I Have to Ask

“The Leakiest White House I’ve Ever Covered”

The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman explains why so many Trump staffers are confiding in reporters.

Maggie Haberman on October 18, 2012 in New York City.
Maggie Haberman on Oct. 18, 2012, in New York City.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for New York magazine.

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for the New York Times and an analyst at CNN. Haberman was born and grew up in New York, and worked at the New York Post and Politico, before joining the Times in 2015. After covering the election last year, she’s been reporting on the Trump administration and is considered to be one the political world’s most wired-in reporters.

Below is an edited transcript of an excerpt from the show. In it, Haberman discusses the stresses of political reporting, how she came to know President Trump and how he has changed over the years, and why this particular White House is so leaky.

You can find links to previous episodes here; the entire episode is available here. And please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: It’s a crazy time to be living in, it’s a crazy time to be covering Washington. Can you just lay out what your day is like as the White House correspondent for the New York Times?

Maggie Haberman: Sure. I liked your “crazy time to be living,” because that’s true for everybody. I’m one of six people in our White House team, and I live in New York. The rest of our team is in D.C. Glenn Thrush, who is my closest collaborator on our team, is a former New Yorker, so there’s a certain rhythm to it that’s a little easier than otherwise might be. But I mean, my day is, if I’m in New York, it’s centered around taking children to school in the morning, going to work during the day, then the day never ends in the Trump era, right?

I mean, this is what we saw in the campaign, too: You are watching till late at night when strange filaments of news start floating around or when he tweets, or someone gives a cable interview or so forth and so on, or just something happens and you get a scoop. When I’m in D.C., it’s really just running from the minute I’m awake until the end of the day. I try to use D.C. to see people who I wouldn’t see otherwise, but it’s a lot of perpetual motion. I don’t know of another way to describe it, and I have spent the last two years overall, which I expected for the first 18 months of it, because it was a campaign, but the last six months of it, canceling more plans than I ever imagined I’d have to.

Personal plans, I assume you mean?


What I’m wondering is: You come into the office and you start working and you’re talking to sources and you’re tweeting and you’re doing whatever it is journalists do, writing your stories. Can you compare how that’s different from previous administrations you’ve covered or previous campaigns you covered? Is it that people are calling you more? Are you constantly thinking, “There’s some story I need to get?” What is it that’s driving it? Is it that your editor says, “You’ve got to cover this because this happened 12 different times today?” What is it?

It’s all of the above, and it depends on the day, right? I mean, sometimes there is something happening that is deadline-driven or government-driven, and we know what it is, and we gravitate toward it. So, the Affordable Health Care Act would be an example of that today, right? Or yesterday. Other times, it’s the president’s going to hold a press conference and what do we expect him to say? Other times it’s, and this is oftentimes, there is some staff intrigue going on and the difference in this White House to other White Houses is it is the leakiest White House I’ve ever covered, and it’s one of the leakiest administrations I’ve ever covered.

I’ve covered New York City government for years, I covered state government in New York for years, and I’ve covered other municipalities. This is really unheard of. It’s almost as if the staff and the Trump White House uses reporters as a reality testing measure. I think because the perspective from inside the building can feel somewhat distortive sometimes, so you see a lot of people reaching out and it’s obviously not just to us. It’s also the Washington Post, it’s also to Politico, and it’s also to CNN, it’s also to other publications.

The level of chaos and dysfunction within this West Wing is high and it’s not just who’s up, who’s down, staff imaginations. It is the story of how this president governs and manages and that’s very important, so we spend a lot of time on that.

You said “reality testing measure”? What do you mean by that? That someone inside the White House feels like they have a distorted perspective and so they call you?

Yeah, I think that therapists … therapists? Sorry. I think reporters are often therapists for—

That’s an interesting slip, Maggie. That’s an interesting slip.

I’m very tired. I think reporters are often therapists for people working on campaigns, right? This would not be the first campaign where that happened, although it did. I think it happened on the Clinton side of the equation, too, but I do think you have a lot of people inside the White House who feel the need to essentially get a reality check. “From your perspective, is this blah, blah, blah?” Or, “This weird thing is going on in here.”

What is your sense of what the people inside the White House, and this is a generalized question, you can answer it however you like, but what is your sense of what they make of their boss and his leadership style?

I think it depends on who you’re talking to. Remember, most of the people in this government have no previous administrative experience before in a White House, right? They don’t really have a huge basis for comparison. Most of them I would argue are beginning to see that this is not typical, this is not how a White House normally functions. I think that the stress …

Well, it’s only 2017. They’re finally realizing this, OK, that’s good.

Look, I think that sometimes looking into the abyss can be hard and so I think that a lot of people, it has taken some time, but I think most of them recognize for better or worse, that this is not a typical White House. Most of them also recognize that Trump seems to both foster and tolerate an astonishing amount of chaos, taking place right beneath him. I think it is anxiety provoking.

How much anxiety do you have, I don’t mean about the country or whatever, politics, but I mean just do you feel constantly anxious with your phone going off? Do you have moments in the day where you try to shut it off or you tell your kids, “I’m not going to look at my phone”? Do you turn it off at night? How do you regulate that anxiety?

I never turn it off at night, which is a really bad thing, but I do try to go a couple of hours without looking at it over the weekend, with mixed levels of success. I think that was very hard for the first three months or so of the administration. I think at this point, everyone has recognized you have to take a break or else it’s just not going to work, but look, this has not been easy on my kids. This has been hard for them. I’m the daughter of journalists so it’s not like I don’t know how this is on children, and I am trying hard with pretty mixed levels of success to be present, and I think that the Trump administration, plus the fact that we are all connected all the time, makes that very hard.

Trump seems to like you and seeks you out for interviews. Can you talk about first how you met him and what your relationship was like? And then, why you think that relationship has continued now, despite your reporting?

I actually want to be clear on something that I think is pretty important. I don’t think he has sought me out for interviews as president, and I have been pretty clear about that in an interview that—not an interview, but a piece that Dylan Byers at CNN did about me. I did not participate in it, but I did make very clear to him, because he asked me a question along those lines, he said, “Can you just answer this?” I said, “Yeah, I can answer that, and that’s not true. I want to be very clear that that’s not, what you’re saying is not quite the way this has worked.” I have asked for time when he has spoken to me, so what I don’t want is to leave some misimpression about that.

One of his aides, Sam Nunberg, came to me early on when he was still thinking about running in 2016 and said, “Trump is going to declare on June 16, and we want you to break it,” and I said no. He said, “Why?” I said, “Because I did this in 2011 and I’m not going to be Lucy with the football again.” In 2011, Trump had made all these noises about running and he didn’t run and then he decided he wasn’t going to run during sweeps week for The Apprentice, and right after that was that …

Funny coincidence, yeah.

Odd how that works. Right after that was that White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, where Obama just eviscerated him. So I just feel like, I think he knows me, I think he knows that I worked for the New York Post, I think that he tends to be more familiar with people who are from New York. The fact that I worked at a tabloid, so forth and so on, but I don’t think that he is seeking me out or anything like that. I also think that you have to remember how incredibly important the New York Times is, right? In his mind. That’s a really, really significant thing. He is very, very big on the validation of the New York Times. Real estate developer who came in from Queens, into Manhattan, was never taken very seriously by the city’s elites, and that’s a big thing for him.

I think that to the extent that you have seen him prior to winning, during the campaign, when his team would seek me out on something, and far more often it was me seeking things out, it’s because the Times holds a singular fascination for him, and he wants their approval.

Did you meet him when you were at the Post? How did you get to know him, or?

I didn’t know him particularly well when I was at the tabloids. I really got to know him in 2011 when he was doing his pseudo run, or his proto run, whatever it was. But he was everywhere, right? I mean, Trump, for a tabloid commodity, when I was at the Post and at the Daily News—I was at the Post first, then the News, then I went back to the Post—and the common thread on those 14 years is that Donald Trump was sort of omnipresent. The Daily News had a bit of a difficult relationship with him. Pete Hamill, who had been the editor in chief for a time in the ’90s had really resisted writing about Donald Trump and his divorce, and stories about him and so forth.

The Post just ate it up, but he was everywhere. It was even then, honestly, I hadn’t thought about this until you just asked this question, but the tabloid construct at that point was you either love Trump or hate Trump, and if you love Trump it was the Post, and if you hated Trump it was the Daily News, but it’s very much what you see him putting on people now.

What do you mean putting on people?

I mean I think that he turns everything into an up/down vote on him, right? Literally everything, whether something relates to him or not. He conflates himself with the institutions that he serves, and with the people he represents, so he turns everything into a referendum on him, in one direction or the other. I think that there is an omnipresence about his presidency that I don’t remember with previous presidents, and I’m 43, so I feel like I can say that.

Yeah, there’s another word for turning everything into a referendum on you, but I guess

You can say that word if you want.

I was thinking solipsism.

Right, I knew which word you meant. Thank you.

Yeah, OK. A little mansplaining is what this podcast needs, I think.

Thank you. No, no, that’s good. We can do that again before the end of the episode.

OK, good. Well, I won’t be able to help it so it’ll definitely happen before the end of the episode. Well no, two-part question. The first is, has he changed in any way since 2011 that you’ve noticed? I don’t mean in terms of age per se, but anything about his personality?

It’s a great question. I don’t think so. I mean, by 2011 he was pretty hardened into what we see now, which is not really able to laugh at himself, absolutely no problem with fudging facts, which he’s always had an issue with. I think he has gotten maybe a little bit more vocal about terrorism since 2011 and about radical Islam as he would put it, but I think that that’s by dint of running more than anything else. I mean, it’s not like the birther lie that he was so eager to fan in 2011 was unrelated to terrorism or to Muslims, or being other.

But he certainly is more vocal about it. I think he’s slightly less careful with what he says now. I don’t think there’s a huge difference between him from 2011 to now. I think there’s a bigger difference between him from 2000 which is when he had flirted with running previously in a pretty public way, to 2011.

Yeah, you know, it’s interesting, you said making fun of himself or being able to laugh at himself. If you watch interviews from 2000, or even up on the Howard Stern Show, I would say 2003–2004, he really does have an ability to laugh at himself and to look at himself as an ironic figure. I don’t think that’s there anymore, and it’s interesting that’s how you phrased it.

Yeah, no, I agree with that. Look, it’s funny because as you know, one of his favorite phrases about anything in life is, “They’re laughing at us. This person’s laughing at me. This person’s laughing at that one. Everyone’s laughing at the United States.” It’s like some very protracted version of the prom scene in Carrie, right? Where it’s like everything is all about, “Are you being laughed at?”

Hopefully not ending the same way for the country, but yeah, OK.

I’m not saying that they were twin moments, I’m just saying the singular focus on that has been really striking.