Haberman’s Trump

Deborah Friedell

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In 2015, Maggie Haberman was offered a scoop – Donald Trump was about to announce that he was running for president. But she didn’t write it up for her new employer, the New York Times, because it ‘was almost certainly bullshit’. Trump had been telling reporters that he was going to run for president at least as early as 1988, and had always ‘pulled back before he had to do any of the really difficult work of being a candidate’.

In 2011, Haberman had reported in Politico that Trump was ‘taking very concrete steps’ to be Obama’s Republican challenger in 2012. Although he might not seem like an obvious Republican candidate, she wrote, he’d ‘abruptly reversed’ his position on abortion to align with the party, and the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention had suggested that a ‘brash New Yorker’ wasn’t necessarily unappealing to evangelical voters: Trump was a ‘celebrity’, and ‘we live in a celebrity age.’ Haberman had followed Trump to New Hampshire, where he certainly seemed to be campaigning for the primaries; she thought he was for real. When he announced that he wasn’t actually running, she’d been embarrassed.

She came to think he never would put his name on the ballot – why would he? He had ‘little emotional investment in most issues’; he knew less about electoral politics than the average viewer of the West Wing; he didn’t like to travel or to work long hours. Above all, Haberman knew that he was terrified of being a loser, and she didn’t yet know that he’d devised a workaround. When Trump came in four points behind Ted Cruz in his first primary, he tweeted that the Iowa caucuses had actually been ‘stolen’ from him, and he threatened to sue Cruz for fraud. He didn’t mind losing so long as he never had to admit that he’d lost.

Haberman caught up quickly, and took Trump’s candidacy more seriously than almost anyone else at the New York Times: she sensed there was a market for what he was selling. Elisabeth Bumiller, the paper’s Washington bureau chief, has admitted that until Trump became president, she assumed Haberman’s accounts of his flaws was exaggerated: he couldn’t really be so ‘impulsive, unaware of the workings of government, with no real ideology’.

No other reporter would cover Trump more closely throughout the election, his presidency and – just when Haberman thought she’d get a break – the post-presidency; she often admits in interviews to being exhausted. She is, she likes to say, a ‘sources reporter’, not an investigative reporter: people call her up to burnish their reputation or to burn a colleague. It helped her that the New York Times is the paper Trump most respects, even as he pretends to hold it in contempt. It also didn’t hurt that she’d started at his favourite tabloid, the New York Post: she knew where he was coming from. Trump once told aides that talking to her was like opening up to a psychiatrist (though was quick to assure them he had no experience of talking to an actual psychiatrist).

In interviews, Haberman usually refuses to talk about her working methods: ‘sources reporting’ isn’t always pretty. The Trump White House might well have been the leakiest administration in American history, which infuriated the president and made him paranoid, obsessed with figuring out who was undermining him in any given press cycle; aides would try not only to cover their tracks when they talked to reporters, but also to make it seem as if a rival was the one who had spilled. One of Trump’s chiefs-of-staff, Mark Meadows, ‘told associates that he was deliberately telling some aides bad information to see if it became public’ – the Coleen Rooney manoeuvre.

Haberman was very often, she admits, used as a ‘cudgel’. It made her the most read reporter at the New York Times; in 2016 alone she had 599 bylines. Her stories would often be the basis of other reporter’s stories, or be repeated (rarely crediting her) in television reports. If the Trump who appears in her first book, Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, seems overly familiar, it’s probably because much of our sense of him was already hers.

Haberman’s Trump is a man who’ll say whatever he thinks will get him through the next ten minutes. He has no sense of humour and can’t be shamed. The best she can say about him is that he doesn’t enjoy giving people bad news; he’d rather someone else do it. Instead of learning how the federal government works (or is supposed to work), Trump ‘recreated the world that shaped him’: his father’s mid-century New York – tribal, corrupt. As president, he was shocked that a Democratic congresswoman from the Upper East Side wouldn’t side with him during his first impeachment trial; he’d once donated to her campaign. What did she think the money was for?

Haberman has been criticised for sitting on the story that White House aides would sometimes notice crumpled up pieces of printed paper in the toilet, but she says she didn’t know it when Trump was in office. What’s more disheartening is that the meat of Haberman’s book covers Trump’s life before he was president, in ground already well-covered in books by Gwenda Blair and Michael D’Antonio, and in articles by Wayne Barrett for the Village Voice, long before Trump ran for office, but their reporting wasn’t better known to voters before the 2016 election.

By 2022, it shouldn’t be any kind of revelation that Trump was never the sagacious tycoon he pretended to be on The Apprentice. Haberman describes him as a ‘narcissistic drama-seeker who covered a fragile ego with a bullying impulse’, and nothing in her reporting suggests otherwise. Yet she closes her book with the claim that the ‘truth is, ultimately, almost no one really knows him’. Eh? Maybe in the Jamesian sense, that no one ever has ‘the last word about any human heart’. But she’s more than made the case that we now know Trump only too well, for all the good it’ll do us. She’s almost certain he’ll run again.


  • 20 October 2022 at 7:55pm
    csaydah says:
    It's nice to see Wayne Barrett get recognized outside of his home.
    Trump's vileness was part of the atmosphere that anyone within 75 miles of Times Square breathed for decades before he became a candidate. It's reflected most visibly in his failure to capture NYC in either election. It's not unusual in national elections for a candidate to lose a home region. But to lose it by 4- and 5-1 as Trump did in his hometown -- even in Queens, his home borough -- was indeed unusual.