In 2019, Don Peay was one of Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters. The Bountiful father of four best known for his hunting and wildlife advocacy managed Trump’s 2016 campaign in Utah and was happy with Trump’s achievements throughout his presidency.

“Sometimes he’s inartful, but bold leaders are at times,” he told me back then, adding, “He works harder and plays less than any president in the last 50 years.”

Last fall, when Trump was flirting with a 2024 run, I reached out to Peay, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, to see where he stood on Trump after everything that’s happened since Jan. 6, 2021. He said he was no longer in Trump’s camp, but didn’t want to talk about it.

That’s no longer the case.

Trump, Peay now says, cannot win in 2024 and his scorched-earth candidacy makes it more likely that a Democrat will sit in the Oval Office for another four years — maybe even eight, if a younger candidate replaces Joe Biden on the ticket.

Peay says it pains him to say this publicly; he is friendly with Trump’s sons, with whom he has hunted, and knows well how Trump can turn on people he considers disloyal. “I value loyalty above everything else — more than brains, more than drive and more than energy,” the former president once wrote.

There’s also the fact that Peay, a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who served a mission in Australia, genuinely appreciates what Trump did as president, from having the Tabernacle Choir perform at his inauguration to delivering on his promise to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices. Despite his moral failings of years past, Trump is more aligned with religious values than people give him credit for, Peay says, and it bothers him that some Christians have shown an unwillingness to forgive Trump’s transgressions, as their faith demands.

“Sometimes we are too judgmental, and fail to live what we are taught — forgive and forget and move forward. America and the world could use more of that,” Peay said.

In a free-wheeling interview in which he touched on everything from his friendship with the late Sen. Orrin Hatch to what he sees as similarities between Trump and Mitt Romney, Peay spoke about how Trump lost his support, the wild-card candidates he’d like to see on the national stage, and the only thing that he believes could turn Trump’s political fortunes around.

Hunting for votes

One of the conceits of the film “Forrest Gump” was how the titular character kept showing up at important events in history. Peay, 62, has the same sort of vibe when it comes to presidential politics in Utah.

He was 32 when he organized President George H.W. Bush’s visit to Red Butte Gardens in 1992. Later, he helped raise funds for the candidacy of George W. Bush, and he once spent a couple of hours at the home of Vice President Dick Cheney. He’s been hunting with Romney and superstar athlete Bo Jackson. He has photos at the ready to prove his friendships, or at least association with, a constellation of A-list politicians and athletes, to include Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer and Donnie Edwards.

But of those A-listers who once lived in the White House, Peay was most enthusiastic about Trump, whom he first met in January 2016. He was introduced to Trump by his friend Jason Hairston, the late NFL star and hunter, who, according to Peay, said, “Mr. Trump, if you listen to Don Peay, he can help you get the hunter vote.”

Although it’s only been 7 12 years since Trump announced his candidacy on a now-famous escalator ride that his aides thought was a bad idea, what’s happened since sometimes obscures just how quixotic the 2016 campaign was at the start. Peay, who says he has “never been paid a nickel by any campaign, ever,” said there was never an official “Utah for Trump” campaign.

“They figured they didn’t need it. They didn’t pay a staff. They didn’t spend money here, but they had guys like me and General (Robert C.) Oaks and Sen. Orrin Hatch and Kathleen Anderson (working for Trump).

“I volunteered to head up this ragtag ‘Utahns for Trump’ in 2016; I also helped Don Jr. nationwide, mostly plugged him into people. Don Jr. is the reason his father became president. Don Jr. delivered that last two yards in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.”

That’s because, Peay says, their parents were adamant that Donald Trump Jr. and his brother, Eric, didn’t grow up only knowing the blue-tinted bubble of New York City. They learned how to hunt, shoot and fish when they visited their maternal grandfather in (what was then) Czechoslovakia each summer. Those childhood experiences later morphed into votes that put Trump in the White House, according to Peay.

“A lot of hunters who had never voted came out and voted because Don Jr. spoke their language. A lot of guys who grew up blue-collar, union Democrats said ‘the Democrat Party has left us, and Trump speaks our language and he’ll protect our jobs, and Don. Jr. likes to hunt,’” Peay said.

That association came about, in part, because of Peay’s influence and that of the advocacy organization he founded in 1993, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

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By the time the 2020 campaign rolled around, Peay was still pro-Trump and helped organize the group Latter-day Saints for Trump. Given the chance to make “the case for Trump” in a Deseret article that year, he said, “Yeah, he’s a character. But he’s a patriot. He loves this country, and it struck a chord when he said ‘Let’s make America great again’ because America was becoming a doorstop for the rest of the world.” Peay also lauded Trump’s work ethic, his tax reform and his military support, among other policies.

“I was very supportive — and still am — of what the president accomplished,” he said this week.

Peay is careful to always say “President Trump,” not Trump, and is respectful when speaking of the former president. But, he said, “I would say it’s a 98% chance I would not — in any way, shape or form — support a primary effort in 2024 for him.”

An ‘amazing’ president

As president, Trump had four notable achievements, Peay said.

“No. 1, he has a conservative Supreme Court — very critical. No. 2, we had a great economy. No. 3, he pushed through, in a very rapid fashion, the COVID vaccine. I don’t think many other presidents could have pushed the bureaucracies that fast. And No. 4, (Vladimir) Putin would not be in Ukraine today if Trump was president. He was a very strong world leader. Power respects power.

“But I’ve come to the conclusion that he can’t be president, or win the presidency, because he’s living in the past. He will not look at himself and say, ‘I probably cost myself 10 points in the last election.’”

Peay said he’s spoken to urban women who voted in swing states who “just got tired of his boorish, nonstop bashing that wasn’t necessary and wasn’t presidential. Some of them said, ‘We’ll pay $6 a gallon for gas, but we’re not going to put up with someone bashing people every day.’”

That played out noticeably in Arizona, which Trump lost by slightly more than 10,000 votes.

“Every time he went to Arizona, he stomped on John McCain’s grave and that probably cost him 50,000 votes in Arizona. He just couldn’t help himself from stomping on people; he picked a fight with the Bush family every chance he got — probably not smart politics.”

At the same time, Trump was beloved in some circles, especially among veterans, Peay said.

“I want to be very clear: He was an amazing president. But one of the real tragedies is that people in Ukraine are suffering because we have a weak president. ... It’s a tragedy that petty, personal politics got in the way of a great president.”

Don Peay, left, and Donald Trump Jr. in 2016
Don Peay, left, with Donald Trump Jr. at the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo in Salt Lake City in 2016. | Don Peay

The missing 2%

Since Peay says there’s a 98% chance that he wouldn’t support Trump in a primary, what would have to happen in that space of 2% to change his mind?

Is it possible that Trump has learned from his mistakes and become a nicer person, a better leader, over the past two years?

Peay says he wouldn’t know. “I’ve tuned him out. A lot of people have.”

And, he says, “These things are complicated. There’s not a simple answer.”

But, “if he were to come out to the American people and say, ‘Fellow citizens, I looked in the mirror. I made some serious mistakes. I apologize. I won’t do them again, and for the next two years, I’m going to prove to you I won’t do them again, and I’m going to surround myself with great cabinet members and I’m going to listen to them,’” then he would have a chance.  

“At some point, you have to say, ‘You know what, I lost.’

“I know he was friends with Tom Brady, but Tom Brady once, after he was losing some games, sat down and looked at himself first and then said to his team, ‘I’ve made mistakes, let’s get better.’ But President Trump, for some reason, he could not do that, and then his doubling and tripling and quadrupling down on Jan. 6 showed a tremendous lack of responsible decision making.”

Even with a sincere change of heart and manner, Peay said it would be tough for Trump to recover, especially given the way that the man who valued loyalty first and foremost was unwilling to show loyalty to members of his team. “Mike Pence was as loyal a soldier in that administration as anyone, but if Mike Pence can get thrown under the bus, I guess anyone and everyone could and would,” Peay said.

As for other candidates, announced and expected, for the GOP in 2024, Peay says the big four are Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

He also mentioned South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who he believes should get consideration as a running mate. He called Cox a capable leader and “a conservative who’s smart and is moderate on cultural issues that reflect the electorate.”

As for Romney, he says Trump and Utah’s junior senator have a lot of things in common, including great wives and families, impressive accomplishments, and love of country. But he says it helps no one if “Team Romney or Team Trump decide to sit and shoot at each other, there cannot be a conservative who wins the presidency. There has to be a united effort. It’s so hard for conservatives to win elections nationwide. ...

“I think everybody knows there’s a time and a season when the great ones step aside and the smart ones cultivate the next leaders. ... For the country’s sake, it would be really great to have a young, dynamic leader who can lead for eight years.”

Would that be DeSantis? Or Zinke, whom he considers a friend?

Peay, who spends much of his time these days working to support veterans, isn’t saying. A lot can happen in eight months, he says; a lot more in two years. What he is saying, however, is that a President Donald Trump would start 2025 as a lame duck. And that although he knows speaking out will likely cause friction between him and the Trump family, he says he cares more about the vitality of the country he loves and the direction it is headed. He won’t lose sleep over any fallout. He was headed out to hunt coyotes in southern Utah over the weekend, is working on a book of life lessons gleaned from his experiences, and treasures most his wife, adult children and rapidly accumulating assembly of grandkids.

Has anyone with the campaign reached out since Trump announced he was running again? No, Peay said. He later mentions that his late father drilled into him, “Do what is right, let the consequences follow.”

Or, in the language of his faith, “Choose the right.”