Maggie Haberman, a New York Times White House correspondent and CNN political analyst, spoke about covering the White House. Among the areas she talked about were the mechanics of the daily press briefings and how information is disseminated by the White House to the press. Recorded July 21st, 2018
complained to a close friend that I hated being on Twitter. It was distorting discourse, I said. I couldn’t turn off the noise. She asked what was the worst that could happen if I stepped away from it.
There was nothing I could think of. And so just after 6 p.m. last Sunday, I did.
.. After nearly nine years and 187,000 tweets, I have used Twitter enough to know that it no longer works well for me. I will re-engage eventually, but in a different way.
.. Twitter has stopped being a place where I could learn things I didn’t know, glean information that was free from errors about a breaking news story or engage in a discussion and be reasonably confident that people’s criticisms were in good faith.
.. The viciousness, toxic partisan anger, intellectual dishonesty, motive-questioning and sexism are at all-time highs, with no end in sight.
.. It is a place where people who are understandably upset about any number of things go to feed their anger, where the underbelly of free speech is at its most bilious.
.. Twitter is now an anger video game for many users. It is the only platform on which people feel free to say things they’d never say to someone’s face.
.. During the 2012 campaign, the first during which Twitter was widely used by journalists and campaign aides, I became something of a scold to younger reporters who I thought misused the medium.
.. Pictures of themselves at events, inside jokes and conversation fragments were all there for the world to see. They should treat their feeds like news platforms, I huffed
.. But Twitter has a staccato allure for those of us who need frequent inputs and have grown accustomed to them in the Trump era, with news cycles that last roughly three hours.
.. Many pointed out errors, but most did it respectfully, and I was appreciative.
.. But the medium has changed. Everyone I follow on the site seems to be tweeting more frequently, so I had to check in more frequently. No matter the time of day or night, I felt like I had to plug back into the Matrix, only to be overwhelmed by the amount of content.
.. instead of engaging in thoughtful debates, I found myself spending an increasing amount of time explaining an errant word or a poorly phrased tweet, and coming off defensive as I did it.
.. On Twitter, everything is shrunk down to the same size, making it harder to discern what is a big deal and what is not.
.. Tone often overshadows the actual news. All outrages appear equal. And that makes it harder for significant events — like Mr. Trump’s extraordinarily pliant performance with President Vladimir Putin of Russia — to break through.
.. More significant is the way Mr. Trump has tried to turn everyone around him, including the journalists who cover him, into part of his story.
And people on Twitter have started to react to me in that same way, treating me as if I am a protagonist in the president’s narrative.
.. He creates the impression that the media is almost as powerful as he is in his incessant, personalized attacks on reporters on Twitter.
.. Twitter is a useful and important platform. It’s a good aggregator for breaking news.
.. The downside is that everyone is treated as equally expert on various topics.
Michael Cohen has profited from it, but we’re all Trumpologists now.
Christie argued that pesky journalists and amateur Trump watchers were always getting the President wrong, making it out as if there were some “Machiavellian” grand plan by Trump that could explain many otherwise seemingly unexplainable moves. “There is no strategy,” he exclaimed.
.. Several mentioned White House aides or outside advisers, such as Christie, who seem to have the ability to read Trump’s quirks and offer reliable guidance about what a President who delights in the appearance of unpredictability will actually do. One White House reporter, for example, said that Stephen Miller, the combative young aide who writes many of Trump’s speeches and has helped shape his hard-line immigration policy, was “an authentic reflection of his boss,” citing him as a helpful resource “if you’re looking to decode what Trump is really thinking.” Others mentioned informal advisers including Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, and Christopher Ruddy, the C.E.O. of Newsmax and another regular Trump phone buddy; journalists such as the Times’ Maggie Haberman and the Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti
.. “The truth is, virtually everyone who claims to know what Trump is going to do has been wrong at some point,” one sharp analyst told me. “The best indicator, in my mind, is to go back and read his core campaign pledges and speeches. Those have been far more instructive than anyone in Congress, in the Republican Party, or on his own team.”
.. “All the same traits repeat themselves now,” the correspondent wrote to me. “The grandiosity, the impatience and impulsiveness, the repeated lies.
.. At the time, other observers, less schooled in Trump, wrongly thought that the heavy responsibilities of a job for which he was ill-prepared might change him. Not the Trumpologists. “He’s the same old Trump,
.. What did it mean that the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the leader of Germany’s pro-Russia oppositionists at a time of such tensions with the West, was right there in the front row? That Putin only shook hands with three people—Schroeder, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and a splendidly attired Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill
.. Indeed, the Putin inauguration scene made the former Moscow correspondent in me realize just how much Washington these days feels like Russia.
.. Of course, there’s always an element of Kremlinology in how we cover the White House.
.. But, at least in Administrations of old, there was a process to pay attention to, meetings where actual decisions were made, policy rollouts planned in advance as a result of those decisions. “Process protects you” was a favorite line of Obama’s process-obsessed second-term chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and most of his predecessors, from Republican and Democratic Administrations alike, agreed.
.. Many of this President’s major decisions—from appointing Cabinet secretaries to pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal—are completely opaque and, in many cases, shockingly process-free.
old-school talk therapist, disbursing neutral prompts to draw him out and keep him going.
.. Haberman knows how to conjure it forth: with flattery, simple questions, and boundless patience.
.. also gently calls him on inaccuracies in a way that opens him up rather than shutting him down. When the president asserts (incorrectly) that the New York Times hasn’t covered the Susan Rice story, Haberman replies, “We’ve written about it twice.” Then she transforms his ego-wounded dig into a request for edification: “You mean there’s more information that we’re not aware of?”
.. HABERMAN: Sir, if you could give us more information about Rice. If the administration would give us more information—
TRUMP: No, you have a lot of information. No, you have so much information.
HABERMAN: If you would have given it to us last week, we would have written it. Would you declassify some of the information so that—
TRUMP: I don’t want to talk about that.
HABERMAN: No? OK.
TRUMP: No. I just don’t want to talk about that. It’s such an important story for our country, for the world. What took place.
HABERMAN: Why not talk about it then? With all due respect.
TRUMP: At the right time, I will be... Haberman appeals to the president’s vanity. When he complains that “the highways are in poor shape,” she eggs him on: “What about the airports?” When Trump takes the bait (“I think the airports are a horror show”) and tacks on a self-congratulatory aside (“I’ve traveled the world, I know the world”), she seizes the opportunity to flatter him further. “And, well, you’ve traveled the country,” Haberman notes with admiration. “Tell us what you thought.”
.. Trump wants what she can give him access to—a kind of status he’s always craved in a newspaper that, she says, “holds an enormously large place in his imagination.” Haberman, for her part, has become a front-page fixture and a Fourth Estate folk hero. “This is a symbiotic relationship,” says an administration official. “Part of the reason” Haberman is so read in the Times “is because she is writing about Donald Trump.”.. Haberman’s father, Clyde, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter, and her mother, Nancy, is a publicity powerhouse at Rubenstein—a communications firm founded by Howard Rubenstein, whose famous spinning prowess Trump availed himself of during various of his divorce and business contretemps. (Nancy worked on projects for Trump’s business but says she never met him.).. Haberman had her first byline in 1980, when she was seven years old, writing for the Daily News kids’ page about a meeting she had with then-mayor Ed Koch... In those days, the future president was a fixture in Page Six, the Post‘s gossip column. In the midst of his second divorce, from Marla Maples, Trump was a maestro of controlling his tabloid image, calling in tidbits about himself... The quick-hit rhythm that Trump and Haberman were both fine-tuning teed them up perfectly for today’s Twitter-paced news environment. “Maggie’s whole career has been about grabbing people by the lapels,” Burns says. She believes in the power of breaking incremental news—not holding every-thing back for a long read. She’s “wickedly competitive,.. At first Thrush didn’t like her, mistaking her voraciousness for shtick. “My enduring image of her is, she’s standing outside the [press] van, she has a cigarette already lit in one hand, she’s lighting a second one because she’s forgotten that she has the first one lit, right? And she’s got a BlackBerry and a flip phone going at the same time. And I’m like, This is total bullshit, this is not a real person, nobody is this way,” Thrush recalls. Over time, however, as Haberman did not get beat, did not get beat, he realized she was for real... In hindsight, Haberman was building a reservoir of knowledge and contacts that would make her probably the best-sourced reporter of the 2016 campaign. Significantly, she was accumulating sources who were close to Trump, who knew when he was angry and what he watched on TV and how he could only sleep well in his own bed. Her expertise wasn’t just Trump—it was the Trump psyche.
.. Haberman jumped to Politico in 2010, where she covered him full-bore for the first time; he was then flirting with the idea of joining the 2012 Republican primary and beginning to spread the lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Three years later, she moved to the Times as it beefed up its political staff in advance of the 2016 campaign. By the time Trump formally announced his candidacy in June 2015 and Haberman was assigned to his campaign, she’d been reporting on him for a decade.
.. Whereas most of the country knows Trump foremost as a reality-TV star from his time on The Apprentice, Haberman remembers that he was a New York institution before he became a national figure. “The Triborough and Empire State view of Trump is very different from the national view of Trump,” she points out. “His whole thing has always been to be accepted among the New York elites, whom he sort of preemptively sneers at—that thing that people do when they are not really sure if they will be completely validated, where they push away people whose approval they are seeking.
.. “You’re going to bring this up every time, aren’t you?” she says she told him. He “kind of chuckled” and replied, “It’s like therapy.”
.. Haberman is growing weary of the DC establishment’s seeming inability to metabolize the president’s personality. “There has been a very protracted shocked stage in Washington, and I think people have to move past that. Because otherwise you’re just never going to be able to cover him,” she says. “Every moment cannot be, ‘Wow! Can you believe what he just did?’ Yes, I can! Because he is the same person he was during the campaign.”
Her measured stance infuriates Trump’s detractors, who harangue her on Twitter for “normalizing” the president. But it gives her added credibility when she argues, as she did when Trump fired Comey, that one of Trump’s aberrant moves is a big deal.
.. “What is amazing is capacity of people who watched the campaign to be surprised by what they are seeing. Trump is 70. Ppl don’t change.”
.. Just as he didn’t back down after being accused of sexual assault, she says he is unlikely to walk away from this fight or resign. “I do not think he is enjoying the job particularly, and that is based on reporting,” she says. “But I also know he can’t allow himself to ever quit.”
.. they see Trump’s presidency more as a “national mayoralty…it’s got that scale, it has that informality,” Thrush says. “And it’s not just any mayoralty; it’s a late-’80s, early ’90s New York mayoralty.” Adds Haberman, “Some Ed Koch. A lot of Rudy Giuliani.”
.. One communications staffer after another told me that they appreciate the fact that she never blindsides them. “Maggie doesn’t camouflage. She’s perfectly willing to walk like a redcoat into the middle of the field and let everyone know she’s there because she’s going to get [her story],”
.. She never hedges her angle to try to protect her access, only to give politicians an unwelcome surprise when they read the story in the morning—a practice some journalists follow that Haberman calls “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. They’re going to lose [their access] anyway,” she says. “What do they think—that it’s going in a secret newspaper?”
.. she doesn’t keep an actual calendar, not on paper, not on her phone; it’s all in her head.
.. Friends and colleagues say this is her standard operating procedure. “She is literally always doing four things,” says her friend and former New York Post colleague Annie Karni. Haberman once said in an interview that she talked to 50 people a day. Not true, says Risa Heller, a spokesperson for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner: “She speaks to 100 people a day.” One colleague says she didn’t realize there was a limit to how many Gchats you could have going at one time until she saw Haberman hit the maximum.
.. ‘Oh, did Maggie just tell you that?’ Because she was literally talking to 16 people within our campaign at the same time.”
.. She almost never turns her phone off. “She’s got it with her at all times,” says her husband, Dareh Gregorian. She’ll wake up in the middle of the night and, instead of rolling over and going back to sleep, pick up her phone and start working.
.. “Maggie’s magic is that she’s the dominant reporter on the [White House] beat, and she doesn’t even live in Washington. She was the dominant Trump reporter on the campaign, and she didn’t travel with him. She’s so well-sourced and so well-connected that she doesn’t need to,”
.. Greenfield introduced Haberman by saying that he couldn’t remember a reporter having established a relationship with a president quite like hers with Trump
.. Lyndon Johnson gave preference to Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Walter Lippmann, and Lippmann had once gone so far as to secretly write part of a speech for Johnson—and then write a story praising the speech.
.. Kellyanne Conway defended Haberman last April in an interview, calling her “a very hard-working, honest journalist who happens to be a very good person.” Hicks echoed Conway, e-mailing me a few days later that Haberman was “a true professional.”
.. Haberman has reached the point in her career where sources are now chasing her, instead of the other way around—lying to her risks banishment and access to her news-promulgating prowess. “If you’re going to come at her,” says a Democratic operative, “you’ve got to come correct.”
.. “This is a president who is always selling. When I speak to him, it’s because he’s trying to sell me,” Haberman tells the audience at the 92nd Street Y.
.. “When we as a culture can’t agree on a simple, basic fact set—that is very scary. That [Trump] is unconcerned by that, I think, is the big issue,”
.. But effective salesmanship must be based in credibility—an area in which his administration has suffered significant set-backs in recent days.