OSCEOLA, Iowa — Jethro, a 3-year-old bird dog, scampers into a patch of grass and freezes; his eyes locked on something that the ill-dressed journalists following along cannot see.
“He’s pointing,” says Doug Hurley, a hunter who helped organize the outing.
Donald Trump Jr., the 38-year old son of the Republican presidential front-runner, abruptly halts his conversation with a camera crew from the Guardian. He walks five paces, raises his 12-gauge shotgun, waits a second for a flutter of grass and feathers, and — blam — a pheasant stops cold in the air and plunges to the ground.
“That’s how it goes,” Trump says cheerfully. In one gesture he picks up the bird, displays it for the foreign camera, then scoops it into one of his hunting vest’s pocket. “A lot of it’s just the relationship between man and dog. I wish I got as excited as anything as much as a bird dog going after a pheasant."
Only very recently have Americans started to think about life under a Trump presidency. If the Obama years brought Generation X pop culture to the White House — Will Smith at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Jerry Seinfeld knocking on the Oval Office window — Trump might bring his famous family brand. Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka, currently executive vice presidents of the mogul’s “great company,” would take it over.
Like their father, they are unusually well-prepared for attention. After reporters arrived at the ranch here (password: “Trump Roughriders”), Donald Jr. and Eric strolled in with no fanfare and caught up with old friends. Multiple news networks roamed and recorded with no rules, no muttering of “off the record.” The Trump sons would be in the state through Monday, campaigning for dad, and this was a side of the family that they wanted the media to see.
That media will hear multiple versions of this story: Don Jr. had been a hunter for most of his life. He picked up the hobby when he was just 12 and has become one of its friendliest ambassadors.
“Growing up as a kid in the city, it kept me out of trouble,” he said. “I was in a tree stand or a duck blind instead of doing all that other stuff I could have been doing. When my brother, Eric, got married, instead of doing that usual, no-upside Vegas bachelor party, we took a lodge in Alaska and went fishing for king salmon. I even brought my 5-year-old along.”
Pictures of the younger Trump smiling alongside his kills had moved from the sportsmen’s shows he usually spoke at to the Sportsmen for Trump features popping up in hunting media. Marcus Branstad, the bearded lobbyist son of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), showed up, praised the “high-profile advocate” that Don had become, as he reminisced about the hard deer hunt they’d endured in the winter of 2014.
“We set out during the polar vortex, and we were in an open field, like the one we’re going to today,” Trump said. “With the wind, it was minus-37 degrees. I’ll never forget that exact temperature, seeing it my phone, which obviously just froze.”
Driving through Iowa this week, or flipping on a TV, is likely to subject a person to a commercial in which the elder Donald Trump admits his values mirror “New York” more than “Iowa.” The clip is 17 years old — the candidate’s coif is noticeably less elaborate — but it has been weaponized by three super PACs and the campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to destroy Trump’s culture-warrior image.
That was the signal for the Trump sons, Don Jr. (6-foot-2) and Eric (6-foot-5), and their hard-won New York gun permits. No one was going to impugn their father’s macho cred. Cruz’s “New York values” insult, Don said, was proof that “he has no wit.” The carping about Trump “ducking” the debate was even more witless.
“Give me a break,” Don said. “He’s done six other debates. The Republicans have done twice as many debates as the Democrats. I get that people try to make that argument for the news cycle, but it’s nonsense.” And New York values? Really? “Probably not since Theodore Roosevelt has there been a New Yorker so enthusiastic about the hunting lifestyle.”
Branstad, the Trumps and a few friends loaded up on coffee and donned their orange vests. Don Peay, the founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, doffed a “Make America Great Again” camo cap and praised the Trumps for the just-concluded veterans fundraiser that the candidate had put on in lieu of a debate appearance. Dennis Skold, who’d gotten to know the Trumps after lobbying for hunting rights, had also joined Cruz on a hunt with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “The press would jump out in front of us and try to get photos,” he said ruefully.
The Trump experience, he implied, was a little more real. Shortly after 10 a.m., the Trumps and Peay led a caravan of reporters out to the hunt. Eric took one group; Don took another. “Eric versus Don, just like ‘The Apprentice,’ ” Eric said. These brothers who had been on TV since their 20s, who referred offhand to Zimbabwe as “Zim,” were off to prove the family’s rootsiness.
“I always say that we’re blue collar Americans who’ve been very blessed with success,” Don Jr. said. “My dad isn't the type who puts on a tuxedo and eats caviar. He's a burgers and pizza kind of guy.”
Don Jr. was impeccably on message. He was not interested in litigating the campaign itself. He was interested, first, in pheasant, which he prepared by “breasting it in half, putting in a little cream cheese, a little butter, sometimes some jalepeno.” And he was fine talking about the threats to gun rights posed by President Obama. On an earlier hunt he’d told Bloomberg News that “gun safety” advocates typically had no idea what firearms were like. On Friday, he admired the shotgun Doug Hurley had brought along, inherited from his father.
“When you talk about some of the legislation that’s been passed — he’d have to file documents to give this to his son,” said Don Jr., shaking his head. The Trump family knew that gun laws were dilatory, meddling. This, he said, was one reason why the “Duck Dynasty” family had divided its political endorsements — one for Cruz, one for Donald Trump.
“When Willie Robertson says ‘that New York boy can shoot,’ that’s a heck of an endorsement,” he said.
With a camera crew trailing close behind, Don Jr. set out to prove Willie right. He fired just three shots. All of them plucked birds out of the sky. He held his weapon whenever Jethro chased down a hen.
And twice, when reporters asked, he reluctantly relived the aftermath of a 2015 photo leak that pictured him and Eric holding the leopard they’d killed in Africa. Nothing demonstrated the Trumpian ability to survive a gaffe quite like that photo. Less famous people had been hounded and shamed for showing off their kills. The Trumps turned it right around on their critics.
“A lot of people would do the usual, ‘Oh, I'm sorry, I'll never do it again! I'll become a vegan!’ ” said Don Jr. “If you’ve followed a Trump long enough, you know that’s not in our genetic makeup. Rather than do that, I tried to say, in a reasonably intelligible way: Here are the benefits of conservation.”
Shortly after noon, several more benefits of conservation were bulging out of Don Jr.’s jacket. He and Doug Hurley put the five conquered birds on the ground, posing for photos, and offering to dress one for some British reporters from the Guardian. Then he complicated one of the meta-questions he’d gotten at the ranch.
“You asked me how you can tell whether someone’s a phony, if he’s just doing a photo op?” Don, Jr. asked. “If he misses.”