News / World

Skittles and Pepe: Donald Trump Jr. becomes campaign flashpoint

The nominee's oldest son is one of Trump's closest advisors and is following in his father's Twitter footsteps.

Donald Trump Jr. speaks to the crowd at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. Donald Trump's eldest son is one of the Republican nominee's closest advisers, but his choice social media behaviour is drawing heat to the campaign.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump Jr. speaks to the crowd at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. Donald Trump's eldest son is one of the Republican nominee's closest advisers, but his choice social media behaviour is drawing heat to the campaign.

NEW YORK — Donald Trump is trying to run a more disciplined campaign, going easy (for him) on slip-ups and inflammatory tweets lately. His eldest son is another story.

In recent tweets, Donald Trump Jr. likened Syrian refugees to a poisoned bowl of Skittles candy, spread an incendiary story suggesting Muslim men are preying on Western women and used a cartoon character appropriated by white supremacists. He's one of his father's most prominent advisers.

The three adult Trump children, who are running their father's company in his absence, have been valuable assets in the campaign. Daughter Ivanka introduces him at major events like his convention acceptance speech and last week's rollout of a policy on child care. Sons Donald Jr. and Eric Trump do frequent interviews and campaign stops and have become popular figures with donors, who often cite Trump's kids as evidence the nominee is a good father and a good person.

Donald Trump Jr., though, has been raising eyebrows with some of his own pronouncements recently, such as a pair of tweets within 24 hours warning about refugees allowed in the U.S. In the first, he posted a tweet featuring a bowl of the candy Skittles with a warning: "If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful?" The tweet went on: "That's our Syrian refugee problem."

The photo, a popular image on the extreme right, quickly drew condemnation. Skittles parent company, Wrigley Americas, offered a terse response from Denise Young, vice-president of corporate affairs: "Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don't feel it's an appropriate analogy." The photo of the bowl of Skittles was taken by a refugee from Turkey now living in Britain, who denounced Trump for using it.

Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton, tweeted: "This is disgusting."

Then on Tuesday morning, Trump Jr. linked to a news article posted on the conservative news site Breitbart with the incendiary headline: "Europe's Rape Epidemic: Western Women Will Be Sacrificed at the Altar of Mass Migration." The article suggests that Muslim men are a menace to Western women and are prompting European leaders "to follow the Islamic way entirely; they've decided to place restrictions on the freedoms of their own women."

Trump Jr., 38, did not return a request for comment from The Associated Press but defended his comment to the Deseret News on Wednesday, saying "We've seen what's going on in Europe. We can't be naive to that and pretend that's not happening there."

"If there's one death associated with it because we messed up and we didn't do it right, that's a problem for me," Trump told the Utah newspaper.

A Trump spokesman suggested that "the media's run out of things to attack Mr. Trump on, and so now they scour the social media accounts of his family looking for things to blow out of proportion."

"Here's the reality: This is a family that's passionate about changing America by bringing real positive change to Washington," said Jason Miller, the Trump campaign's senior communications adviser. "They're not political insiders, and their honesty and connection with real people is what's made them so popular with voters also seeking change."

This is not the first time Trump Jr. has used imagery that some believe carries xenophobic or racist connotations.

Last week he posted a doctored image of himself, his father and several other prominent Trump allies next to Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character whose image has been used by white supremacists. He's also retweeted an academic who has argued that anti-Semitism is a "logical" response to Jewish control of the world's banks. And last week he made what resembled a Holocaust-themed joke in a radio interview, suggesting that if Republicans behaved in the same way Democrats are in 2016, the media would be "warming up the gas chamber."

Trump Jr. said later he was referring to capital punishment.

He muddied the political waters again when he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review his father shouldn't release his tax returns because it would "distract" from the celebrity businessman's "main message." The elder Trump has repeatedly said the reason he has not released his returns is because they are being audited by the Internal Revenue Service.

To be sure, the Republican nominee himself previously retweeted white supremacists and his new campaign CEO is the head of Breitbart News, a choice that prompted Clinton to suggest that Trump was "helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party."

Trump Jr. and wife Vanessa — who have five children — spent about 90 minutes Monday in New York City with 18 supporters of the pro-Trump super PAC, Rebuilding America. Laurance Gay, the group's director, said Trump Jr. spoke passionately about his time in the campaign with his father and how much he enjoys mingling with working-class men and women.

And Trump Jr., who gave a well-received convention speech, is the only Trump family member to star in a campaign commercial. He appears in an ad showing his father hugging and kissing his young grandchildren.

At a rally Tuesday in North Carolina, Trump supporter Pam Guy, who runs a pharmacy with her husband in Thomasville, brushed off the fuss over the Skittles tweet.

"It just makes us more endeared to them because of what they have to go through when they're just being sincere and honest," she said.

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Associated Press writers Julie Bykowicz in New York and Jill Colvin in High Point, North Carolina, contributed to this report.