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From Trump to vets: ‘It’s a nice break from the trench warfare of politics’

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Don Peay, head of Utahns for Trump, speaks during a rally for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Capitol rotunda in Salt Lake City.

Don Peay, head of Utahns for Trump, speaks during a rally for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Capitol rotunda in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. Peay is taking a hiatus from politics to pay tribute to veterans.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Don Peay is no stranger to controversy and negotiating his way around differences of opinion.

As founder of the powerful Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife lobbying organization, he’s gone the rounds with bureaucrats and politicians for most of the past 30 years, fighting for wildlife habitat, conservation and the rights of hunters and fishermen.

Other groups he’s started or been affiliated with, such as the nonprofit Big Game Forever and Hunt Expo, have definitely called for sharp elbows. 

And then there’s his more recent affiliation with a certain politician.


Don Peay.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

Peay was Donald Trump’s Utah campaign manager when he was elected in 2016, and an avowed supporter throughout the Trump presidency. He became an adjunct part of the administration when he was named to the national Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council by Trump’s Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

But of course all that came to a crashing halt once the Bidens were in and the Trumps were out.

So what’s he doing to decompress from Trump life?

Taking care of veterans, as it turns out.

Peay and his wife, Susan, were the main organizers of an event called Bonfire that took place earlier this week at a venue in Hobble Creek Canyon. Hundreds of people turned out to support a charity called Best Defense and honor dozens of veterans, including a number of Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, who were special guests at the affair.

The Best Defense Foundation was started in 2018 by retired NFL linebacker Donnie Edwards, who spent 13 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers. Edwards and Peay brought in other former NFL players, including the legendary Bo Jackson and Utahns Jim McMahon and Haloti Ngata, all of whom spoke at the event. Country music singer Craig Morgan, himself an Army vet, performed for the crowd and 97-year-old World War II veteran Jack Foy, who fought alongside Patton, rounded out the speakers.

Because the only compensation any of the headliners required or received was airfare, an estimated $150,000 was raised in the one-night event. Plans are already underway for a similar fundraiser in 2022.

Peay’s affection for the military traces back to his father, Edward, who was a colonel in the Utah National Guard.

“If I have one regret it’s that I didn’t pursue going to one of the military academies,” said Peay, 61, who grew up during Vietnam and did not serve in the military. “This is our family’s way of giving back to veterans who actually did.

“I take great strength from being around these warriors,” he continued. “This is some payback to people who at a moment’s notice will jump into a firefight that they know can cost them their life. This puts our lives into perspective. If we think we’ve had a hard day, these guys have had hard days, day after day after day. Whatever we have to deal with is nothing compared to what they’ve been through.”

Which brings us back to Peay’s experience being on the front lines with Donald Trump, through good times and bad.

Actively supporting such a polarizing politician took a toll and left a mark, he freely confesses.

“It got very personal at times. Our children were attacked, a family member was fired supposedly because of my affiliation. But that’s a small price to pay for standing for what you believe.”

If he had it to do it all over again, “I’d fight even harder.”

“I loved Trump’s policies, including dollar-seventy-five gas,” he said. “But we know his tone and his getting down in the weeds and fighting over stupid stuff in the internet hurt him.”

But that was then and this is now, and he’s taking a hiatus from even thinking about all of that. This fall he has plans to take some of the veterans who were honored this week on hunting trips, and really get away from it all.

“I find real peace dealing with veterans,” he said. “I feel like I’m on vacation. It’s a nice break from the trench warfare of politics.”

Does that mean he’s retiring?

“I’ll always be involved in issues related to wildlife,” he said. “But the rest of it? Yeah, you could say I’m officially retired … for a while.”