President Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law has taken up a pet issue — beagle adoption — that reflects her lifelong interest in animal welfare. One of Lara Trump’s partners, however, is a little problematic.
Eric Trump’s wife has publicly aligned with a controversial animal rights group, the Beagle Freedom Project, whose leadership includes a felon who served a six-year sentence in federal prison for harassing and stalking researchers.
The Beagle Freedom Project’s stated goals are more mainstream. It has persuaded five states to pass laws requiring tens of thousands of dogs and cats to be made available for adoption instead of euthanized after research testing, and activists say they hope Lara Trump can get Oval Office exposure for those efforts.
She was billed as the star attraction at the North Hollywood, California-based group’s recent “Red, White and Beagle” event in Washington. While she canceled at the last minute due to illness, she sent a short video message from New York saying she’d “always loved” the group and wished it “best regards for an incredible evening.”
Organizers say that they’ve been talking more frequently with Lara Trump since the presidential election and that she’s offered Trump Organization golf and casino outings to help raise money through silent auctions.
“She really wants to be the first First Family member that champions an animal issue,” said Kevin Chase, the Beagle Freedom Project’s head of operations. “Usually it’s military stuff, veterans, children, eating healthy. She’s like, ‘I want to finally be the voice of some animal stuff.’”
Connecting with Chase, who is also known by his given name Kevin Kjonaas, brings political risk. The 39-year-old was released from a Minnesota federal prison in August 2011 after completing most of a six-year sentence for using a website to incite threats and harassment against a company that tested products on animals.
Chase uses his real last name, Kjonaas, on the Beagle Freedom Project’s website, but he introduced himself with his new name to a POLITICO reporter at the “Red, White and Beagle” event.
In an interview, Chase said he’s never disclosed his criminal background to Lara Trump, and he said he typically doesn’t mention it as part of his advocacy work, though he might if he were speaking to members of Congress.
Chase, who said he bonded earlier this year with Lara Trump over a Central Park dog walk and at a vegetarian restaurant, said he hadn’t met her husband or President Trump. He said he and Lara Trump remain in touch, and he has touted her support on social media.
Lara Trump did not provide any comment about the Beagle Freedom Project or Chase’s background, though a source close to her said she doesn’t know Chase “very well and was not aware of his past.”
In a statement before POLITICO learned about Chase’s history, Lara Trump said she had been an animal lover since childhood.
“I am honored to have worked with numerous animal rescue centers and other amazing organizations to assist in making life better for them,” she wrote. “I hope to make a positive impact on a cause so close to my heart and will continue to use my voice to spread awareness and encourage people to adopt from shelters.”
Chase and five other activists from the now-defunct group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty faced prosecution because they posted online the names and home addresses of employees at Huntingdon Life Sciences, which had a lab in the same New Jersey county where President Trump’s Bedminster golf course is located. They also “applauded acts of extreme harassment, intimidation, vandalism and violence,” according to a 2006 news release from the prosecutor, then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.
Chase had been on federal law enforcement’s radar since the late 1990s. He had been quoted in national media reports as a spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front, which the FBI once called a “serious domestic terrorist threat.”
The Beagle Freedom Project has adopted far more mainstream tactics — and it has found some success. Five states — Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Connecticut and California — have passed laws requiring lab animals to be made available for adoption. The Illinois state Senate passed a version of the bill last month.
The nonprofit beagle group — which reported nearly $1.6 million in income in its 2015 filing to the IRS — is now turning its attention to Congress, which it hopes will consider similar legislation for National Institutes of Health-funded researchers. Its focus is on about 380 labs nationwide that use about 65,000 dogs and 20,000 cats per year. Most of the animals are euthanized after experiments for everything from cosmetics to veterinary medicine so scientists can study tissue samples.
Chase said he’s talked with Lara Trump about how she can help. “I don’t know how much lobbying she can really be doing,” Chase said. “But any voice she can give to elevate this issue or just grab the attention of new Republican allies, which we need, or even her father-in-law at the White House, we’ll happily take.”
Lara Trump’s support for the Beagle Freedom Project has alarmed researchers and leaders from the pharmaceutical industry, as well as other animal rights organizations who say studies involving dogs and cats are well regulated by the federal government. Animal research also helps support tests on critical pharmaceuticals that can help pets live longer lives, proponents say.
“It’s very easy for the issue to be manipulated, for lawmakers to be manipulated to support something that they wouldn’t normally support if they didn’t have all the facts,” said Patti Strand, president of the National Animal Interest Alliance, an industry and academic-funded group that has frequently battled with the Beagle Freedom Project.
“I guess we could be more concerned if she was the wife of the president,” Strand added. “Hopefully, this is just her issue.”
Strand said she planned to invite Lara Trump to her group’s October conference in Washington.
Paula Clifford, executive director at Americans for Medical Progress, a group defending animal medical research, said she is skeptical of the Beagle Freedom Project because of Chase’s involvement.
“He’s found a way to legally continue his agenda in stopping animal research, which is very harmful for all the people and animals in our society,” she said.
Chase has had public platforms before in which his background didn’t come up. In February, he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show after the Agriculture Department removed inspection and animal welfare reports from its website.
“Just to be clear, I’m very pro-animals; some of the animal rights groups are lunatics and resort to violence. And so you’re not one of those. You’re not going to go attack a testing facility or firebomb anything,” Carlson said.
In response, Chase didn’t mention his personal history but talked about the Beagle Freedom Project’s work with labs to rescue more than 1,200 animals.
In 2015, Microsoft awarded the Beagle Freedom Project $500,000 for winning a social media charity contest. The National Association of Biomedical Research complained, highlighting Chase’s criminal background, but the tech company didn’t distance itself from the animal rights group. A Microsoft spokesman recently declined to comment.
Lara Trump’s animal interests are well publicized. Her two dogs, including a beagle she and Eric Trump recently adopted, were star attractions during April’s White House Easter Egg Roll, where they appeared on a "Fox & Friends" interview and in a picture near the Rose Garden that was shared on social media.
Her Twitter feed blends animal rights messages alongside her work handling digital strategy for President Trump’s already launched 2020 reelection campaign. In a recent appearance with Eric Trump and their dogs on "The Dr. Oz Show," she called out puppy mills as “just breeding sweatshops for dogs” and encouraged adoption of rescue animals.
In her bid for greater Washington exposure on the issue, she said she’s been nudging Vice President Mike Pence to adopt a rescue dog. “I’m working as hard as I can to get a rescue dog into the White House,” Lara Trump added. “It’d be a dream.”