the power trip

Maggie Haberman on How She Covers Trump Without Losing Her Mind

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

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I first met Maggie Haberman in 2014. She was a correspondent for Politico with roots in city tabloids, and while I didn’t know much about politics or the media, I knew that when she reported something, it seemed to carry a certain weight, and when she said something, it seemed to matter. She had unusual status and unusual authority, and I admired her and feared her and wanted her to like me. It was around that time that I first interviewed Donald Trump. The significance of those two interactions was not clear to me then. How could it be? I could not foresee how the tabloid fixture of my tristate childhood would succeed in thoroughly transforming American politics in the span of only a few years, how he would vault from reality television to the presidency, how he would remake a major political party in his image and force his way into our collective consciousness and refuse to leave. And I could not foresee how I would become bonded to Maggie and our colleagues in the press corps as we sought to document, as well as possible, this insane period in American history. How important those relationships would become as the people running the government did their best to deny reality and convince us all that up was down and wrong was right and nothing we saw or knew could be confirmed as the truth. I think I could have predicted, though, how central she would be in all of this, that she would live on A1 above the fold at the New York Times and would emerge from the campaigns and the presidency fully intact, Pulitzer Prize in hand, unshaken and uncompromised. It is simply the case that she is the best at what she does, and there exists no contrarian take that holds up under an ounce of scrutiny. We spoke just before the publication of Confidence Man, her long-awaited tome about the man she covers better than any of us.

At 10,000 feet — actually, pretend I’m a space alien — can you explain what the mission of this book is? 

You’re not a space alien, you’re actually someone from this city, and this is a book about a place and time that created this person and how this person exported that worldview — along with his own behaviors — onto national politics and onto Washington. And it didn’t end with him. It just lives on. The aim is to answer the question of not just who Trump is but also how we got here and why we got here. This book tries to do all of it. That’s it, that’s all I want to say.

Thank you for your time. That was great. 

Good night.

I refresh the Times app all day, and the “most popular” story sometimes changes hour by hour, but I noticed this week that Frank Bruni’s piece, “Donald Can’t Quit Maggie,” was the most popular story for something like two consecutive days. It seems like readers, whether they’re fans or critics, can’t quit you, either. The sustained interest in you as an individual is enormous and intense in a way that is not true of any other reporter working today. Why do you think that is? 

Well, I was going to ask you why you think it is.

I have my own theories, but this is an interview with you. 

I know. I don’t know. Even just being near his orbit, Trump turns everyone into a character in his movie whether they want to be or not. I think a lot of it is the Times, a lot of his interest in me is about the Times.

You have long observed that he wants the approval — and barring that, at least the attention — of the Establishment institutions he claims to hate, which is obviously true. But it’s also true that he fixates on you specifically. He has singled you out not just from the Times but from the whole press corps. 

I think that gets all kind of mushed up into a ball. I’m just the person who covers him most, and I’m somebody who covered him before he was president, and I’m somebody he dealt with before he was a candidate, so I think that is part of it, too. And I worked at New York tabloids, which are of special interest to him. I really don’t think it’s me as a person. I really don’t.

You said that you had been surprised, during your reporting, when it became clear that despite the overwhelming volume of coverage Trump had received, he had not really been vetted, and there was a lot of new information to uncover. 

I think the coverage of him as a candidate in 2016 was very rigorous, and it was an overwhelmingly unflattering portrait. It was very clear, and I think it should have been clear to voters. But I also think that the gap between what a lot of voters outside New York City thought he was versus who he actually was and what kind of businessman he was was pretty vast. In hindsight, because he was generating so many controversies every day, I felt like that was an area of coverage that deserved another look. Besides Grover Cleveland, he’s the only president who has ever been a potential future candidate for president.

Do you see that as an opportunity to perfect how we cover him?

I reject the idea of perfection.

More perfect, I mean. 

This is an opportunity to do a more thorough and contextualized look at him.

There have been a lot of Trump books over the last seven years. You were very busy covering the hourly deluge of information throughout that time. 

A little.

A little. When I was reading the book, I was thinking that it felt like you finally had a second to sit down and write the version of the definitive story, like, Alright, motherfuckers, I am going to show you what the story actually is. 

I was thinking about something as you were just asking that question.

Sorry for boring you. 

I was thinking about that interview you did with him in the Oval Office with John Kelly, and what was so striking about that piece to me was that it was actually a series of Trump outtakes, and that’s the real him. In a lot of ways, in addition to contextualizing a lot of his background, I did try showing the outtakes — the moments when he is not on-camera, the moments when he is figuring out what he is going to say once he gets on-camera. That moment in the January 6 committee hearing, where they showed the video of him recording what he was going to say to the public after January 6 and he kept saying, “I don’t want to say the election is over.” I thought that was one of the most revealing things they could have done about him because what he says between the takes is much more authentic to who he is. One of the things I write about is that he sort of created the character of “Donald Trump” with Tony Schwartz in The Art of the Deal, but the book that he published later, Surviving at the Top, that was him, that was his voice. It was grievance and anger and This one was mean to me, and he described his life as “shit” and his marriage. It reminded me of his presidency. He came into the Oval Office and people really believed that the office was going to change him, and that was just never going to happen. The real version of him, the one that his staff tried to hide over and over again, kept popping up.

I’ve been thinking about how weird it all was. How weird it is to have the president factor into your daily existence in the way that he did, to personally contribute to your anxiety, to personally ruin your day, the oddness of covering him, of what that felt like, of how small the universe of people who understood that was and is. In most circumstances, if someone expresses paranoia about the president of the United States, it would probably be seen as an indication of mental illness. This was the exception, though it still felt crazy. 

The person who I covered the longest before I covered Donald Trump was Hillary Clinton, and there was none of this kind of thing. The other person who I covered for a really long time was Mike Bloomberg. Again, Mike Bloomberg’s whereabouts most weekends are a mystery because he was going to his house in Bermuda and not releasing a schedule. It’s the antithesis of someone who is tweeting at 7 a.m. on a Saturday knowing we’re all going to have to cover it.

And he was personally fixated on you.

On the paper.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

You’re doing the patented Olivia Nuzzi “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

You don’t like to talk about yourself, all requisite caveats apply, blah, blah, blah. He fixated on you!

He fixated on the paper and attacked me because of it. There were times when he attacked me over coverage — it was always over a story or something he saw me say on TV. One thing he got very upset about seeing me say on TV was that he watches a lot of TV, and then that became a fixation. He’s incredibly hostile to anyone suggesting he watches a lot of TV because he thinks it’s some knock on his intelligence. There was a morning, my daughter’s birthday, when he started attacking me in a tweet over a story I’d done about Michael Cohen, and it ended up becoming an example of possible obstruction in the Mueller report. That was my day, spent dealing with that as opposed to focusing on my daughter. There was a lot of that kind of thing.

Your glasses look clean, by the way. (Among Trump’s many attacks on Maggie, he accused her of wearing smudged eyeglasses.)

They’re not smudged?

There was a lot of that. And the same way that the public experienced Trump and the members of his administration and hangers-on denying and distorting reality, the press experienced that privately and personally, and reporting anything — no matter how theoretically simple — was like a jigsaw puzzle within a game of Whac-A-Mole. The traditional rule that you need two independent sources to confirm a piece of information — well, okay, but what if the only two sources who witnessed something are psychotic, or what if you have 35 sources and they are all insane, or fucking, or insane and fucking, or otherwise in cahoots, or pathological liars, or working for a foreign government, or God knows what else. I mean, good luck coming up with a weather report that you feel like you can stand behind in that circumstance. 

As you know, this is what we dealt with for the entire 2016 campaign and for several phases of the White House. I’ve been thinking a lot about literally what you just asked for the last day because I got what I think was the best obtainable version of the truth, but that having been said, I tried to avoid people who were trying to set their own narratives for their own purposes. I was always on high alert for that. One of the things about Trump is that because people know he’s dishonest, they take more license because they know he will give them the benefit of the doubt.

You’ve said that there is nothing you could learn about Trump that could surprise you.

There isn’t. In the sense that I think he’s capable of a great number of things. But when I found out, in reporting the last year, that he actually was telling people he was not going to leave the White House. He was not kidding. And it was very alarming to people at the time who heard it.

I remember talking to people still working there at the time — and, as usual, I’m sure you talked to the same people in depth in addition to other people I don’t even know exist. They were genuinely freaked out by him. I hadn’t gotten reports quite like that before. 

People didn’t want to go near the Oval Office, as I’m sure you remember. It was for two reasons: They were scared of engaging with him because he was not rational in their minds, and they were also scared he was going to end up being investigated again and they didn’t want to end up getting pulled into this investigation. How far he took January 6 in the lead-up to it ultimately didn’t surprise me because once he gets going on something and he senses there’s no limit, in his mind, he keeps going. But how dug in he got, that surprised me.

Something I’ve realized about interviewing him, and something I know I need to personally guard for, I guess, is that on a subconscious level, I want him to be a New Yorker, still, by which I mean that I want to be able to find something there, in him, that I can relate to. The Trump that said to you, in one interview for this book, “This is why Lindsay Graham kisses my ass”– 

He was that, at one point.

At one point. But how do you avoid getting trapped in the sort of mundane narcissism of looking at others and scanning for humanity that you recognize? I think we all do this with people when we interact. We are looking for commonalities that serve as social footholds. It’s human nature. But with him, that desire to find a rational version of him hiding deep in his mind is an enormous impediment to understanding him, and I think you avoid this better than a lot of us do. 

I don’t know why that isn’t a thing for me.

I think part of why I had an easier time navigating it, to the extent that I did, is because I had watched it play out on a tiny little level, when Trump was first a candidate, with Michael Cohen and Roger Stone and Sam Nunberg and Corey Lewandowski. There were four people and two of them were aligned — Sam and Roger — and the three camps were at war all the time. I remember Corey called me.

My condolences. 

I was driving on the FDR, and Sam had just been fired, and Corey said, “Sam’s gone. Don’t talk to Sam now. Talk to me.” It was one of those scenarios where it was hard to figure out what was happening, what was really going on. That was my early training ground for the basic facts of what is really happening being very hard to get at.

Everyone loves to refer to you as Trump’s psychiatrist. He even says as much in one of your interviews in the book. But I think it’s more specific than that. It’s not just that you’re the shrink. You’re the longtime shrink. You are the keeper of context — no one needs to brief you on a decade-plus of drama in order to help you understand the current situation. It’s like when you go to find a new shrink and you have to spend all of this time giving your spiel, it’s exhausting. The longtime shrink doesn’t require that, and that is deeply appealing to the person sitting in the chair. I guess this is just an argument for beat reporting.

Beat reporting is pretty important, and I think most people don’t understand that. Going back day after day to a subject, the value of that. I mean, I’ve seen it enough to know there’s a reason that Donald Trump will believe anything.

I think we have a minor disagreement here. 

Tell me.

I think he is open to saying he believes anything because he’s willing to try anything to see if it works for him. Like, That’s good, I’ll go with that. But genuine belief?

Yeah. Whether it’s because of convenience or because he actually believes it, he is open to almost anything being real because he will verbalize almost anything. Many times he quickly believes that someone is out to get him because that sounds right, and so person X tells him that person Y did something to him, he will believe that even if it’s not true. It goes to some state of emotional arousal for him. He gets excited.

Because he loves chaos?

And because he is deeply paranoid.

You said something in 2017 that I still think about. 

Oh no.

No, it was good. You compared Trump to Harold and the Purple Crayon. 

Yes. Everything with him is about creating his own reality for himself and for other people. I often think of Harold and the Purple Crayon, which is a children’s book.

Great book.

Great book. A boy named Harold draws an entire city overnight with his purple crayon. But Harold is drawing, like, dreams and exciting things, and Trump is drawing, like, a gulag and an apocalyptic vision of the U.S., and there is a malevolence to Trump’s purple crayon. I do think that fundamentally holds: He thinks that everything can be moved around. The two things he said to me that I was most struck by in my interviews with him: one was the question he gets asked most often, whether he would do it all again. I said, “What’s the answer?” And he said he thinks yes because the way he looks at it, he has so many rich friends, and nobody knows who they are. He had just told me this whole story about how he used to know people who couldn’t get a table at a restaurant. It’s a version of a story he’s been telling for 35 years. The other thing that really stayed with me is he explained that he gives different interviews depending on whether it’s for print or TV or audio.

Oh! Yes, I wanted to talk about this. Every interview I’ve done with him in the last few years begins with him confirming that it’s for print and not for audio. And the first time he asked it, I was so confused. I was like, Well, yeah, it’s a magazine. I don’t have a radio show or a podcast. What are you talking about? I am so fascinated by the explanation he gave you.

He doesn’t like the audio clips being put out. What he said to me is that he speaks very differently if it’s for what he kept describing as “the written word” versus a broadcast interview. He said, “I don’t say, ‘Uh, uh, uh.’” He repeats himself if it’s for print, he said, to beat it into what he called “my beautiful brain.”

Look, I agree, it’s beautiful. 

Thanks. Can you see it?

It’s pouring out of your ears.

I was fascinated by that.

I remember being struck by the fact that he’s sort of a professional at being interviewed in a way that no one I’d ever interviewed before or since, really, comes close to. Which is, I guess, why he’s such a weird person to interview. He’s got a mission in every conversation, even if it emerges in what is outwardly the most chaotic string of words you’ve ever seen or heard. 

He’s got a mission. And there are places he just won’t go, no matter how hard you press him, which is why moments of unexpected candor are so fascinating. You asked before if anything surprised me. I guess I’ve been a little surprised by some of the things he’s said publicly lately. I probably shouldn’t be — because he’s older, he’s quicker to anger. He’s looking for attention that he’s not getting, which is overt praise. But even so, he was always sort of fawning about Xi Jinping. But not so fawning about autocratic rule openly. It was more, He’s a great leader, whatever. Now it’s, He’s ruling with an iron fist. He kills drug dealers. I’m a little surprised at how openly he’s embracing the QAnon conspiracy theories.

He’s grasping, right? He’s a man in a canyon shouting and no one hears or cares. I don’t even see half of his statements now. I don’t check my email that often.

No, though, to be clear, there is a very real chance he gets back on Facebook soon, and that would change things. Hold on, I need to clean my glasses.

I always joke that your critics suffer from Maggie derangement syndrome. Something about you activates people in weird ways, and there is no reporter — certainly no male reporter — who is accused of the same range of alleged sins who faces such a regular tidal wave of obsessive backlash for doing their job. I think a lot of it is motivated by gender, unfortunately, and a lot of it is just purely shooting the messenger. 

I think one of the worst parts of Twitter and social media generally is that a lot of people are not just getting their news from it but they’re getting their understanding of journalism from it, and the reporting itself gets mischaracterized, and then what reporters are supposed to be doing gets mischaracterized. Some of this just comes with the job. It does hit all of us at this point. I think I might see more of it. But at the same time, I think it’s important not to lose sight of good-faith criticism. There’s a lot of very legitimate criticism. And then there’s a lot that gets said about me that isn’t accurate. The only part that’s distressing is the people who think that I would not report something as soon as I have enough information to report it. If I have significant reportable information, it gets reported.

It feels new, this idea that it’s a crime to report information in a book. 

Books are a medium for journalism. Books allow us to go deeper than other formats do.

And there’s the matter of shelf life. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been in a newspaper or magazine archive and come across something and think, Oh, what a terrific story, what a great detail. Why didn’t I know this already? And the answer is that it wasn’t in a goddamn book, and people do not and cannot as consistently recall information committed to periodicals. I say this as the only person on this earth, perhaps, who cares about magazines and thinks magazines are important as much as the former president does. 

And I remember asking someone who I knew had talked to a lot of authors for books, “Why do people do this? Why not tell me, for instance, so I could report the story in the paper?” And they said it was different because it didn’t come out immediately. They were able to do it, psychologically, because they knew it wouldn’t hit newsstands right away. With my book, people related things they would not relate before. It was really interesting.

Speaking of, you report that when Marla Maples was giving birth to Tiffany, Trump invited a tabloid reporter and a photographer into the delivery room, and when Maples asked them to leave, Trump wrapped a blanket up to look like a newborn baby might be inside of it and posed for a photo. The story was published but the photo was not. Maggie, I screamed. 

The fake baby is new.

Did you see the photo of the fake baby?

I think it might have gotten deleted from the Daily News archives. Isn’t that a shame?

The fake baby is really … 

It was something. I thought that was a pretty stunning anecdote.

I just keep thinking about how any of these anecdotes, whether it’s a fake baby or the scenes leading up to January 6 — so much of this reporting is the result of what people might deride as “access journalism,” and that drives me insane because those details amount to the portrait of a person that will matter to history.

When I spoke to you about the book, as I was thinking about it, you made the point to me repeatedly how much these details do matter. He is something of an ahistorical figure in our politics, but he is still a historical fixture in our politics, and we still have to cover him that way as journalists. I tried to capture here what would have been, I think, lost to history if I didn’t.

While I have you here, can we talk about his hair? Growing up, the most important thing about Trump, as far as I was concerned, was he was the guy with funny hair. His hair was so famous. Has it gotten less weird over time, or have we gotten so used to it that it seems less weird?

When he was president, the hair took a back seat. I have all these stories that I didn’t put in the book about it because I really didn’t want it to turn into a huge distraction, but so many people shared, unsolicited, stories about watching him do his hair.

One more question: Do you think he will read the book?


This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

How Maggie Haberman Covers Trump Without Losing Her Mind