Donald Trump’s family is further from the national spotlight than usual as the Republican presidential nominee gets closer and closer to the biggest test of his life: Election Day.
Trump, 70, lifted his children up to the highest levels of his company and the television show that put him in millions of households across the U.S. But they’re playing less visible roles in his campaign as the nation focuses on its closing weeks, a surprising turn after headlining all four nights of July’s Republican National Convention.
Viewed as a crucial asset in her father’s play for millennial and female voters, Trump’s daughter Ivanka received rave reviews for her convention speech and was poised for a leading role in advocating for his candidacy. But Ivanka, who had a confrontational interview in September with Cosmopolitan.com, a popular site for young women, has been mostly limiting her appearances on the trail to smaller events.
After more than a week of silence on the remarks her father made in 2005 boasting of groping women—he denies actually committing sexual assault—Ivanka finally said flatly that the lewd remarks were wrong.
“My father’s comments were clearly inappropriate and offensive and I’m glad that he acknowledged this fact with an immediate apology to my family and the American people,” she told Fast Company in an article published Monday.
Before Monday’s round of interviews defending her husband from sexual-assault allegations from several women, Trump’s wife, Melania, had herself spent weeks avoiding the media following revelations that her speech at the convention plagiarized portions of one given by first lady Michelle Obama. She has no intention of playing a significant public role in the closing weeks of the campaign, according to a person close to the family.
Don Jr., Trump’s eldest son, shares his father’s penchant for shock-jock radio appearances, and that has led to several campaign fumbles. On Tuesday, audio of him joking in 2012 on the “Opie and Anthony” radio show about the Aurora, Colorado, theater shootings erupted as a campaign issue in the battleground state.
Son Eric has also been an ardent defender of his dad, but without the stature and political experience of Trump surrogates like Rudy Giuliani, has not always come off as effective in interviews.
“When it comes to Trump’s family, I don’t think any of them really understood the full force of what a presidential campaign can bring to bear on a person,” said Reed Galen, who worked on George W. Bush’s campaigns and was 2008 nominee John McCain’s deputy campaign manager. “Trump has always been so popular—they mistook reality TV for reality.”
Ivanka acknowledged being unprepared for the glare of the spotlight in remarks Wednesday at the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit.
"I may have been naive going into this. Nothing prepares you for your parent running for president of the United States of America," she said. "It is very hard to live your life and continue to build and grow your business. Because there is this cynical overlay. My opinion is a distraction and it's truthfully I don't believe all that relevant."
"We are not politicians," she added. "I wasn't groomed to be any one thing."
Trump’s anti-Washington campaign has left him with few high-profile Republicans to speak on his behalf, and given him more reason to lean on his family to serve as character witnesses to whom voters could relate.
But the Trump family hasn’t always shined in that role, as some say Melania’s media tour demonstrated.
“My impression is that her CNN interview was not particular effective,” said Amy Fried, chairwoman of the University of Maine’s political science department. “She said her husband was ‘egged’ into making those remarks to Billy Bush and compared him to her young son in terms of maturity. Given that Donald Trump is seen widely as lacking the temperament to be president, it’s not helpful for his wife to say he lacks self-control.”
As the convention unfolded, the sense within the party was that Trump’s three eldest adult children would all be strong surrogates who could serve as force multipliers, according to GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak.
“That hasn’t really happened,” he said. “From my perspective, the children and Melania all seem to reflexively fall in to Trump-speak, saying everything’s ‘amazing’ rather than offering personal testimonials about the father and husband that Donald has been.”
While Trump’s family members do continue to campaign on his behalf, the events haven’t had the firepower of those by top surrogates for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, such as President Barack Obama or Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Eric and his wife, Lara, were in Maine in early October for interviews with New England media, visits with campaign volunteers, and a stop at an orchard. Lara Trump has campaigned on her own, including at women-for-Trump events.
Pennsylvania, with its close proximity to New York City, has been a central target. Since late August, Eric has made four trips there to do campaign office openings, fundraising, stops at a gun range and a natural gas well, the Cumberland County GOP annual dinner, and local media interviews. Ivanka was on hand for a child-care policy rollout at Trump’s rally in Aston on Sept. 13, and later to campaign in the four collar counties around Philadelphia. And Don Jr. journeyed there once, for an office opening and editorial board meeting with the Pittsburgh Tribune.
Ivanka starred in a TV ad for her father, and her schedule on the trail is picking up pace. She was in Ohio in early October, and will fly straight from Las Vegas after the debate to stump in Wisconsin. The Fortune event in California was women-focused rather than campaign-focused.
Don Jr. has been stumping hard for the past five to six weeks, hitting North Carolina, Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Utah to go to rallies, talk to small-business owners and law enforcement officers, thank volunteers, and do media interviews. He has also done private fundraising events in about a dozen other states.
Trump backers say the candidate and his family have faced some harsh and unfair character attacks.
“To win, I think the Clintons will burn the entire family to the ground,” former Trump aide Michael Caputo said. “They will destroy Donald Trump. They will destroy his wife. They will destroy his children and ruin his businesses. I told Mr. Trump this and he told me I was being dramatic.”
But Mackowiak said it was a role they readily accepted.
“When the history of this campaign is written, part of it will be that while Melania and the kids rightly pushed [Corey] Lewandowski out in the summer, they made almost no real public difference in their father’s campaign,” he said, “which is a shame because they had such potential in June.”
-- Anousha Sakoui contributed to this report.