The White House was bracing for another chaotic week in Washington, awaiting potentially explosive public testimony from the ex-FBI director Donald Trump fired last month.
But nearly 400 miles away, his daughter-in-law was home in North Carolina, painting a rosy picture of the president’s re-election prospects.
“The Trump campaign is still active and I’m proud to be part of it. We work every day alongside the RNC and we are like ‘this,’” said Lara Trump, clasping her hands to demonstrate closeness with the Republican National Committee, as she addressed GOP activists in this coastal town on Saturday. “We’re making sure we have an incredibly strong party, that we’re geared up for 2018, that we’re geared up for 2020.”
No matter that in Washington, many Republicans are so deeply anxious about whether Donald Trump will damage the 2018 congressional election climate that they can’t fathom talking about 2020. With the D.C.-based Trump family embroiled in crisis after crisis, Lara Trump has taken to the road and to the airwaves, seeking to keep activists engaged and reminding party officials that the grassroots still strongly supports her father-in-law, even as the donor and operative classes have mounting concerns about him.
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Lara Trump is officially a senior consultant to the digital vendor for Trump’s re-election, but she introduces herself simply as part of the Trump campaign. She is strategizing with the RNC about both the 2018 midterms and the 2020 re-elect, and has a hand in digital, fundraising and merchandise efforts already underway for the next presidential race.
Trump’s effort builds on her experience assisting the 2016 campaign as a top female surrogate, a role that earned her respect at the most senior levels of Trumpworld.
“I never knew her to say no a single time,” said Kellyanne Conway, who was Donald Trump’s campaign manager and is now counselor to the president—and a champion of Lara Trump’s. “’Can you work the phones for fundraising?’ ‘Can we send you and your colleagues in Women for Trump to the four following states?’ ‘Will you sit on a bus for hours?’ Lara never said no.”
And now, at state conventions and private political lunches, at local GOP gatherings and on Fox News, Lara Trump is quickly becoming the public face of Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign.
A family affair
Before she was Lara Trump—wife of Eric Trump, senior player in the 2020 operation, vociferous media critic—she was Lara Yunaska, a budding chef and aspiring sportscaster from a North Carolina family better known around their seaside town as dog lovers than political obsessives.
She grew up in an exclusive enclave of Wrightsville Beach, near the Wilmington Convention Center where she spoke on Saturday. Yachts dot the docks there and large, rambling houses perch by the water, shaded by palm trees and oaks.
As a teenager and then a student at North Carolina State University, Lara Trump was more focused on sports—cheerleading, intramural athletics—than she was on politics, and she planned to pursue a career in sportscasting.
Instead, after a detour in the food world as a culinary student in New York and a stint with her own baking business, she landed a job with the tabloid but nonpartisan CBS program “Inside Edition.”
It was also in New York that she met Eric Trump. After years of a ritzy courtship featuring trips to Trump properties and early mornings at expensive Manhattan workout classes, they married at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s luxurious private club in Palm Beach.
“This family is so much more normal than they even should be,” she said while campaigning for her father-in-law in Ohio last fall, describing connecting with Donald Trump over ice cream at the U.S. Open. “I come from a family that raised me with good southern values. I’d never be part of a family—certainly never represent a man, talk to the character of a man, [who was] anything less than incredible.”
Yet as the presidential campaign got underway, Lara Trump did little such representing, busy instead with her associate producer job at “Inside Edition” and a variety of animal welfare-related causes, one of which has been controversial. In late 2015, as her father-in-law slammed the “dishonest” press, she was still talking enthusiastically about her job in the media, and praising her beginnings as an intern in local news.
But she was also curious about the trajectory of the race and a strong supporter of her father-in-law, attending campaign events with the rest of the Trump clan and cultivating a reputation in high-drama Trumpworld as relatively low-key and accessible.
The art of the campaign
In late summer of 2016, as her father-in-law was careening toward what appeared to be near-certain defeat, Trump took on a more prominent political role in her own right. She spearheaded a Trump Women’s Tour effort that traversed the country, aiming to show a softer side of the candidate, who was often under fire for past sexist remarks.
At the time, Donald Trump’s ground game appeared nonexistent, he trailed in national polls, and his numbers with women were even worse. But Lara Trump was already talking about 2020.
“I can’t wait, I keep saying to people, for four years from now, when I feel like everyone is going to be so excited to vote for him in a second term,” she said in an interview, speaking in a fluorescent-hued conference room in a rural Ohio Quality Inn one Saturday afternoon. (She was not made available for an interview for this story).
Behind the scenes, Trump was schooling herself in the more granular aspects of the campaign.
“We’d find her in the war room talking to different people, she’d speak to the communications and press team, she’d sit in on the data meetings, planning and strategy, scheduling, fundraising,” Conway said. “She was a great utility player.”
Karen Giorno, a senior adviser to Donald Trump in the general election who traveled some with Lara Trump, said that having a surrogate with a clear understanding of family dynamics was an asset.
“She could really tell us if something was off or if it was right on, because this is her family,” Giorno said, adding that Lara Trump also had a strong grasp of the candidate’s base.
As they rolled between stops, the women on the tour were glued to news of the campaign. The coverage often infuriated Lara Trump, by then on leave from her CBS-affiliated job.
Embracing the base
On Election Night in New York, Donald Trump had turned to his daughter-in-law when the North Carolina results came in, and credited her with his victory in her home state.
And by early 2017, Lara Trump was already working on the re-election effort alongside Michael Glassner, who is running the campaign committee, and John Pence, the vice president’s nephew, as well as with the San Antonio-based digital vendor, Giles-Parscale. The campaign has an active email list and continues to stage events and solicit donations.
“She just decided to stay there to keep the trains running, keep fundraising going, keep messaging going, the data operation [going],” said Conway, who sat next to Trump at a lunch ahead of the Wilmington speech. Conway added, “When her father-in-law is ready to launch re-election, it’s not being recreated again out of whole cloth.”
On a cold Nashville night in March, before a packed arena, there were few signs that Lara Trump, now a political operative, had spent a significant portion of her own career working in media.
“It’s more important, I think, now than ever, that we keep our movement alive,” she told the thousands of people who were awaiting a speech from the president. “Because that same media—and they’re all here today, guys, right there,” she gestured as the crowd booed. “They got it out for President Trump.”
Now, Lara Trump is taking a portfolio of media bashing—she has slammed TV networks for not running a pro-Trump ad that rails against “fake news”—as well as praise for the grassroots and compliments for the president’s agenda, on the road and to Fox News with increasing regularity.
Often, she talks up the 2020 effort, as she did over the weekend.
After her speech in Wilmington, Trump took questions from a small group of reporters. Asked for specifics on how the campaign is preparing for 2018 and 2020, she pointed to data and fundraising efforts and described surrogate opportunities on behalf of Donald Trump’s favored candidates up next cycle—and then, again, for him.
“It was very important to my father-in-law that we didn’t feel like we deserted our base of voters,” she said, adding, “I expect that come 2019, 2020, I’ll be right back here like I was for the campaign in 2016, on the ground, talking to voters, hopefully getting the ability to travel around with a great group of women like I did with the past campaign, but we’ll see.”
Meanwhile, Trump continues her public appearances with events in New York and Texas planned for later this month. Last month, just as Donald Trump had fired Comey, she gave a sunny assessment of his political standing to a room full of RNC power brokers at their spring meeting near San Diego.
Friends who have traveled with Trump, now pregnant with her first child, say she enjoys being on the road. She also clearly relishes public speaking, signing off in Nashville by blowing the crowd a kiss.
Through Trump’s travels, she has also met Republican operatives in swing states, some of whom are privately skeptical of her 2020 efforts now. She is just the latest family member to play an outsize role in Donald Trump’s political activity, a dynamic that some say can cloud judgment.
That assessment comes as the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, finds himself linked to a Russia investigation plaguing the broader administration. Meanwhile, Ivanka Trump’s influence is under scrutiny in light of her failed efforts to stop her father from exiting the Paris climate accord, and the Trump brothers’ business and charitable practices have raised red flags as they also remain in the political arena.
“She seems relatively normal,” said one Republican strategist who dealt with Lara Trump during the campaign and called her “one of the most approachable of that crew.”
But, the Republican continued: “Any time family [members] are the decision-makers, you lose the ability to look at the campaign from a different perspective. You can’t make emotional decisions, you have to be able to separate. It’s potentially problematic.”
Some Republican strategists, concerned about the 2018 political climate, privately say it’s hard to discuss Donald Trump’s 2020 prospects given the investigations, legislative gridlock and general political turmoil engulfing his White House—not to mention uncertainty about how the Democratic Party’s own internecine battles will unfold.
“Dysfunction and chaos worked once as a strategy, it has not worked as a governing strategy,” said the Republican operative who has interacted with Lara Trump. “It’s dangerous to make predictions about the wildly unpredictable Donald Trump, the strategist said, but added, “I’m not sure how well it’ll work in a re-election strategy.”
The long view
As Lara Trump took the stage here in Wilmington, more drama was brewing for the White House. Several hours after her speech, a London terrorist attack would trigger a provocative presidential tweetstorm. And in Washington, the hype surrounding fired FBI Director James Comey’s coming testimony—slated to take place before a Senate committee on Thursday—was only growing.
But Lara Trump, who was exposed to politics in the trenches of the last rancorous campaign, is not going to stop talking about the next one.
“We need your support to continue through 2018, that’s a really big deal coming up, I think we all know that,” she told the Wilmington crowd. And, she added, “2020 is going to be here before we know it.”
David Lightman of the McClatchy Washington bureau and Teresa Leonard of the Raleigh News & Observer contributed to this report.