Maggie Haberman and the Toxic Swamp

The New York Times reporter on the White House Correspondents Dinner, Trump’s Cohen investigation fears, and why she hates Twitter.

Journalist Maggie Haberman, White House correspondent for the New York Times, speaks at the “Nobel Week Dialogue: the Future of Truth” conference at Svenska Mässan on Dec. 9 in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Journalist Maggie Haberman, White House correspondent for the New York Times, speaks at the “Nobel Week Dialogue: the Future of Truth” conference at Svenska Mässan on Dec. 9 in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Julia Reinhart/Getty Images

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for the New York Times and an analyst at CNN. She previously worked at the New York Post and Politico, has been at the Times since 2015, and this year was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Russia story. (Full disclosure: I have known Haberman for several years and occasionally discuss politics with her; we spoke once before on the podcast, last year.)

Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we talk about how covering Trump has changed over the past couple of years, why the White House is so scared of the Michael Cohen investigation, and the dangers of journalists spending too much time on Twitter.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: How is covering the White House right now different than it was on Jan. 21, 2017?

Maggie Haberman: His first full day in office felt combative. It felt like everything that we knew on the campaign trail. It was somebody who was coming into a job that he had spent basically no time thinking about until he won it. And it was still very unclear what the policy goals would be. We’re now part of the way through his second year, and I do think we have a clearer sense of where he wants to take this presidency. Now, it does not please, I think, a majority of people in a lot of respects. But there are things he is doing that are pretty consistent with what he said he would do as a candidate, and that should be unsurprising.

He’s in the middle of, policywise, what could be considered a decent couple of weeks.

Has he been successful at achieving his goals because he’s gotten lucky, or is it that he’s learned things about the way government works, or the people around him have learned things about the way government works?

I think it’s all of the above. I did a piece about this a couple months ago: that he was more emboldened in his second year, which is not anomalous for a president to be feeling freer in their second year than they did in their first. But in his case, there is still this massive gap in terms of what he actually understands about the job and what he thinks about the job. I think he feels like he gets this to a decent extent now, that he doesn’t need to have appointees picked for him or decisions made for him in the way that they were a lot last year. I think he is more comfortable in the role. I also think he has gotten lucky in certain respects.

But a lot of presidents have gotten lucky. I still think, at the end of the day, he cannot get out of his own way, and that’s what we’re seeing right now. Any other president with this fact set would have advisers saying to them, “Stop talking about these investigations. Just focus on what you’ve done. Focus on the tax bill,” which is what Republican congressional leaders want him to talk about because it will help them in the midterms. Or, “Focus on what you’re doing in North Korea. Stop having Rudy Giuliani pick up the phone in the middle of dinner when everyone calls and pop off about the investigations.”

Rudy didn’t pick up my call when I tried to get an interview with him for Slate.

He often doesn’t pick mine up either, so there you go.

Is there one thing about reporting on Trump or thinking about the way he as a human being operates that you feel like you got wrong or misinterpreted or underestimated? Is there some way that you view him now that’s different than you thought?

No, honestly. I think he is who I thought he was. I don’t think that has really changed. I think the degree to which he was willing to honestly sort of, it isn’t take advice, but to allow himself to be soothed or placated on a number of different policy fronts over the course of the first year surprised me. You’re seeing him do a massive course correction on that now. But no, I mean, this is who he is. This is all who he is. This is always who he is. There’s no difference. There’s no difference for him in the White House to the campaign, and there’s no difference from him in the campaign to Twitter voice, celebrity, reality show–star Donald Trump. No. I have not been surprised about anything he’s done.

You mentioned that in the first year sometimes he was coerced or pushed into appointing people who may not have been Trump loyalists but had connections to the Republican establishment or to the national security establishment. Now he’s surrounded by more loyalists. Has that changed how easy or hard it is to report on the White House?

No. It’s a big government. There’s always somebody who wants to talk, right? Our job is to get lots of different people to talk to us, and that was true last year. It’s true this year. I think that what is different, and this is really not so much in the reporting, it’s just different as an observer, is this constant knife fighting of Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner that dominated so much of last year in terms of the reporting, and in terms of where everyone’s focus was within the White House, particular the communications shop.

Kelly is not no drama, but it is a different kind of drama. There is no centralized force in the way that there was last year. What’s ended up happening is you’ve got a lot of these little fiefdoms and empires being established.

Was it a mistake in hindsight how much we all focused on Jared and Ivanka and their role in the White House? Or it made sense then, but their role has declined?

I think there was too much focus on them as moderating influences, for two reasons. I think that people confused the phrase moderating influence with moderate presidency. Those are not the same, and I think that people were wrong about the extent to which they would be moderating influences both because they billed themselves that way to people and because I think you had a lot of folks who were wish casting. I don’t mean reporters. I think reporters were just covering what they were being told.

They have not had dramatic influences. Trump has gotten quite wary of Kushner. There was a period where he was very upset about the daily drumbeat of negative stories because he always looks at it in terms of how it affects him or what it reflects about him, and he felt it reflected poorly on him.

Do you think Trump’s enjoying his job at all?

No. I do not. I have never thought he is enjoying this job. I think he enjoys the title Mr. President. I think he enjoys Air Force One, Marine One, the big car, having a lot of Secret Service, his Diet Coke bell, all of that stuff. I don’t think he particularly likes living in the White House. I certainly don’t think he enjoys the job. In fairness, I think that most presidents don’t love the job when they are in it, but I think that others have experienced it quite differently.

You and others have reported that the White House sees the Michael Cohen investigation as a bigger threat to the Trump presidency than the Mueller investigation. Do you have a sense of why that is?

Yeah, it’s because, look, with Mueller everyone has the caveat, “We don’t know what Mueller knows,” but they’ve now seen these questions that Mueller wants to ask the president. They have a general sense of where Mueller is going. The law is not settled, as you know, on whether the president can be indicted. I think his legal team is of the opinion that he can’t be. I’m just going through their view. I’m not saying what will be, just how they see it. There won’t be an indictment of him. There might be of other people around him. There could be a report to Congress, but that, as my colleague Michael Schmidt made clear, and I didn’t realize this, is not mandated. There doesn’t have to be a report to Congress, although there likely will be. The collusion is going to be pretty hard to prove. They also deny that it’s there, to be clear.

With the Cohen investigation: This is an aggressive office—the Southern District of New York—historically, No. 1. Rudy Giuliani used to run it. No. 2, it’s the kind of probe that could just go on for years with no clear end. It doesn’t have a narrow mandate the way that the Mueller probe does. It’s a pretty aggressive thing to execute that kind of a search warrant on somebody’s lawyer and to get a judge to sign off on that. There usually has to be pretty good evidence that there will be an indictment [of the lawyer]. Michael Cohen knows a lot, and his team is resigned to the strong possibility that Cohen will flip. You don’t flip unless there’s something to flip on. This keeps getting talked about as if Trump has suggested that people just make stuff up. That’s just not how this works. It has to be corroborated.

I had been of the opinion that Stormy Daniels was the best possible story for Trump because the American people don’t really care about sex scandals. Even if there was a campaign finance violation, no one was really going to get all that upset about it. But Trump himself seemed very worried about it. I was wondering if you thought that was about personal stuff, because it’s embarrassing and he’s a married man and so on, or because Michael Cohen knows much more about things beyond sex scandals.

Look, I don’t want to speculate on what Michael Cohen could know because I have no idea what he knows. Clearly he has been in the middle. He was a fixer, and Trump ran a business that sometimes had a seedy underbelly. You have to assume that there are things that he knew about. When somebody is describing their job as fixing problems for someone, that usually does not suggest that they’re dealing with their tax returns. Do you know what I mean? There’s a level of vulnerability there.

Well in this case, it could be dealing with tax returns, but yeah.

Fair enough. I knew you were going to say that, by the way. As it was coming out of my mouth, I thought, “I shouldn’t have said that.”

I also think that some of this is about the personal, right? I do think that a) Cohen has insisted that the affair claim was false, and b) he has insisted that just because a story is false doesn’t mean it’s not damaging. I do think he was operating from the perspective that this was harmful to Melania Trump and harmful to the president, then the candidate, and he wanted to try to spare [them]. That’s actually the lens that I look at this from, that Cohen was trying to spare Trump embarrassment and Melania Trump pain, because if we are being honest, most people at that point did not think Trump was going to win in October of 2016, including Trump. That’s always been how I see it.

What percentage of Trump’s time is spent dealing with the Mueller investigation and the Cohen investigation?

I think a fair amount is dealing with both of those. Although it’s hard to crack the window of “executive time,” which is that block of time he has in the morning from about 6 to about 11. He’s constantly working the phones, and I think some of those phone calls, at least they used to be, are with his lawyers. That used to be one of the windows in which he would talk to John Dowd a lot. I think it is still occupying actual functional time, and then there’s just the mindshare it occupies.

You think the mindshare is …

Harder to quantify.

it’s significant though?

Yeah, but I also think that Donald Trump is extremely good at compartmentalizing.

How do you keep straight all the different stories you’re working on? Do you have some method that you’ve used that’s different than when you were doing political reporting in the past, just because it seems like there are so many stories swirling around at all times that you have your fingers in?

No, it’s actually about the same, and it’s a great question. I actually feel like I’m losing track of them a little bit. I have a running conversation with a couple of colleagues. Mike Schmidt’s one of them; some on my White House team are others; Alex Burns on the politics team is another. That just helps me not lose my place, right? We’re just constantly talking about what we’re hearing and where things are.

Trump has been attacking the media by name for a very long time. He did it again today.

Whoa, what?

He threatened to revoke press credentials. He’s gone after you by name. He’s gone after other people by name. Is this something that you’re worried about for the country in terms of free expression and freedom of the press, or is this something that you think is just Trumpian bluster?

I don’t think he’s going to take away credentials. Also, it’s just so stupid. It’s like, first of all, if cameras weren’t allowed into the White House, the person who would be saddest is Donald Trump, No. 1, because there is nothing he loves more than media attention. No. 2, we don’t need credentials to cover him. This is the thing he doesn’t get. When he was a real estate developer, he was great at manipulating gossip-page coverage of himself or even sometimes business-page coverage of himself, but this is government coverage. People don’t need his permission to cover him. That’s not how this works. That’s just a fundamental silliness, and this is not a campaign rally where you’re not letting people in. Even that was so stupid. They kept taking away people’s credentials to go to the campaign rallies. Every campaign rally was livestreamed. In 2018, that’s less of a threat than it would’ve been 10 years ago or 14 years ago.

What does worry me are the Jeff Sessions leak investigations, which he seems to be doing to try to appease a leak-obsessed president who has also been described as the “leaker in chief” by his own staff, so you can do with that what you will. But Obama was not great on this, right? I don’t know why everything has to be “but Obama” or “but Trump.” Obama did not have a good record on actual matters of freedom of the press in terms of leak investigations and in terms of arrests and phone records and so forth. We don’t know what Trump is actually doing. We don’t know what Jeff Sessions is doing yet. We do know that there was a report this week or [last] weekend in the Guardian that Trump allies or members of Trump’s team—I’m not exactly clear who it was—had hired private investigators to dig up “dirt” on top Obama foreign policy advisers who had advised on the Iran deal that Trump wanted to vacate, and to dig up “dirt” on journalists who they thought would be close to those contacts. That’s not freedom of the press. That’s actually really scary.

I went and looked at your Twitter account, as I often do.

That’s such a mistake, but yes, I know you do it.

There are days where you don’t go more than a couple of hours over a 24-hour period without tweeting or retweeting something. How important do you think Twitter is to your job, and how much stress do you think it brings to you as a reporter and to reporters who engage in social media a lot?

I think that Twitter is a useful reporting tool sometimes, but an utterly toxic swamp that nonetheless I engage in more than I probably should. Look, it’s still a great way to promote stories. It’s also a great reporting tool in the sense that I’ll tweet a piece of information, and someone will contact me, and they’ll have more information. In that way, it’s great. But it’s just a time suck. Look, a lot of us need an editor, right? I need an editor. I don’t have an editor on Twitter. I have an editor in the paper, and so I tend to be less precise in 140 characters and sometimes I leave people confused as to my meaning. And then I make the mistake of engaging and trying to explain it, which just leads you down a rabbit hole. Less time spent there is probably better.

Do you find it addictive the way a lot of us do?

I do, but I also find it very stressful, and needlessly so. It’s literally like choosing to go stand on a very crowded subway platform in 90 degree weather. Who would do that?

Well, not me, but I go on Twitter, so maybe I would. You got in some hot water arguing with people on Twitter a couple of weeks ago at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner when Michelle Wolf, a comedian, made some jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders. You tweeted, “That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive,” which was something that other colleagues and people in the media echoed. Wolf said that her jokes were not about Huckabee Sanders’ appearance. They were rather about her penchant for the truth, like making eyeshade out of burnt facts. Why did you feel the need to stick up for Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and do you think Michelle Wolf was being dishonest by saying that?

A couple of things. I wasn’t sticking up for Sarah Sanders. I got lumped in with people who I think were. Andrea Mitchell said that she thought Michelle Wolf should apologize to Sarah Sanders. I don’t think anyone needed to apologize to anyone that weekend. This is my point about imprecision on Twitter. I was attempting to compare her with what the Schlapps had just done, Matt and Mercedes Schlapp. Mercedes is a communications adviser within the White House. Matt is a lobbyist or a consultant or something. They made a big showy display of walking out and then attending afterparties.

Sanders, who does not have a deep history with Washington, who, despite having grown up as the daughter of a governor, does not have a ton of background in this world—I want people to stay and sit and keep engaging. They didn’t, and she did. That was really what I was talking about. You can argue that I should’ve been more precise, and I’ll totally take that. There’s nothing wrong with making fun of how Sarah Sanders does her job. She should be held accountable for how she does her job, and I have been one of the people who holds her accountable for how she does her job.

If you put together the smoky-eye joke, the Aunt Lydia reference to Handmaid’s Tale—she compared Sanders to Aunt Lydia—and the softball-coach joke, and that was really the one that was the most pointed, where she compared Sanders to a softball coach, which in comedy has usually been used to describe a masculine woman. If that’s not talking about her looks, then I guess I’m confused about what a softball coach does that is similar to what Sarah Sanders does every day there. I think that Michelle Wolf was walking that line, and I think that it is never a great thing when women are having their looks made fun of, whether it is Chelsea Clinton or Sarah Sanders or whomever, because, among other things, I don’t like it.

In a case like this, it makes it harder to point to the justifiable criticism of what she does at the podium and other aspects of her job. Again, to be clear, I think I got lumped with a lot of other people. I made the mistake of answering a friend on Twitter who had been popping off. This is the other problem with Twitter. We all sort of forget we’re not in a Slack chat room sometimes. This is a tweet about a line from a comedian, and the amount of backlash seems a wee bit excessive given the relative import.

I think a lot of people felt that many in the media seeming offended by it or being upset about it was a sign either that people wanted to protect a source or just a sign that we’re living in a time where people tend to get offended by the wrong things.

I think they and you are wrong. I think that people have a hard time accepting that. At least in my case, I can’t speak for everybody else who tweeted, but they misread. They misunderstood.

Did it make you feel differently about engaging on Twitter generally?

I always have these experiences periodically about engaging on Twitter. It certainly reminded me that not everybody is acting in good faith and that not all criticisms are on the level. It went to a weird place where there were people like Judd Apatow, whom I really respect, but who was talking about how comedians shouldn’t be silenced. Who is silencing her? She has a Netflix show.

Do you have any sense of whether the president uses Twitter for something besides tweeting, like reading his feed?

He used to be really bad about using it. [The scrolling] was mostly done by Dan Scavino. I think it’s still mostly done by Dan Scavino. But I do think that Trump scans through a little bit more than he used to. He’s still a newspaper-clip person though. He’s not an internet guy.

Do you ever turn your phone off? I heard you say a year ago that you never did.

I do to reboot it. Does that count?

I meant like for sleep, things like that.

I don’t turn it off when I’m asleep. I haven’t slept through the night in years.

Well, on that note, Maggie Haberman is a White House correspondent for the New York Times and an analyst at CNN.

Thank you for having me.