DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. There have been a lot of books written about Donald Trump, but none have been more anticipated than the one by our guest, Maggie Haberman of The New York Times. Haberman has for years been on the most competitive beat in America, covering Donald Trump, and has, in the opinion of many of her colleagues, dominated the field. She shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for her reporting, along with other reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Her book has plenty of new information and detail. Here’s one of my favorite stories. When Trump had recovered from his COVID infection, he wanted to be wheeled out of Walter Reed Hospital, then dramatically stand up and unbutton his dress shirt to reveal a Superman logo on his chest. He actually instructed an aide to go buy a Superman shirts, Haberman reported, before he was talked out of the idea. But as Joe Klein wrote in a review in The Times, Haberman’s book is more notable for the quality of its observations about Trump’s character than its news breaks. Haberman has known and reported on Trump for decades for the New York Post, the New York Daily News and Politico before the Times. She writes that if you want to understand Trump’s temperament and conduct, you can learn a lot from his and his father’s careers in real estate and their interactions with New York’s political bosses.
Maggie Haberman’s book is “Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America.” We recorded our conversation Thursday. Since then, Haberman and her Times colleague Michael Schmidt reported that last year, when the National Archives was seeking White House documents stored at Mar-a-Lago, Trump proposed to advisers that they offer the Archives a deal in which he would hand over materials from Mar-a-Lago if the Archives would give him classified documents on the Russia investigation he believes would show it was a hoax. Trump’s aides never acted on that suggestion.
Maggie Haberman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, you’re covering the investigation of documents that he took to Mar-a-Lago now and the litigation that’s arisen from that. You know, you note that he has managed to escape the consequences for so much of his behavior over the years. I mean, I know you can’t predict things, but I wonder, does it feel like he’s in greater legal peril now than he has ever been to you?
MAGGIE HABERMAN: I think the answer is undoubtedly yes. I think that the scale and nature of the investigations that he’s facing now are more significant than almost anything else he has faced, especially since he avoided, as best as we can tell, being personally charged by the Manhattan district attorney’s office in connection with a case in which his business was charged and his top financial adviser was charged with allegations related to fraud. He is facing two Justice Department investigations, one specific to the documents, which was a much clearer potential case against him than January 6-related cases. And then there’s the state investigation in Georgia. And I think all three of those pose a threat.
DAVIES: You know, speaking of documents, you write in the book that when Donald Trump was in the White House, he had a habit of tearing up documents, scattering pieces in trash bins or on the floor or flushing them down toilets, which sometimes clogged the pipes. Do you or the sources that you spoke to understand what he was doing, why he did this?
HABERMAN: The ripping up of documents, which I should just note, my colleague Annie Karni first reported on this habit of his – I think it was in 2018 when she was a Politico. And it was a really important story because that was how we learned there were people who were literally having to take the documents and tape them back together because, as you know, presidential records are a very serious thing. And the materials that a president handles are a serious thing. The ripping it up just seemed to be a habit that he had from Trump Tower. And he saw no reason to change once it was the government’s documents. I do know from reporting that he was very suspicious of burn bags. He would use them, but burn bags are the method by which you get rid of paper in White Houses, whether it’s for the president or for staff. He was always questioning whether the material would actually be gotten rid of or if people would be going through it.
DAVIES: Right. You can’t really trust anybody (laughter).
HABERMAN: I mean, he’s deeply paranoid.
DAVIES: All right. Let’s talk about his formative influences. How much do we know about what kind of kid, what kind of teenager he was?
HABERMAN: He was a rambunctious kid. He was known – and I’ve spoken to a bunch of people who lived in – or near and around him. He was known as, by many neighbors, as, you know, the kid they avoided or a difficult kid or a kid whose father’s chauffeur sometimes drove him along his paper route. You know, I think the fact that Donald Trump was a child of privilege really gets overlooked a lot in terms of explaining his origin story. He got sent to the New York Military Academy when he was a young teenager, you know, ripped from his house and ripped from close friends. And the New York Military Academy had a lot of aggressive instructors. And, you know, he was known as something of a singular kid when he was at the school. He did have friends. You know, one of whom actually is one of his current lawyers, a man named Peter Ticktin in Florida.
But he was different than other kids. There were a lot of kids who speak of him, you know, now in adulthood with some resentment. And then he went off to college where he left scattered impressions on the people he encountered. You know, he either seemed like a hypercompetitive person looking to get into real estate or, you know, more privately, he had this interest in being a star. And he talked about this in an interview a few years back – it was before the presidency – about how he had brought show business to the real estate industry. You know, he had toyed with the idea of going to USC film school. He has been obsessed with movies all his life. And I think part of it is just creating this alternate reality for himself.
DAVIES: Yeah, this fascination with fame seems to be a thread that runs through his entire career.
DAVIES: He and his dad were both into real estate development. And, you know, anybody who knows anything about it knows that real estate development is this highly transactional, complicated thing to do. If you want to develop something, you got to acquire the land, you’ve got to get the right zoning, you got to get building permits, you’ve got to deal with unions. It’s all complicated, not to mention financing. And I think – you know, you write that he and his dad both had dealings with government in connection with a lot of their developments. What – how did they come to see the government – as an enabler, a tormentor, both?
HABERMAN: Both. You know, Fred Trump had two interactions with government agencies and investigators that really left a mark on the family, you know. And there are – I should just make clear, there are a lot of reporters who looked at this turf and these issues. You know, many years ago, Wayne Barrett was one, Tim O’Brien, Gwenda Blair. When Fred Trump was part of both a federal loan program and then later a state loan program, in both instances, he attracted unwanted attention from regulators about how he was using those loans and whether he was taking personal gain from them. And in both cases, he ended up being, you know, drummed out of using those programs anymore. It became pretty clear that the same government that could, you know, help you and help elevate your career could also come take it away. And I think that that seeded a real level of paranoia and distrust in that family but certainly in Donald Trump.
DAVIES: Right. And on the other hand, they both dealt with government in terms of making connections, making political contributions. Did this sort of generate a transactional approach that he took into politics?
HABERMAN: There’s no question. Fred Trump was notorious for his connections with the Brooklyn political machine. He cultivated them, worked them. He, you know, established a relationship with Abe Beame, who later became the city’s mayor, which was very fortuitous for a young Donald Trump as he was trying to get his start in Manhattan. He had connections with the state’s governor. He had a fundraiser to the state’s governor who was working with young Donald Trump. Fred Trump forged these connections that he then gifted on to his son. This is how Trump came to interpret the way the world works. And one of the figures in young Donald Trump’s experience, who I reference in the writing, is Meade Esposito, who was the deeply corrupt Brooklyn Democratic machine boss. And Trump said to me that Meade – and I asked him about Esposito and if he had thought that being president was going to be like that. He said Meade, quote, “ruled with an iron fist.” It’s the same language that Trump uses to describe Xi Jinping of China. You know, strength is sort of flat and the same in any context, in his opinion. But that was how he believed government worked. People made, you know, decisions for their fiefdoms, and what they said went, and people operated in fear. And that was how Trump believed Washington would work.
DAVIES: One of his formative influences was Roy Cohn, the lawyer. I mean, he’s – older folks will remember him. Just tell us briefly who he is and what Trump learned from him.
HABERMAN: Roy Cohn was a both singularly New York figure and a singularly Washington figure as somebody who was a right hand to Joe McCarthy. He was a closeted gay man who was, nonetheless, deeply homophobic. He was an incredibly aggressive lawyer who had clients who were, you know, celebrities or relationships with people who were known mobsters. You know, he was part of what the journalist Marie Brenner described as the favor economy in New York City. He became Trump’s lawyer in 1973, and Cohn was another, himself, child of privilege in New York. And he started representing Trump when the Trumps were sued by the Justice Department for racially discriminatory housing practices.
And Cohn really, you know, helped guide Trump’s understanding of the way you deal with trouble. You punch back. You sue. You use the courts as much for legal implications as for public relations implications. You never admit defeat. And then, even if you settle your claim, you’re not settling. And all of those things happened in that 1973 case. Roy Cohn – it dragged on for two years, but Roy Cohn made all kinds of claims in court that the judge took huge issue with. He was the first in a series of Trump defenders, and he was the most important one for Trump. It was how Trump learned, or came to believe, that a lawyer could be a different kind of job, almost like a mafia don or almost like an enforcer or almost like, you know, a bodyguard.
DAVIES: You know, he’s also known for not just criticizing his public – his political adversaries, but hurling public insults. Is this something he learned from the New York political figures he grew up with?
HABERMAN: It absolutely is. And I actually – I wrote about this in 2016. One of the people who he clearly studied the behavior and tone of was Ed Koch, the mayor, with whom he – you know, he would fundraise for him, and he would donate to him. And they sometimes dealt with each other. But Ed Koch was not a Donald Trump fan by any stretch of the imagination. And Ed Koch came into city hall as a reformer. That was decidedly not how he left it after a series of municipal scandals impacting his allies – ironically, prosecuted by Rudy Giuliani, who was then the federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
But Ed Koch had a really combative style, and he was really big on calling people names. And so when he was fighting with Trump, when Trump wanted a specific tax abatement from the city in connection with one of his projects, Ed Koch called him greedy, greedy, greedy and piggy, piggy, piggy. And Trump, in his responses, was nowhere near, you know, this sort of 140-character warrior that we came to see him as on Twitter, you know, or the person coining the term low-energy jab; he seemed to really struggle. And as you know, there’s this – I’m sure you know. One of Trump’s former advisers used to talk about, let Trump be Trump. There was literally a line in a Times story about Koch saying – you know, his advisers go with, let Koch be Koch. And I think Trump absorbed a great deal of that. He would just never admit that.
DAVIES: It’s funny. I’m not from New York, so I observed Ed Koch from a distance. But I sort of remember him delivering this stuff with kind of a wry smile from time to time. There’s no lightness in Trump’s use of insults, really.
HABERMAN: Ed Koch used fights, I think, much more strategically. Trump just likes to fight.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We’re speaking with Maggie Haberman. She is a senior correspondent covering national politics for The New York Times. Her new book is “Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Maggie Haberman, senior political correspondent for The New York Times. Her new book is “Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America.”
One remarkable thing that was in your book that I hadn’t heard before was – you know, he personalizes everything. And you had the first interview he had given on Sept. 11th, 2001, when there had been this terrorist attack on the country, and the city that Donald Trump, you know, grew up in and worked in had suffered this catastrophic loss. What did he talk about in this first interview?
HABERMAN: He talked about how he now had the tallest building in New York, which was not true, by the way. But his first impulse was to brag and talk about himself and talk about a building as opposed to the fact that it was very obvious that there were several thousand people dead. And at that point, just as somebody who grew up in New York – and I covered that day, and I was down in Lower Manhattan that day. The projection initially for what the death toll was going to be was much higher because it was not clear at all how many people had escaped. But his first impulse was to talk about himself and to look at how it – how the devastation impacted him.
DAVIES: And that hasn’t changed.
HABERMAN: No, I mean, he sees everything as an up or down referendum on himself.
DAVIES: You know, you write that he’s been interested in running for the presidency – right? – for a long time. You followed him to New Hampshire, I think, in – early in the 2012 cycle, am I right?
HABERMAN: Correct, 2011. That’s right.
DAVIES: Yeah, 2011, when it was – he was seriously considering it. What did you observe?
HABERMAN: He really struck a chord with people. I mean, I – you know, before that New Hampshire trip, I saw him at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he was clearly liking the reaction that he got from the crowd as he was attacking Ron Paul, the congressman from Texas, who, you know, did well with that crowd usually. But Trump was really effective, saying, he can’t win. And from there, he went to New Hampshire. And he, you know, got a huge greeting.
Now, it’s very hard to tell when you’re with a celebrity who’s dabbling in politics if they’re getting attention because people might vote for them or if they’re just getting attention because they’re famous. But he was clearly tapping into something. And what was also clear at that point was there were a lot of Republicans, aspects of the conservative base, aspect of the Tea Party movement, who wanted a candidate who was going to go right at President Obama. And Trump at that point looked to them like the person who would do it.
DAVIES: You know, he’s not – obviously not a guy who cares deeply about policy and has no patience for briefings or briefing papers. His secretary of state – his first one – called him a moron at one point. But you note that he had a way of benefiting from controversies that would begin with him saying something provocative, but imprecise, and then somehow benefiting from the turmoil it creates. You want to explain this, maybe just give us an example?
HABERMAN: Sure. So I write about what, for me, was a pretty seminal several days in the Trump campaign. I think it was November of 2015 where he had – he was asked by Hunter Walker, who was then a reporter at Yahoo – Trump was, you know, talking about what he was going to do to crack down on terrorism. And Hunter asked him a question about something that no one was talking about, which was, you know, well, would you be open to a registry of Muslims nationally? And Trump’s answer was, you know, we’re going be looking at a lot of things, because he never rules anything out and – or never wants to say no to something or – and that’s just kind of how he gets out of these questions.
It was not a very responsible thing to say. We wrote a story about it. I tried getting clarification from him on what exactly he was talking about. He refused to give me a statement about it. So we wrote a story, but I used an imprecise word to describe what he had said. And he used that to drive a truck through the story – or attempt to. And, you know, Breitbart wrote a big column about me that he tweeted. And I think his tweet was, it’s so nice when media properly polices media.
DAVIES: I mean, it was a pretty subtle distinction. I think you wrote that he called for a ban on…
HABERMAN: It was called for versus open to.
DAVIES: Open to.
HABERMAN: It was very minor and especially because he was actually, at the time, calling for, you know, additional measures to combat what he kept describing as Muslim extremism. It was a meaningless distinction. But he will use whatever hole he can find, and his allies, you know, on the right helped him with it. And then, he went to a rally where he talked about seeing Muslims cheering – thousands, he said – in New Jersey when the Towers fell on 9/11. Now, he was nowhere near New Jersey. And then, when we asked him to – and there were not thousands of people cheering. When he was asked to back that up, he pointed to an old news clip about, you know, investigators checking out reports that people may have been celebrating.
The reporters in question said that they didn’t remember – or at least one of them said they didn’t, you know, recall this ever coming to pass and being true. And that reporter was my now colleague, Serge Kovaleski, who has restricted movement in one of his arms. Serge had covered Trump decades earlier around the launch of the Trump shuttle, and he had interacted with Trump. It was pretty unlikely that Trump did not remember him because Trump started mocking him and appeared to be mocking his arm at a rally. And it was just one day of news coverage after another about Trump reacting to himself, and it ate up five or six days of the campaign.
DAVIES: So this is a process by which Trump offers a provocative, maybe muddled, statement about something and you can’t get clarification. And then, in the reporting of it, there’s something that he and his supporters can attack. So he ends up making himself the victim…
DAVIES: …Because of something that was sort of imprecise and confusing to begin with. The question is, is this by design? Did he – is this a strategy? Or does he just have an instinct for finding a path to grievance in all of it?
HABERMAN: I think it’s more the instinct. You know, I think the saying – the refusing to be precise is obviously his calling card. I do think that, you know, he then kind of, you know, for lack of a better word, lucks into these situations. I would make the point, to your point, about how he ends up making himself a victim – you know, this was weeks before he proposed an entire ban on Muslims. So the idea that we were having a back-and-forth over, you know, whether he was open to or called for a Muslim registry when he then wanted to ban Muslims entering the U.S., it seems like a pretty meaningless distinction. And yet he, you know, generated all this controversy around it.
DAVIES: Yeah, and it’s – you know, it’s interesting that in one of the interviews that you did with him – you did three interviews with him for the book. And in one of them, he said – he talked about Sidney Powell, the attorney on the Stop the Steal movement, who made some of the most outrageous claims. And he was saying her big – she’s now facing legal action from, you know, voting machine manufacturers. And he says her big mistake essentially was being precise?
HABERMAN: He said that her big mistake was saying in response, you know, that basically no one should have taken her seriously in the first place. And he said, you know, that was so demeaning for her to say about herself. And then, he said, all she had to say – he proceeds to sort of read stage directions on how you handle this kind of a lawsuit. All she had to say, you know, was, upon information and belief, and then enter into evidence, you know, thousands of news stories about voting machines. That’s all she had to do. It was a pretty revealing moment.
DAVIES: Let’s take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Maggie Haberman. She is a senior political correspondent for The New York Times. Her new book is “Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America.” We’ll hear more of our conversation after a short break. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER AND LEON PARKER’S “THE LAST TIME”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. My guest is Maggie Haberman, who covered Donald Trump’s campaign and his presidency for The New York Times. She’s known and reported on Trump for decades for the New York Post, the New York Daily News and Politico before joining The Times. Her new book reflecting on Trump’s formative influences and his impact on American politics is “Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America.” We recorded our conversation on Thursday.
You obviously, as – over the years, had a lot of contact with Trump and a lot of on-the-record interviews and, I imagine, other kinds of conversations. And there were times he went after you, I mean, called you third rate and dishonest and all that stuff. You know, when I would – was reporting and a politician would get really angry about something I’d written, I would generally, you know, reach out to them and say, do you want to talk this over, have me explain why I wrote what I wrote? Would you try and patch things up with him or just let it blow over? Or was there any…
HABERMAN: You just let it blow over because he treats everything as grist. You know, you can’t have that kind of a conversation with him because he’ll – there’s a risk that he will, you know, use it as some kind of a weapon.
DAVIES: Right, anything you explain may be used against you.
DAVIES: I want to play a bit of tape that is available from The New York Times website. And this is from your recorded interview with Donald Trump, one of your three recorded interviews for the book. And that’s when you asked him about what he was doing on the afternoon of the assault on the Capitol on January 6. Let’s listen.
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HABERMAN: What were you doing when – how did you find out that there were people storming the Capitol?
DONALD TRUMP: I had heard that afterwards and, actually, on the late side. I was having meetings. I was also with Mark Meadows and others. I was not watching television. I didn’t have the television on.
HABERMAN: You weren’t? OK.
TRUMP: I didn’t usually have that – the television on. I’d have it on if there was something. I then later turned it on. And I saw what was happening. I also had confidence that the Capitol, who didn’t want these 10,000 people…
HABERMAN: The Capitol Police, you mean? OK.
TRUMP: That they’d be able to control this thing. And you don’t realize that, you know, they did lose control.
DAVIES: Donald Trump and our guest, Maggie Haberman, discussing Donald Trump. Clearly that’s – there’s a lot of reporting that says he was certainly watching television that afternoon, which you knew when you heard this. How do you deal with it when he tells you something that you just know isn’t true?
HABERMAN: So it sort of depends on the moment. I was much more interested – and I’m really glad you asked that. I was more interested in hearing his words in that moment than hearing my own voice because this was prior to the hearings, the public hearings where the House committee investigating January 6 established, you know, quite fully, at this point, that he was watching television. And we had reporting to that effect, you know, in real time, as did CNN, as did a bunch of other outlets. It’s just that, you know, we don’t have people under oath, and they do. So that’s an important distinction. But I was more interested in his words. There was another moment – and it’s in the book – where he started suggesting that it had been Mark Milley’s idea for them to walk down to St. John’s Church on June 1.
DAVIES: This is quite a moment. You want to just give a little more context there, remind folks…
HABERMAN: So he was talking about how there were two Mark Milleys and explaining what that meant. And then he said something to the effect of, when he suggested that we walked together to the church – and then I did have to interrupt him because it was laughable that Mark Milley had been the one to suggest that they go to St John’s. I knew that wasn’t true. It was well-established that wasn’t true. And I said, he suggested it? And he said, well, let’s say it was equal. So…
HABERMAN: Right, right, right, right.
DAVIES: A moving target, right? And that’s the one where protesters had been there. And they were kind of pretty violently cleared out ahead of that. And then Trump shows up with that odd moment where he’s holding the Bible up. And Milley and the defense secretary were angry about having participated.
HABERMAN: That’s right. That’s right. And Milley – No, Milley and Esper felt duped. They were very, very angry. And, you know, Milley peeled off and got away. But Esper ended up, you know, kind of trapped with Trump.
DAVIES: In one of these interviews, he said to you that when he is giving a comment for an interview for print, as opposed to television, he will repeat it over and over again. What was his point?
HABERMAN: To me, it was one of the most interesting moments of any of the three interviews. He led in by saying – this part’s not in the book. But he led in by saying, you know, well, we’ve agreed you’re not releasing these tapes. And I said, no, we have not agreed on that.
HABERMAN: But I will listen to you if you have an argument to make. And he started explaining that – you know, he said, if I’m being interviewed for – he kept saying, I think, a platform. And he clearly meant broadcast – that he – you know, he speaks differently. And he said, you know, whereas if I’m being interviewed by you for the written word, like your book, you know, I use repetition to beat it into your beautiful brain. Do you understand that? And it was quite a statement. It was quite a statement because it was menacing on the beating it into my brain. But it was also pretty self-aware about how he uses repetition, which is something that anyone who has focused on how Donald Trump uses language, which I have, you know – and I wrote a whole story with Pat Healy, my colleague, about this in 2015. Repetition is a huge part of his repertoire. But hearing him talk about it was really interesting.
DAVIES: That’s funny. I mean, if he says something to you three times, is it really going to make a difference? I don’t know.
HABERMAN: It doesn’t beat it into my brain. But it certainly does show his emphasis on the thing. I just thought it was just a fascinating window into how he operates.
DAVIES: One of the other things he said in the interview was he – I think he turned to someone else in the room and said, I love being with her, meaning you. She’s like my psychiatrist. And you reflect in reporting on this in the book that he treats everybody like they’re his psychiatrist. What do you mean?
HABERMAN: I said, and I meant this, what he had said to me was a meaningless line that was intended to flatter. And he has said it about all manner of other things, other interviews, his Twitter feed. You know, he clearly uses his rallies that way. The reality is that he treats everyone like they’re his therapist, you know, he – friends and pseudo friends and White House aides and campaign aides and Mar-a-Lago aides, you know, the guy who brought him the Diet Coke. You know, he is working it out in front of all of us in real time. One of the – to me, the most interesting bits of color I got around, you know, his deliberations on what he was trying to do and how far he was going to take things ahead of January 6 was he was refusing to foreclose options. Again, as I’ve mentioned, that’s something that he often does. But he kept asking everyone what he should do, including the valet who, you know, brings him the Diet Coke when he presses a red button on his desk. And this was pretty striking to the people who saw it, who came away thinking, seriously? You’re asking the person who’s bringing you a Diet Coke whether – you know what avenue you should be taking to try to stay in power? This is just who he is.
DAVIES: You know, you tweet a lot. And when you do, whenever you tweet anything about him saying it, you know, you get grief, you know, certainly from his supporters but also from people on the left who think that, you know, you shouldn’t give any exposure to anything Donald Trump utters and then others who somehow think that you are, you know, trading access for favorable treatment. I don’t know how they could think that looking at your coverage, but you do hear that. And sometimes, these are accompanied with them printing a photo that exists of you with Donald Trump in the Oval Office where he has his arm around you, and he’s grinning and I guess you’re grinning, and he’s got his thumbs up sign. You usually don’t respond to these tweets because you can’t do this all the time. But what would you like to say to people who don’t understand what the job of covering the White House is like? What would you tell them?
HABERMAN: Sure. So there’s two things, actually, that I want to – I want to answer your question, and then I want to talk about that photo, if that’s OK by you…
HABERMAN: …Since you brought it up. He was a president, and he’s a potential future nominee. So we’re not going to not cover that. But implicit in what people seem to think is happening is some kind of a transaction. And I don’t know what transaction they think is happening, either in my writing about him flushing documents down a toilet or him calling me a maggot. So, you know, I put that into one bucket. And I think part of it is that, you know, one of the really unfortunate things about Twitter is that a lot of people are getting not just their information from Twitter at this point, where everything sort of looks flat and the same and it’s very hard to tell the difference between a news outlet’s Twitter feed versus, you know, some account that fundraises, basically, by fomenting outrage, but people are also getting their information about how journalism works from Twitter. And that’s a problem because a lot of what gets said on Twitter is wrong.
The question on the picture – that picture – I’ll work backwards on this – was tweeted out by my colleague Mike Schmidt after yet another attack by Trump on me over a story that I wrote – I think it was a story in early 2018. I’m pretty sure it was – that was related to the Mueller investigation. And I think it was – again, I – forgive me if I’m wrong on this, but I think it was the one about Michael Cohen and whether Trump’s former fixer was going to turn on him when Cohen was under investigation. And I basically wrote Cohen probably will. And Trump didn’t like that. And in fact, Trump’s attacks on me became an example of possible obstruction of justice in the Mueller report. Trump tweet said something like, I have nothing to do with her. I don’t know her. And Mike thought, what an easy lie to, you know, to catch him in. I’m going to tweet this picture. OK. So in hindsight, very unwise because no one understands what that picture is. And I don’t blame them. You know, when you’re seeing that picture, it looks like something other than what it is.
That picture was me going to the White House to visit a Trump aide when they had first – to talk to them for a story when they had first come into office. So it was really in the first few days. And the person said, the president, you know, wants to say hi or something. And I get – I was with a colleague, got brought to the Oval Office. Trump said, as he often does, let’s take a picture. Now, his goal in taking a picture, I think, is normally to have it for some purpose of his own. At the very last minute, he threw his arm around me very hard, and it really startled me, and I reacted with the look on my face how I reacted. But, you know, Trump is all about dominance. And that seemed to me that’s what it was like. So I don’t think that’s going to calm people down about what they think that is, but that is what that is.
DAVIES: To me, it’s nothing. I mean, you cover people and you’re in their proximity, and sometimes you get in a picture with them. You know, look at the content of your work. That’s what it’s – what you look at.
HABERMAN: Well, I appreciate that. But I – you know, I understand why people are confused by what they’re seeing, but it’s not what they think it is.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We’re going to take another break here. We are speaking with Maggie Haberman. She’s a senior political correspondent at The New York Times who has covered Donald Trump for many years. Her new book is “Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America.” We’ll hear more of our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN ANALOG SET’S “IMMACULATE HEART 2”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with Maggie Haberman, senior political correspondent for The New York Times. Her new book is “Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America.”
One of the things that you write is that he wanted to get Ivanka, his daughter Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, out of the White House and pushed other staff to make it happen. Why did he want them out?
HABERMAN: A couple of reasons, the main one being that, at the time, Jared Kushner was getting a lot of really bad attention of his own. And Trump doesn’t like when he gets bad press because of other people in connection with the Mueller investigation. And, you know, if Kushner left, Ivanka was going to leave. You know, they were in a constant fight with Steve Bannon, and Steve Bannon was targeting them. And Jared Kushner didn’t like Reince Priebus and was undermining him. And Trump had kind of had enough. And he looked to his second chief of staff, John Kelly, and Don McGahn, the White House counsel, as a means to do what he didn’t want to do, which was get rid of them, and make this happen because Trump is incredibly one-on-one conflict averse and just didn’t want to deal with this himself. And then at one point, you know, a tweet was drafted where he was going to say they were leaving. I don’t think the tweet was going to say, you know, they’re fired, but it was that they were going to be leaving the White House. And Kelly wouldn’t let him send it because you don’t deal with your relatives that way. And then Trump would never have the conversation directly.
DAVIES: Did it blow over? Did he come to accept them? Was this a problem throughout the administration?
HABERMAN: You know, Kushner sort of got his bearings and started delivering what Trump saw as deals. But the friction between Trump’s relatives working in the White House and the staff was just an ongoing problem. And it came up – in almost every interview I did, someone mentioned what problems they were.
DAVIES: Like, what kinds of problems?
HABERMAN: People were afraid of getting on the wrong side of them. You know, it became clear that even they had limited influence over him on policy. And so they started focusing on personnel. They would constantly identify this one or that one as a leaker to him – leaker being the word even though it sometimes was not true. It was a problem.
DAVIES: You also report that Pence’s senior staff warned him that Trump – this is after the election when Pence was resisting Trump’s attempts to have him reject the electoral count – that Pence’s aides warned him that Trump might put the vice president in physical danger. What do we know about this?
HABERMAN: So this was reporting that I got for the book. I actually put this in the Times back in June. Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff in the White House, became concerned on June – Jan. 5th – excuse me – the day before the planned rally. Just – Trump had been becoming much more aggressive toward elected officials. And he became convinced that Trump was going to publicly turn on Pence and that they might have a security risk because of it. And so Marc Short called Tim Giebels, who was Pence’s lead Secret Service agent, to Short’s West Wing office, where he told him about this and flagged it. And it was the only time that Short, who was only in that role for, I think, two years – but it was the only time that he flagged a security risk, and the security risk he’s flagging is the president.
DAVIES: Wow. And I guess that might have affected events that day when Pence went to a secure location and refused to get into a limo that was going to take him – he didn’t know where? No?
HABERMAN: It’s funny. Pence’s folks, just to be clear, you know, firmly reject that he was afraid of getting in the car with the Secret Service because of concern about the Secret Service. And Pence was afraid that if he left, that the proceedings to certify the Electoral College were going to get so delayed that it was just going to create an opening for Trump. But I don’t think his concern was Secret Service agents. I think his concern was what was happening at the White House.
DAVIES: Well, I want to talk about the future here. You know, it’s been reported that Donald Trump is closely following the Jan. 6th committee’s work. What is your sense of their impact on his mood and sense of his own future?
HABERMAN: I think he is much more concerned at this point with the documents investigation than he is anything Jan. 6 related. I think even if people around him got charged, I think he’s not so concerned about that. Now, he might if they, you know, agitate with him. But I think he’s much more concerned about the documents.
DAVIES: Why is that? Why is the documents case more serious?
HABERMAN: Because the documents case connects more directly to him. Because there’s, you know, a clear throughline where he was being told to return these boxes, and he wouldn’t – and that there were three different efforts to recover documents, and they kept finding classified documents with each interaction. It’s just harder to blame on someone else. I think Jan. 6th – you know, he is often so all over the place in what he says and yet strangely careful to not go over certain lines I think he believes that he didn’t.
DAVIES: Right. And it’s a much more sprawling story with so many other characters and others (ph).
DAVIES: Yeah, yeah.
DAVIES: OK. I wanted to play some sound from a recent rally. You know, Donald Trump’s been – he always was comforted to get back out on the road and surrounded by supporters and do his thing. And this is a piece of a rally recently in Warren, Mich. And it’s actually – I picked this up on your Twitter feed. Somebody else had posted it, but you commented on it. And this is – you know, lately in the rallies, he’s been including music underneath certain parts of his talk. And, well, let’s just listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: Thieves are allowed to go into stores and openly rob them, beat up the help, and kill people. They will kill people, and they kill them at will if necessary and even if not necessary. And there is no retribution. We are a nation whose once-revered airports are a dirty, crowded mess where you sit and wait for hours and then are notified that the plane won’t leave. And they have no idea when they will – as a nation – when they will be delivered and when you will be delivered to your destination. It’s a nation where ticket prices are through the roof. They don’t have the pilots to fly the plane. They don’t want to receive qualified air traffic controllers. And they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
DAVIES: Former President Trump at a rally in Warren, Mich. You commented that this was an interesting, you know, pivot from murder to flight cancellations. What’s going on with these rallies? Do you think it’s feeding what he needs? What’s happening with him?
HABERMAN: I don’t. And I’ve noticed that they’re getting much longer. And I think that’s partly that he’s still looking for the fix that he wants and testing out new material and so forth. But it was quite a pivot from, you know, American carnage to, you know, Delta is charging me too much and delaying me. It just all feels very unfocused right now. And, again, maybe that will change when he – when and if he declares a candidacy. But that’s how it feels right now.
TRUMP: Are the crowd smaller? I mean, consistently?
HABERMAN: So they had been. I don’t know what they’ve been like recently. I do know last year they were. And I also saw a report, I think, from that rally that there was a pretty steady stream of people leaving not long after it started. You know, look, he gets huge crowds, right? He gets bigger crowds than most politicians. They’re just – you know, last year they were smaller than he used to get. Every president gets a more sizable crowd than a nominee and so forth and so on. So crowd sizes are a hard way to measure support, but they’re a somewhat useful metric with him of energy. And, again, it may change, but right now it feels like people feel like they’ve seen the show.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Maggie Haberman. She is a senior political correspondent for The New York Times. Her new book is “Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America.” We’ll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, “’03 BONNIE AND CLYDE FEAT. BEYONCE”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is Maggie Haberman. She’s senior political correspondent for The New York Times. Her new book about the man she covered for so many years is “Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America.”
When I covered politics for a long – I covered machine politics in Philadelphia in Pennsylvania for a lot of years. And I dealt with a lot of people who did a lot of shady stuff. And I found that as I got older, I came to see them as more complicated. Like, nobody’s all one thing. I mean, even people who abused their office and went to jail, you know, they did have lives and families and in some part of their public life even tried to do some good things. Just people are more complicated than they may seem. And I wonder, with all the time you have spent with covering Donald Trump, did you ever feel any empathy for him?
HABERMAN: There’s been a lot of discussion about, you know, people suggesting that Trump gets normalized. I really don’t think that’s the case. I think that it’s – I think we’ve all pretty clearly captured how, you know, outside of normal he is and was as a president. He is – despite his, you know, behavior, he is literally human. And so when you’re writing about somebody’s life, you learn things about their life. There, you know, was an interesting anecdote where, you know, he’s dealing with an ex-girlfriend and he – or at the time I think was still involved with her. But he at one point made a very racist comment to her – she was biracial – about getting her brains from her white father, but – according to my reporting.
But he also had this other side of a relationship with her where he – you know, she calls him at one point and is trying to – she’s trying to get a taxi somewhere, and she can’t. And so he shows up driving his own limo, wearing the cap. That was an image that surprised me a little bit. What I find with him is that just baseline human interpersonal behavior with him, the people who really like him tend to rate it much higher than they would with somebody else because they’re countering it against the bad behavior.
DAVIES: You mean they rate the moments where he seems more human and generous, right?
HABERMAN: Correct. You know, he asked how my mother was. You know, he – you know, he said he was sorry my parent passed, that kind of thing. I mean, this is just normal human behavior. But with him, people tend to elevate it as if it’s, you know, an enormous act of kindness. But he is capable of those things, and people tend to lean on them to try to rationalize the other behavior.
DAVIES: Yeah. I should just clarify, when I was saying before how, you know, I would see these sometimes corrupt politicians as human, it never softened my coverage. I mean, they’re still responsible for their actions. But you just see them in a more complex way.
HABERMAN: You do. And, I mean, I think that it’s – you know, the fact that – I guess to your question, voters interpret these people as humans, right? So I think that seeing them through that lens is instructive as to what they’re seeing.
DAVIES: You know, the title of your book is – the subtitle is “The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America.” And, you know, he spent seven years as a candidate, president and now ex-president, you know, breaking all kinds of norms of discourse and behavior and not really suffering any legal consequences for it. How has this changed American politics and for how long?
HABERMAN: So I think in American politics was changing to this level of smash mouth to some extent before he got here. And I think the Tea Party era helped usher that in, and I think he fueled it and accelerated it and benefited from it. And I think it is – you know, it is defining the Republican Party in large measure right now. I think, you know, all of our politics are defined, not just the Republicans at this point, by who you hate and who hates you back. He just happens to fare very well in that kind of an environment because, as I said in the book and as we discussed, he sees hate as a civic good.
DAVIES: The last thing you say about him in the book is almost no one really knows him.
HABERMAN: That’s true. And anyone who says differently is, I think, not being honest.
DAVIES: Well, Maggie Haberman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
HABERMAN: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent for The New York Times. Her new book is “Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America.” On tomorrow’s show, we’ll speak with food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark. Known for crafting original and tasty recipes, she writes a weekly column for The New York Times food section and produces cooking videos. Her latest cookbook is “Dinner In One: Exceptional & Easy One Pan Meals.” I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today’s show. For Terry Gross, I’m Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE HORNSBY’S “BACKHAND”)
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