Teaching an Appreciation for the Outdoors – Donald Trump Jr.
His grandfather taught Donald Trump Jr. how to appreciate the Great Outdoors. Now Trump’s working to pass those lessons on.
You might not expect the prep-schooled son of a Manhattan billionaire to spend his off-hours fishing for trout, backpacking in the Yukon, or honing his shooting skills on a 1,200-yard gun range. But that’s exactly how businessman Donald J. Trump Jr. fills his free time, thanks in large part to what he learned as a youngster from his Czechoslovakian grandfather, Milos Zelnicek.
Zelnicek was the father of Ivana Trump, Don Jr.’s mother and the first wife of his father, Donald J. Trump. For several years, until his grandfather’s death in 1990, when Don Jr. was 12, the younger Trump would spend summers with Zelnicek—first at his grandparents’ home and cabin in then-Communist Czechoslovakia, and later at the Trump family’s vacation estate in Greenwich, Connecticut. “He was the guy that got me into the outdoors,” Don Jr., says of Zelnicek, who was an electrician by trade. “He wanted me to see the woods and the mountains, not just the jungles of New York City. It was, ‘There’s the woods; I’ll see you at dark.’ He taught me the basics of how to shoot an air gun, how to shoot a fiberglass longbow, how to throw a knife and chop wood, and make torches. And then we’d do some family time with friends around the campfire.”
Back in Greenwich, Trump goes on, “my grandfather took me out on the water, and we’d go fishing every day for blue fish and striped bass. We built a smokehouse from scratch, and we smoked the fish in sort of the Eastern-European style. We had a campfire every Tuesday night, cooking kielbasa and marshmallows over an open flame. It may have been Greenwich, Connecticut,” Trump says, “but that could have been any campfire anywhere in the country.”
Today, while their father serves as President of the United States, Don Jr. and his younger brother, Eric, jointly run The Trump Organization, the privately owned, New York-based conglomerate where their father served as chairman and president until the 2016 presidential election. Over the last decade, however, most weekends have found Don Jr. away from the Big Apple (he jokingly calls it “The People’s Republic of New York”), often pursuing the passions he learned from Zelcinek on two properties Don Jr. now owns in Pennsylvania and in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
On more extended getaways, Trump might be fly-fishing in Alaska or Mexico, wing-shooting in Argentina, hunting rare mountain sheep in Mongolia, or bow-hunting in Texas for white-tailed deer. He ties his own flies and is proficient with a variety of handguns, precision and long-range rifles, and compound and traditional bows. “There are plenty of guys in the ‘outdoor world’ who do a bird hunt once a year and then talk about it at cocktail parties for the next 51 weeks,” says Trump, who’s 42. “The reality is, this is how I live my lifestyle. I don’t vacation on a beach with fruity drinks. I get dropped off in the Yukon with a backpack and say, ‘I’ll see you in 14 days.’” And, he’s been doing it for much of his life.
Introduction to the Heartland
Don Jr. was born in Manhattan, the oldest child of Ivana and Donald Sr. The couple would later add a sister, Ivanka to the family, before separating and eventually divorcing in 1993. (Don Jr. also has two half-siblings, Tiffany and Barron, from his father’s marriages to Marla Maples and his current wife, the former Melania Knauss.) Growing up, young Trump attended the exclusive Buckley School, an independent, all-boys K-9 day school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Then, when he was 13, he was enrolled at the Hill School, a tony college-prep school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia. With its shuttered tire and steel factories and fierce blue-collar work ethic, Pottstown gave him a feel for and an appreciation of the America heartland, Trump recalls. It also bolstered his interest in the outdoors. The Hill School had a rifle and trap range and a skeet field. It was the school’s dean of students, Trump says, who introduced him to “actual hunting,” and took him on his first upland bird shoot. “He said, ‘Meet me in the parking lot Saturday morning at 6 and dress warm, because we’re going hunting,’” Trump says. “Today if that happened, they’d be calling the police, right? It’s a different world.”
Following prep school, Trump attended his father’s alma mater, the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, where he rowed crew and earned a bachelor’s degree in real estate finance and marketing. But if plunging into a job at the family business right after graduation was considered inevitable by some, Don Jr. had other plans. He picked up stakes and headed west to Aspen, Colorado. There, he worked nights as a bartender for 18 months and spent his days hunting, fishing, and skiing. “I never wanted to have a ‘what-if’ scenario,” Trump says, explaining the Colorado move. “I probably always knew I was going to work in the business. But I never wanted to be working at closing a deal at 3 on a Saturday morning and say, ‘Man, what if I’d done something different?’ So I did the Out West thing. It was incredible. I loved it. At the same time, you probably start taking some of the things you love for granted. And so I realized I needed a little bit more than just 275 days a year of fly-fishing. I needed both. I needed some of the action on the other side as well.”
He found that action when he joined the Trump Organization in 2001, focusing initially on big real estate redevelopment projects in Manhattan. Over time, his portfolio expanded to include overseeing residential and hotel developments in Chicago and Las Vegas, a golf-course project in Scotland, and still more residential/hotel towers in India and Canada. Along with Eric, he’s also become responsible for leasing all the Trump Organization’s commercial properties, including Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and a skyscraper called 40 Wall Street in downtown Manhattan.
These days, with their father in the White House, the Trump brothers are focused on “managing, fixing, building up” the Organization’s existing assets, as opposed to pursuing new development opportunities. “We manage the assets that we have, and we run them very well,” says Don Jr., whose title at the company is executive vice president. “But trying to do new deals in this political environment … honestly would not be fair to abusiness partner.”
Expanding Hunting and Fishing Opportunities
As anyone who follows the news knows, the political environment he refers to features unrelenting criticism of the Trump administration, including for its approach to managing natural resources. While the president’s foes have been skeptical of the administration’s stance on conservation and public lands, for example, Don Jr. contends that, as usual, the attacks on his father’s policies in this area are misguided and unfair. They’re often driven by “liberal shell organizations” that purport to be conservationist but really aren’t, he says, and then backed up by uninformed judges in Washington, D.C.
Stressing that he’s speaking as “an outside person,” not as someone in the administration, Trump says, “the big thing for us was always preserving those public lands with responsible use and management.” He points to the administration’s efforts to protect fisheries, and to expand hunting and fishing opportunities on more than four million acres of previously inaccessible recreational areas. Last year, the president signed the biggest public lands bill in a decade, authorizing five new national monuments and expanding several national parks. He’s also permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports conservation and outdoor recreation projects, and fought for hundreds of millions of federal dollars for waterway-cleanup programs in Florida’s Everglades and the Great Lakes region.
“This administration is literally bolstering sportsmen, bolstering their access to things, preserving the fisheries and the recreational areas,” Trump says. “But if it were up to the regular guy, he would have no idea that these things were actually going on. You just hear, ‘Trump hates the environment; he wants you to drink poisoned water.’ I mean, it’s bull—- But, that’s the reality. You don’t often get the truth, and no one’s borne witness to that better than me.”
Indeed, Don Jr. has become something of a lightning rod in recent years in defense of his father. He wrote a No. 1 New York Times best-selling book in 2019 called Triggered, which rips political correctness and the “victimhood” tactics of the American left. He created and hosts an online talk show for the Trump presidential campaign called Triggered. And he boasts an estimated 5.2 million followers for his often-provocative, pro-administration views on Twitter.
Asked whether he gets his combative spirit from the president, Trump says it more likely derives from the president’s Bronx-born father, Fred, whose own father died when Fred was 12. In an instant, Fred was told: “’Congratulations, you’ve got to take care of your mother, you’ve got to take care of your brother.’ He started working on job sites and was just a Germanic workaholic,” Trump says of his paternal grandfather. “He learned carpentry, plumbing, masonry, electrical wiring. He built a garage for someone, then he built four more, and then he built houses. He put his brother through MIT. It was sort of an incredible American success story. There was no lifeline, no bailout—it was, ‘You’re the man of the house, get over it.’ He didn’t have any other mode other than to work, and he did that well.”
“So, my father [also] came in as an outsider,” Trump goes on. “And some of that fight—it’s not just fight, I think it’s also the ability to sort of brush off all the attacks. I think he actually is able to harness some of the energy when he’s attacked and dish it back, redirect it. I think he actually thrives under that more so than under normalcy, if that makes any sense.”
‘You’ve Got to Get Involved’
For all his passion for the outdoors, Don Jr. says he’s rarely shared those activities with his father, who, growing up in Queens, New York, pursued golf instead of hunting and fishing. “I think he’d be good at it, because he’s a very good athlete, very coordinated,” he says of the President. “I think he’d probably be a phenomenal shot if he’d [pursued shooting sports] earlier.
“I’d probably be a golfer, too, if that’s all I grew up with,” Don Jr. goes on. “But, because people went out of their way in their lives to take guys like me under their wing and teach them, we created more outdoorsmen. That’s why I think we all have to step up and teach someone from scratch.
“Our parents’ and our grandparents’ generations oftentimes did a very bad job of that,” Trump says. “Hunting camp was for guys, and we’d go and drink beer and whiskey and smoke cigars. It wasn’t a place to bring little kids, because they could ‘ruin’ the experience for us. But, to ensure that the lifestyle continues and the great American tradition of the outdoors continues, we’ve all got to be mentors. Because, guess what: if you don’t, it’s gone.”
These days, Don Jr. practices what he preaches about mentoring. He spends a lot of time fishing, ATVing, and enjoying other outdoor activities with the five children from his 13-year marriage to the former Vanessa Kay Haydon. (The couple divorced in 2018.) He shares tips about hunting and fishing with his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former FOX News host and currently a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. And, he’s an enthusiastic proponent of efforts by Ted Nugent and the Hunter Nation Foundation’s Hunt the Vote initiative to expand the influence of America’s 15.5 million licensed hunters, fewer than half of whom are registered voters.
Registering and voting is a must, Trump contends, if only to counter the arguments of those opposed to hunting and the Second Amendment. “We have to recognize as outdoorsmen and hunters that the other side’s hobby is screwing with your love, your rights, your freedom to do these things,” he says. “So, you hear, ‘Well, I don’t want to interject politics into my hobbies.’ Well, guess what, guys? You’ve got to get involved. You better wake the hell up. Because a lot of money’s being spent to make sure that you’re not able to sustain that pastime—your hobby, and your great American traditions—to the next generation. “In November, you may be busy with pre-rut, depending on where you are in the country,” he continues. “But at the same time, if it’s snowing, you can still drive your car. You could show up and vote.”
The approaching election is a reminder that Don Jr. has often been mentioned as a future political candidate himself—perhaps even as the potential heir to his father’s presidential legacy. But, that’s not something he wants to talk about right now. If the president is reelected, he says, he’ll continue running the Trump Organization with his brother. And he plans to “remain politically active” on behalf of principled, stand-up conservatives. “I don’t think long-term. I play it by ear,” he says about running for office. “I don’t waste time and energy thinking about what-ifs. That time may come, it may not, who knows? But my only focus right now is 2020.”
And a big part of that focus, it’s clear, is encouraging more people to appreciate—and protect their right to enjoy—the Great American Outdoors.