.

There’s just so little to go on. The book has no source notes, no bibliography and precious few cues about the quality of the information. Maddeningly, Fox, who has written about the Trump family for Vanity Fair, employs a classically Trumpian device to make juicy allegations: When Christie was canned as head of Trump’s transition team, Fox writes, “many believed” that the decision was really made by first son-in-law Jared Kushner, who carried a grudge against the man who had prosecuted Kushner’s father.

There’s little sign of a filter here. Do we need to be told that one of Don Jr.’s young children allegedly pulled a fire alarm at a Manhattan private school? Maybe it’s revealing of Eric Trump’s character to report that an unnamed source at the Trinity School says Eric refused to put away his play mat in kindergarten and called a student-teacher a “bitch.” Or maybe he was just a 5-year-old having a tantrum.

Some of the book’s delicious bits sound plausible. Did people at Ivanka’s publisher judge that her book was “devoid of emotion” and wonder whether she was human? I can imagine people in New York publishing making such remarks.

But does such sniping add to our sense of who Ivanka is? Or does using insults from anonymous sources merely indicate that neither Fox nor other reporters have gotten close enough to see beyond Ivanka’s carefully manicured public image?

The author’s note says Fox had an off-the-record conversation with Ivanka but otherwise mentions no communication with other members of the Trump family. And there’s no evidence of any attempt to check facts with the White House or Trump’s many lawyers and PR people.

It’s hard at this late stage to find new, intimate details about a president’s family. Many of those who know them best have stopped talking publicly, whether out of deference or fear. Fox says she based the book on interviews with “hundreds” of Trump friends, classmates and business associates, as well as a review of news stories. Few of those friends are named.

Fox does offer conclusions about the offspring: Ivanka and Jared “both know the truth about their fathers — a blowhard philanderer on one side and a brutalizing convicted felon on the other.” Don Jr. is a mess of contradictions who has spent his life both emulating his father and running in the opposite direction from him.

The president himself comes off as a father who is at once distant and loving, a stern taskmaster who is also a softie who trusts only his children. He is quoted telling a friend that he regrets his thin relationship with Tiffany, his 24-year-old daughter from his second marriage. “I never spent any time with her,” the friend quotes Trump saying.

That all sounds right, but those observations are tucked into a package that’s too slick for its own good. Fox quotes Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, describing the children as “mini-Voltrons,” the robot space explorers from the 1980s TV cartoon. But just because people are difficult to understand, or even unknowable, does not make them robots.

Fox may well be right that “when the camera comes on, [Ivanka] comes alive.” But media savvy, or even media dependence, does not make the first daughter an automaton. And how does the portrait of Ivanka as a robot comport with the assertion that she is a “much more nuanced, relatable, aspirational person” than her public image might indicate?

We know too little about the roles the eldest Trump children play in this administration. The axis between government policy and the operations of the Trump Organization is murky and troubling terrain. But such questions go nearly unmentioned here. There are, however, at least a dozen detailed, delightful descriptions of Ivanka’s dresses and gowns.

Born Trump

Inside America's First Family

By Emily Jane Fox

Harper. 339 pp. $27.99

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He has been The Washington Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he has covered politics, education, pop culture and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.

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