DAVID FOLKENFLIK In the world of Trump reporting, there's one figure who looms largest. The scoopiest journalist on the beat.
NEWS REPORT She's been dubbed the Trump whisperer for her access to the former president.
NEWS REPORT New York Times, Trump Whisperer reporter Maggie Haberman reported earlier this week that Trump.
NEWS REPORT Lashes out about this leak from my very talented competitors Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman.
NEWS REPORT The idea that Trump was as loyal to Cohen as Cohen was to Trump was always a fairy tale. Maggie Haberman reported that out and – [END CLIP]
DAVID FOLKENFLIK In 2016 alone, Maggie Haberman published 599 stories, some solo, some with her colleagues at The New York Times. That's not a misprint, and it is bananas. It's more than two stories per weekday. Concurrently, Haberman became what she's described as a character in Trump's movie. He publicly denounces her and has privately threatened he'll have her phone records seized to expose her sources. He praises her, too. Trump gave Haberman an interview for her new book about him without her even requesting it. When they met, he told Haberman that she's like his psychiatrist.
MAGGIE HABERMAN It was something that he has said about all number of people. He's just trying to flatter.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent for The New York Times and author of the book Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America. I wanted to talk to her about her journalism for the book and for the Times, and why she inspires such strong reaction in journalistic circles and among readers. Welcome to On the Media, Maggie.
MAGGIE HABERMAN David, thanks for having me.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK You reported, obviously, for The New York Times for some time now, before that Politico. Before that, you really grew up a bit in The New York Post and The Daily News, New York City's tabloids. What did you understand about this creature of New York that someone coming from the Financial Times might not have?
MAGGIE HABERMAN I wrote a story at the time when I was at Politico, when Trump was doing his sort of pseudo campaign that year. John Avlon, who is now at CNN and is a former Giuliani speechwriter — he gave me a quote for that story where he talked about how Trump was trying to export New York City tabloid rules onto the national media, and it just wasn't working. But Trump figured out how to make it work by 2015.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Tabloid rules, meaning that basically it doesn't matter whether what you do is good or bad, but you define the news.
MAGGIE HABERMAN Yes. And you play news outlets off one another. Now, he did not have success doing that in 2011, but he absolutely did in 2015. One of the things that he was successful at was ultimately getting Sunday news shows to let him call in instead of appearing for an interview, which to me was always one of the most striking changes.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK In your book. When you're writing about Trump in the eighties, you point to Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice. You point to his biographer, Tim O'Brien, for their reporting on his corrupt business practices and bogus claims about his net worth. Yet you also write about a wealth of coverage during these years in which Trump was rarely fact checked. What did this bad coverage look like and what were its consequences?
MAGGIE HABERMAN I do think that there is a significant criticism of the media relating to the seventies, eighties, nineties, when Trump was myth making about himself. He was facing tremendous financial headwinds in 1990. It was becoming clear that Trump just wasn't what he said he was and that his father was supporting him in ways that just wasn't clear and visible. You know, and Trump loved this idea that he was a self-made man. Previously, in the 1980s, he would make all kinds of claims about his wealth or about the state of his business. And it just got printed. That was citywide. You know, I mean, I think there's been a lot of focus on his relationship with The New York Post. But then I referenced New York Times stories in there, too. There was a host of coverage where people I've spoken to for the book in the last year have said to me, yes, we realized he lied a lot. Or, you know, yeah, we weren't sure that was true. And yet it just kept getting published. At the New York Post, he was often just somebody who called because he would make a good quote when you've put it in a story — various reporters would. That adds up and that has a cumulative effect. And so I think that's where there's a really significant focus for criticism.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK How often are you in touch with Trump as you cover him? And how has your, you could say, relationship, your interactions with him changed over the years?
MAGGIE HABERMAN He's a subject who I cover. You know, in the same way that I covered Hillary Clinton or Mike Bloomberg or Rudy Giuliani and, from a further remove, the Clinton and Obama and Bush presidencies when they were in office. When he was in the White House, we at the Times interviewed him a lot. He is uniquely focused on The New York Times, and I'm just the person who has covered him more often. The last time I spoke to him was my September 21 interview for the book.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK What is the value of interviewing somebody you know that at any given moment may be lying to you, even if he's the subject of your book?
MAGGIE HABERMAN I would say at this point, the value is, you know, he's a former president and potential future Republican nominee. So I don't think ignoring him makes a lot of sense. I do think contextualizing him does. And when he was president, the press is not going to ignore a sitting president.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK So regardless of what he says, he's going to be interesting and newsworthy. What do you do with that?
MAGGIE HABERMAN It's important to fact check when you know what the answer is. And I don't mean sitting in the interview. I'm much more interested in his words than I am hearing my own voice. But I do think it's important when we are reproducing it to contextualize it and make clear whether it's true or it's not true. I mean, I think that one of the things that happened a lot in 2015 and 2016, and this I do think is a valid criticism of the media, is there was just too much, you know, "Trump said" as coverage as opposed to explaining whether it actually even had any news value, whether it was true. But I think that's the way to approach it. Look, I would say one other thing, David, just in terms of the value, you know, I went into these interviews to get information, even knowing that sometimes the information was of questionable quality. But there are things that only he can answer.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK You mentioned that you felt that particularly 2015, 2016, that the press hadn't quite gotten around the fact that he was a human distraction machine. Upon reflection, do you think that some of that criticism fits for The New York Times as well?
MAGGIE HABERMAN I think it fits for everybody. We're not immune to criticism and we're not immune to what everyone fell into. But I do think that the paper has tried very hard to cover him rigorously and aggressively. And I think the paper has done some pretty groundbreaking reporting on him, not the least of which was getting ahold of his tax returns, which was my incredible colleagues. I think in general, I think the media has had to grapple with how you cover someone whose goal is attention at all times. And I think we are part of that.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK The Times seems to me it in some ways plays an outside and an inside game. The inside game people sometimes call “access journalism.” This critique is one that goes back at least to Bob Woodward and probably decades earlier. What do you make of that term and how well do you think it applies to the work that you do?
MAGGIE HABERMAN I don't think it means what critics think it means. I would cover Donald Trump if these people were talking to me or not. I think that people use this word “access'' as if it implies some kind of a transaction. You know, we talk to people. That's what journalists do. You're talking to me right now, and I'm sure there will be people who will criticize you for it. But this is what we do. And so I think it represents sort of a fundamental misunderstanding about the way reporting works. The Times and The Washington Post and all of these outlets will cover officials regardless of whether they like it or not.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Sure. But one of the reasons why White House reporters want a White House pass, one of the reasons they push for interviews is that they want access to the main person in the Oval Office and the main people around that person. So it's not inconceivable that if a major news outlet, major reporters are shut out from that, that's an issue that can affect your ability to drill down, right?
MAGGIE HABERMAN I think that's a different question. You're asking whether it is harder to cover people when you don't have the direct ability to engage. And I think that's certainly true because I think especially with the case of the White House, you're talking about the presidency. And, you know, presidents have an obligation to communicate with the people in the country that they're serving. But access journalism implies, as I said, some kind of a transaction. And I don't think you think that's what — do you think White House reporters are saying I'll give you more favorable coverage if you let me into the White House?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK I just you know, I think about something you wrote in your book. You write about his influence. You describe his ability and this is your quote, to get people around him to adopt his behavior.
MAGGIE HABERMAN Mm hmm.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Are there ways in which journalists were themselves shaped by Trump in their rhythms and how they thought about stories and how they defined what news was — perhaps to a way that in the moment they may not register or recognize.
MAGGIE HABERMAN When Trump came to DC, a lot of reporters had never encountered someone like him. I don't think every tweet needed to be covered the way it was. I didn't think it then. I don't think it now. But I think that for the Washington press corps, here's a president who was tweeting all the time. And so they assume that there's meaning, there has to be meaning to why he's saying this. And I don't think that was newsworthy all the time, because he doesn't actually intend all of these tweets to be meaningful statements. But I think that the press treated them like they were.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK You have a bunch of scoops and new revelations in your book, enough to inspire a New York Magazine story with twenty, what they call “bonkers revelations,” ranked. Many of them offer vivid details of how Trump controlled this environment. They range from the wild story that Trump liked to flush memos down the toilet, which you backed up by slapping some photos of it on Twitter, to the strange and also toilet-related detail that Trump didn't want to share the same toilet as former President Barack Obama and in fact, had the toilet seat replaced. And then you have this line here, which was pretty memorable. He rejected a plea to distance himself from white supremacists with the line, “a lot of these people vote.” Given these revelations, what is your thought process in sorting out what you owe readers of The New York Times in real time and what you wanted to present in the book?
MAGGIE HABERMAN If I had known this in real time, David, I would have put it in the paper. So it's not a choice.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Can you just give a feel? Because I think it may actually serve in some ways as a rebuttal to those who say, you know, this is bad faith. If you learn this in November of 2020, it's very different than if you learned it three days before your book closes.
MAGGIE HABERMAN There's a big time gap in between, but it was after February 2021 when the impeachment trial had ended. And that kind of answers the question.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK I do think that, you know, personally as a reader for decades, a paying subscriber to The New York City Times, there's a part of me that says even if you found that out a lot after the impeachment. That's something that we as citizens should know. Why is it okay –
MAGGIE HABERMAN David, you know it now. Do you not know it?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK I do, But this is, you know — you said you turned in the book in 2021. There may be a good affirmative reason.
MAGGIE HABERMAN I didn't say I turned in the book in 2021. It's really important to get this right.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Yes, it's why I'm asking
MAGGIE HABERMAN Yes. I turned to the book in earnest reporting project after February 2021, which is when the impeachment trial — and I have just answered your question that I did not know this in real time. And if I had known it, I would have published it. I guess one thing that I would say to you is that answering the question doesn't really seem to be enough. Right. I've answered when I learned this. And you're still saying that you should have done something differently.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK I'm trying to pose the question that I think is legitimate to pose and may have equally legitimate response. I just you said when it was done subsequent to, but I don't feel I know in the almost year and a half in interregnum when that was.
MAGGIE HABERMAN I get that there's stuff that we don't talk about, as you know, and you're a journalist. So you know this there are just certain things that we don't talk about, about process, because in part, it can reveal who is telling us something. But if I had known about this in real time, I would have published it.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK I'm glad we cleared up the timeline there. I just want to hear more about your thought process in what made sense to present in the book form and what to share with Time's readers more promptly.
MAGGIE HABERMAN Yeah, I'm not going to go into depth on that, David. The process of writing a book is different. I was in touch with my editors throughout. You know, I'm going to leave it there. The one thing I would say is that what I have learned is that clarifying this stuff doesn't actually make it stop. I've answered your question on the timing, on the not leaving thing, and I think I'm going to leave it there.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Sure. Let me just make the last pitch. It seems to me that without in any way wanting compromise, sourcing, that, you know, transparency is a journalistic virtue on its own.
MAGGIE HABERMAN And I'm being as transparent as I can be, and I think more transparent than a lot of others who have been in the same position. But that's where I'm going to leave it.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK On this and some other issues. There are times where people inside and also outside the profession are tough. And it's often, I think, personalized and made about you rather than The New York Times. New York Times is a huge staff in Washington. It's got 1800 journalists. The idea that you define, should stand for whatever the perceived flaws of the Times are seems to me quite unfair. Sometimes you get into the fray. Sometimes you announce you're pulling back from social media. What's your philosophy on how much to engage?
MAGGIE HABERMAN I think I announced once that I was pulling back from social media. That was several years ago. You know, it was impossible to get off of Twitter when Trump was president because that was his preferred medium. I think Twitter is not a great forum for having any of these conversations. None of us is above criticism. I certainly am not. But I just don't think Twitter is a great place to have these discussions.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK You've compared working on the Trump beat to a book called the Iowa Baseball Confederacy about a game that never ends. I take that that means the book isn't about closing a chapter in your career. But I got to say, it reminded me a bit of the question General Petraeus famously asked about invading Iraq: “How does this end?” So, Maggie Haberman, how does this assignment ever end for you?
MAGGIE HABERMAN I don't know. I mean, I don't know. The story isn't over, but I don't know what the next couple of years look like. You know, I assume he will be a candidate, but I just don't know. I don't know where it goes.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Thank you, Maggie.
MAGGIE HABERMAN Thank you, David. Thanks for having me on.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK Maggie Haberman is author of the book Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America. Coming up, how big law became big business. This is On the Media.
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