Former President Donald Trump has elevated his son Donald Trump Jr. to an unofficial new role inside his orbit as he weighs the idea of a comeback presidential bid in 2024 that would require him to maintain a vise grip on the Republican base for any chance of success.
Behind the scenes, Trump’s eldest son has emerged as one of the former president’s chief political advisers, according to multiple sources who are close to Trump or involved with his political operation. Like his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, who spent much of the last four years attempting to steer the Trump show from inside the West Wing, Trump Jr. has been working closely with his father’s team to ensure the next iteration of the 45th President’s political career is running smoothly and that his father is endorsing reliably conservative candidates.
But his role extends far beyond operational guidance. In the months since Trump left Washington, Trump Jr. – who never worked in the White House and is undeniably the most conservative member of the Trump family – has been steadily influencing his father’s political instincts. Aides describe their relationship as notably more affable than Trump’s ever was with Kushner, who has taken a break from politics.
Trump Jr.’s impact was on full display earlier this month, when Trump caught himself fuming at a televised interview with Gov. Asa Hutchinson over the Arkansas Republican’s stance on transgender issues, one that would have previously escaped his attention. Unlike the days when Trump would camp out in an annex off the Oval Office, griping to aides about critical cable coverage he’d seen of himself or his administration, this time he was incensed by Hutchinson’s veto of a Republican-backed bill blocking gender-affirming treatments for transgender youth in his state.
The former President had been watching one of his favorite primetime programs, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” from the residence at his Mar-a-Lago club when Carlson and Hutchinson got into a sparring match over the matter. A person familiar with the episode said Trump was “cursing at the television,” and became increasingly frustrated by Hutchinson’s rebuttals. Two days later, the ex-President released a statement through his Save America leadership PAC accusing Hutchinson of supporting the “chemical castration of children.”
To outside observers, it seemed odd that Trump, who largely avoided LGBTQ issues during his presidency beyond banning transgender Americans from serving in the US military, would issue a statement skewering one of the nation’s most conservative governors over a veto related to transgender youth. But inside the former President’s orbit, it was abundantly clear who had influenced him.
For years, Trump Jr. had made base-pumping statements about various expansions of transgender rights to his right-wing followers on Twitter and Instagram. When Cece Telfer, a transgender woman, qualified for the NCAA Women’s Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 2019, Trump Jr. claimed her success was a “grave injustice to so many young women” in a tweet. He again panned transgender athletes during a brief appearance at his father’s “Stop the Steal” rally from the White House Ellipse on January 6.
“Don has the pulse of the base and knows where the energy of the party is, so he’s sort of the go-to person now on a lot of political things,” one Trump aide said.
A leading role
Trump Jr.’s rising influence was first visible to his father’s aides in February, when Trump delivered his first major speech since leaving office at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. There, the 45th President went on a lengthy riff about transgender athletes competing in interscholastic supports – a topic he had previously ignored as it was bubbling up in state legislatures across the country and as his own administration threatened to axe federal funding for schools that implemented trans-inclusive sports policies. Aides later said it was Trump Jr. who had encouraged his father to weigh in on the matter at CPAC, knowing it would be red meat for the overwhelmingly conservative crowd.
“He was always fighting for the cause big-picture wise, but now Don is taking more of a leading role in shaping the political direction of Trump’s post-presidency,” said a person close to Trump Jr.
Those close to the former President say Trump Jr. has also become a key conduit for GOP candidates vying for the 45th President’s support. He has been intimately involved in the vetting process for Republican hopefuls seeking Trump’s coveted endorsement, intervening when he suspects a candidate is unworthy of his father’s blessing or urging Trump to avoid prematurely placing his finger on the scale in crowded Senate primaries.
When former Ohio Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Timken sought Trump’s endorsement of her nascent Senate campaign in March, for example, Trump Jr. cautioned his father to “slow things down” and let the primary contest play out, recalled multiple people familiar with the episode.
“He recognizes candidates who are authentically invested in the America First agenda and can spot those who are faking it. While it’s true that all roads lead to Mar-a-Lago, smart candidates know there’s a pit stop with Don that ensures a higher degree of success,” said former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
The younger Trump has been advising his father on messaging, too, as Trump navigates bitter divides inside the GOP over issues like voting rights, so-called “cancel culture” and corporate accountability. And as the party grapples with major philosophical questions about its future, people close to Trump Jr. said he has urged his father to remain in the trenches on cultural issues especially, arguing that they are most likely to animate grassroots groups and MAGA voters ahead of and beyond the 2022 midterm election.
The family member Trump ‘talks to most’
That Trump Jr. has evolved from a campaign surrogate who never worked inside the White House to one of his father’s most reliable political strategists is no accident.
Unlike his time in Washington, Trump no longer has a revolving cast of campaign strategists and West Wing advisers surrounding him daily or the heavy operational demands the executive office requires. As a result, he has increasingly turned to longtime friends and his most steadfast political allies – from former top White House aides Mark Meadows and Kellyanne Conway to his eldest son and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan – for guidance on building out his political machine and maintaining his perch atop the GOP.
“A lot of what you’re seeing out of Trump’s operation nowadays is coming from the top,” said a second person close to Trump Jr., who noted that Trump sometimes calls 15 people in a single day to solicit their thoughts on potential endorsements and the growing number of 2024 presidential hopefuls who are likely to toss their hat in the ring if Trump forgoes another run.
“It’s often that he’s calling you to be more of a gut check than a GPS,” said one person who the former President speaks to regularly. Trump Jr., this person added, is “definitely the family member [Trump] talks to most” in such moments.
The conspicuous absence of Kushner has also been a factor behind Trump Jr.’s rise. While Trump’s son has positioned himself closer to the former President since he left office – including with a recent purchase of a home in Jupiter, Florida, just 35 minutes away from his father’s luxury oceanfront resort – Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump have kept their distance from his post-presidential apparatus and shown little interest in reengaging anytime soon. Kushner is said to be keeping busy with a book about his time in Washington and his efforts to broker peace in the Middle East, according to reports.
Furthermore, three people familiar with Trump’s thinking said he is still brewing over his defeat in the 2020 election, for which he largely blames Kusher, who served as de facto campaign chief throughout Trump’s quest for reelection.
“I don’t think the President is looking to Jared for advice these days,” a person close to Trump said.
Several Trump aides cautioned against the idea that Trump Jr. has replaced Kushner in Trump’s orbit, noting that both men have consistently served different functions since Trump entered the political scene. Kushner, who is less ideological than his brother-in-law, mostly provided operational input in his role as a senior White House adviser and campaign strategist. Meanwhile, Trump’s eldest son spent much of 2016 and 2020 crisscrossing the country to promote his father at campaign rallies – often mimicking Trump’s bellicose style and rhetorical tricks – before diving headfirst into his father’s post-White House political operation.
Among some Trump aides, the younger Trump has also been floated as a potential successor to the throne should his father decline to run for a non-consecutive second term in 2024.
Despite his deep involvement in Trump’s post-presidential machine, as well as his acute understanding of the GOP base, aides who have worked closely with both the former President and Trump Jr. insist there are notable differences between the father-and-son duo.
For one, while Trump has spent the bulk of his post-presidency decompressing on the green with almost daily appearances at his namesake golf club in West Palm Beach, his son recently escaped on a hunting trip in the Alaskan wilderness. One person familiar with Trump Jr.’s whereabouts described the excursion as his own brief reprieve from politics.
CNN’s Kate Bennett contributed to this report.