On Wednesday, the New York Times released a partial transcript of Donald Trump talking into the wild. As my colleague Elliot Hannon remarked, the interview—full of bluster, vagueness, and ignorance—reminds us the president is a huckster. But it also reveals that Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, one of two journalists steering the conversation (the other was Glenn Thrush), is a master of the dark art of Trump charming. She handles her thin-skinned subject with the tact and grace of an old-school talk therapist, disbursing neutral prompts to draw him out and keep him going. Trump is mostly an empty basket, but at the bottom of that basket lies a serpent, and Haberman knows how to conjure it forth: with flattery, simple questions, and boundless patience.
At the beginning of the interview, Haberman seems to want to know whether Democrats are as furious about Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch as their filibustering might imply. She picks up her flute and plays a few friendly bars. Things are going well! she observes. Better than expected!
The serpent pokes his head up cautiously.
Trump: “It’s never an easy process. … I think it’s been pretty smooth.”
The melody twists and turns.
Haberman: “You talk to Democrats privately that will admit—”
The snake leaps at the irresistible combination of the words Democrats and admit.
Trump: “I do.”
She takes the interruption in stride.
Haberman: “But do they admit to you that they don’t actually have a huge objection to Gorsuch, they think he’s probably—”
Trump: “They do. They admit that.”
Knowledge gleaned. Onward. Except, wait: The snake would like to preen for a moment.
Trump: “Elijah Cummings [a Democratic congressman from Maryland] was in my office and he said, ‘You will go down as one of the great presidents in the history of our country.’ ”
Here, the snake has given us an occasion to observe another one of the charmer’s tricks. Haberman uses simple statements to guide Trump forward, even when what he is saying makes no sense. She makes him feel intelligent, articulate, worth listening to. I did not bear witness to this episode, but I can say with confidence that it did not happen in the way Trump said it happened. (Cummings has confirmed as much.) But Haberman keeps him dancing with a noncommittal cue. “Really,” she says. Like the OKs, Rights, and You ares that stud the remainder of the transcript, her rejoinder means, “I believe you. Keep going.” He obliges.
Trump: “And then he went out and I watched him on television yesterday and I said, ‘Was that the same man?’”
The cobra looks pretty dumb at this point. But it is happy to undulate in its creaturely trance of praise, TV, and Democratic treachery. Meanwhile, the charmer is plotting her next move: getting Trump to spill whatever beans he has on Susan Rice.
Not only does Haberman encourage Trump to weave his own shroud with vain or uninformed words, but she 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?”
Rather than turn the interview into a pissing match, Haberman encourages the POTUS to help her cover the topics he deems most important. When he demurs, he looks like a hypocrite.
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.
This is a very inconsistent cobra. Haberman has coaxed him into illuminating with his evasions what he will not say outright: He doesn’t have any evidence of Obama-era surveillance of his campaign and/or administration because no such evidence exists.
When the conversation turns to health care, tax breaks, and infrastructure, Haberman seeks to maneuver her vague and bombastic boa toward specifics. (She uses the phrase in terms of six times in her efforts to narrow him down.) Her questions are short, easy to understand, and to the point. Her fellow interlocutor Thrush, by contrast, goes on slightly longer, his queries knotting into more complications, and he doesn’t feed Trump as many supportive one-word prompts. “In your budget you either zeroed out or cut a lot. We reported,” Thrush says before Trump cuts him off. The president has no patience for long setups, and he definitely doesn’t care what the Times reported about some budget something-or-other.
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.”
By the end of the dance, the serpent is so enthralled with his choreographer that he gives her a compliment. While he would prefer not to reveal anything about his plans for the Davis-Bacon Act (which “regulates wages on federally funded projects”), he does cede that “it’s an important question.” Then he’s done. The interview—a fresh testament to Trump’s ludicrous incompetence—is over. To him it’s all been the sound of lyres and flutes.