“I always prided myself on being a good father,” the Republican presidential hopeful says in his new interview in PEOPLE. “With my children, I was always available.”
He was also protective. After his split from Ivana Trump in 1990, their three children, Donald Jr., now 37, Ivanka, 33, and Eric, 31, were sent off to boarding school to shield them from their parents’ public war of words in the N.Y.C. papers. (Trump was seeing beauty queen Marla Maples, with whom he later had daughter Tiffany, 21; he welcomed Barron, with Melania, in 2006.)
“It was just too much,” he says, reflecting on the “record” number of tabloid covers their divorce occupied, giving credit to his children’s resilience. “Children are tougher than you think,” he says. “And they’ve grown up to be people we’re really proud of.”
Trump’s four older children, who all spoke to PEOPLE for the cover story, credit their father for giving them a relatively normal upbringing.
“He’s been protecting us from the public eye for a long time,” says Eric. “We never made the tabloids when we were younger. He was the man that, his whole life, he’s always had thousands of cameras on him and yet we were raised as normal kids, or at least as normal as you could be raised under the circumstances.”
“When we were kids, we’d be sitting in a boardroom while he was negotiating a deal, and if we were playing with trucks, making noise, it didn’t matter,” recalls Donald. Jr., who is now married with five children of his own. Along with Ivanka and Eric, Donald Jr. works for his father’s company. (Though Donald Jr. oversees many of the Trump golf courses, the senior Trump jokes that he “can’t get him interested” in the sport.)
Following his father into the world of business “was a no brainer,” says Don. Jr., as he’s called. “It’s like, I’ve been doing this my whole life already!”
Ivanka says she’s developed a greater appreciation for her father as she has become a parent herself.
“The 14-year-old Ivanka loved her father very much but didn’t realize just how great he was,” she says. “The parent Ivanka appreciates him all the more. Now that I’m a parent I realize how difficult it is. He was tough, firm, but always available to us.”
Already, her four-year-old daughter Arabella has been learning of her grandfather’s high standards.
“My daughter saw a pothole and said, ‘Grandpa would not like that,’ ” Ivanka recalls with a laugh. “The fact that my daughter sees a crack and says that would be unacceptable to grandpa is a testament to the fact that she has observed him time and time again walking job sites, pushing the team to do the very best.”
And, after two difficult divorces, Trump’s kids credit him for maintaining great relationships with both ex wives â€“ and fostering closeness among the kids.
“We work together every single day. We travel together oftentimes for work and when we’re not working, the very little free time that we take for ourselves, we’re vacationing together,” says Eric. “It’s a special bond and I can count on them and they count on me.”
“We are really close,” adds Tiffany, a college student currently prepping for her LSATs. “Ivanka always helped me whenever I needed her to. With internships and advice on life, from girly situations to education and everything. And Melania is so sweet and such a good mother to Barron. My mom thinks Melania is an amazing person. I’m blessed to have a dad who’s always there for me and a mom who’s always there for me and they’re on good terms.”
As for their father’s potential future in the White House, his kids all say they’re in his corner. “It only really dawned on me when we were sitting on the plane going to the first debate,” Tiffany says. “That is surreal isn’t it? Slumber party in the White House!”
For much more of our exclusive interview â€“ and at-home photos! â€“ with the Trumps, pick up a copy of the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday