Linda Clever: Good evening and welcome. I’m Linda Hass Clever. I’m a volunteer with KALW, the national public radio station, on 91.7 on your FM dial. Cal Performances and KALW are thrilled to welcome you to the first of seven exciting speaker events that are planned for 2019 and 2020. The unrivaled political insight of Maggie Haberman make her one of today’s most influential voices in national affairs journalism. The New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist offers a riveting look into the Trump White House, and into the fast-changing currents of the political waters, as well as the changing perceptions of journalism itself across the country.
She covered City Hall for the New York Daily News, and the 2008 US Presidential campaign, and other races, for the New York Post. She also wrote about national affairs as a senior reporter for Politico. Maggie and her team at the New York Times received the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for their coverage of the Trump administration and alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential campaign. She also won the Aldo Beckman Award from the White House Correspondent’s Association. Maggie’s stories on covering a contentious administration offer a revealing insider’s look at what is sure to be known as our country’s most explosive era of journalism.
I have just a story to tell that happened to today. She gave me permission to say this. I was on the conference call and I said, “I have to end at 4:00.” They said, “Why?” And I said, “Because I’m going to be introducing Maggie Haberman.”
One fellow said, “Wow. I follow her on Twitter. She’s not afraid to say, ‘Trump said this and it’s not true.'” Please join me in welcoming Maggie Haberman. She will welcome your questions afterwards. The dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, Ed Wasserman, will officiate that. Thank you for coming.
Maggie Haberman: Good evening. I hope you can all hear me okay. Thank you for having me. It is really an honor to be here. It’s a wonderful institution, and it’s an honor, always, to talk about why we do what we do, and how we do it, at a moment when democracies are under siege, and the work of journalists is vital. Specifically, I want to talk to you about what it is like, and has been like, being a journalist covering President Trump, how I happened to get where I am and where things might be headed over the next 13 months.
Before I begin, I would be remiss if I didn’t note at the outset the extraordinary moment that the country is in. We are, simply put, in unchartered waters. Two whistleblowers have met with the Inspector General, in relation to President Trump’s phone call with President Zelinsky of Ukraine on July 25th. One of those whistleblowers’ accounts was forced into the public eye after reporting from the Washington Post, which has done excellent work during the Trump presidency, and has been tremendous competition for the Times. It’s the truth.
The lawyers for the two whistleblowers say there are other whistleblowers. They’ve met with multiple, is the word they used this morning. We don’t know more than that, but that means that we are heading into a scenario that we have never seen before, in terms of people talking about the sitting president. The president is handling his own rapid response effort on Twitter, and on the South Lawn of the White House. Support for an impeachment effort has increased among voters, most polls show. Yet anyone who tells you that they know how this is going to end is not telling you the truth. They do not.
But back to why I’m here. I know there is a lot of interest and curiosity about how we do our jobs, in an era where there is unfortunately no longer an agreed upon fact set. I cover the White House primarily from a desk in midtown Manhattan, or from my cell phone while driving my car, as I have since January 2017. It is all a million miles away from where I started in college. Until the Trump presidency, I had a fairly traditional career. I fell into news reporting by accident, however. I never wanted to be a reporter. My father was a journalist, and he had been a foreign correspondent for the Times for 12 years. It did not interest me at all, in part because I saw first-hand how hard it can be on families, which my children would happily tell you if they were here.
Writing did interest me, though. Writing was always what I was interested in, from the time I was a small child. I had studied fiction writing when I was at Sarah Lawrence College, which became an easy joke when I started working at the tabloids. Not a fair one, but an easy one. The closest to news writing that I ever wanted to get at that point was at magazines. Some women’s magazines, some news magazines that I applied to, which preserved some of the original intent of what I wanted to do with my life, but was also a way to earn a living.
It was pretty bracing when I graduated Sarah Lawrence in ’96, and had one interview after another, and couldn’t get a job. I had heard from a family friend about a copy kid opening at the New York Post. Now, the name of the job doesn’t quite get it. It essentially means you’re a clerk, but with the diminishing kid added on, to ensure you don’t get cocky. I started my career there as a clerk, New York Post, August 1996. The job entailed shuffling facts, press releases to the city to desk inbox, sorting mail for reporters, current and former. Jonathan Carl, who’s now of ABC News, had been one of the reporters who had just left and whose mail I used to come upon. It involved running copies of the page proofs of the next day’s paper to various editors.
It also meant, if you wanted to, that once a week you were sent out on assignment as a general assignment reporter. Not all copy kids wanted to. I did want to. Now, I was born and raised in New York City. As a reporter in training for a tabloid, I experienced it in a way that I never had before. I went to the parts of the city I had never see. I talked to people I had never encountered in my daily life. I spoke to a man on a hospital floor in a building I had found an entry to, who had just lost his pregnant wife and one of his children in car accident. I unfortunately reached the roommate of a subway pushing victim before the police did, a not infrequent occurrence when you are working for a tabloid. I delivered the news of her friend’s death to her.
I talked to the wife of a bus driver who had skidded off of a highway on a holiday night during a drive to Atlantic City, leaving several people dead. It was Christmas Eve. On the advice of a skilled general assignment reporter I had worked with, I would scan the eyes of bystanders crowded around a crime scene, looking for the tell-tale signs of a witness to it. At the same time, since the pay as a copy kid was quite small, I was working nights as a bartender. It was, simply put, some of the best training one could ever have for being a journalist, and not for the reasons that you’re going to think.
Your livelihood literally depends on the people you are serving drinks to, who you are talking to, who you are interacting with, and hopefully, acting as a human toward. It taught me about dealing with people. I read somewhere recently, a description of the skill of a bartender as being able to make conversation, and when that runs thin, asking a lot of questions of the person in front of them, just to fill the time. I learned to ask questions, even when it seemed like I had run out of things to ask. I had the luck of getting assigned by the metro editor at the New York Post to work as an intern for Jack Newfield, who was a famous muckraking journalist, whose 10 worst judges list at the Village Voice, set a tone for a type of accountability journalism, holding jurists whose records often escape notice or critical looks to the standards of the bench.
Jack taught me lessons that shaped my career going forward, but to stand out today in the context of my current job. You cannot cover someone or something you hate, although Jack sometimes did. You cannot give in to bullying from the powerful as you pursue a story, which he never did. He taught me the second one after we worked together on a 10 Worst Judges list at the New York Post. He got a call from a district attorney who he knew well. That district attorney was concerned about one of the judges who was on our list of 10 Worst. That judge had been favorable to the DA’s cases over time. The DA wanted to see if that person could be removed from our list.
The DA warned Jack that he would, “lose all access to this office” if he persisted with the reporting. This was a new experience for me, and I was nervous when Jack told me about it. I asked him what we would do, and he said, “Leave the judge in. You can’t give in to that kind of intimidation.”
And we didn’t. The judge stayed on the list. The DA in question cut Jack off for a while, but eventually came back around. It taught me a key lesson: as bad as things seem in the moment, they usually calm down over time. Sources will start talking to you again, even if it takes a while. I became a full-time reporter in 1998, and I was sent to City Hall the next year. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. There were, fortunately, not a number of mes running around. There were a lot of seasoned reporters who I got to watch and learn from.
And learn I did. I tried to outwork my competitors and my own colleagues, responding to calls from sources at all hours of the night. I had a beeper, because this was the pre-cell phone era. I discovered I met with anyone who was willing to get coffee with me. I discovered the almost fanatical devotion that reporters at the tabloids had to their respective papers during one of the great newspaper rivalries of all time, New York City in 1990s.
Rudy Giuliani was the mayor. Some of you might have seen him on TV lately. He would hold three press conferences a day some days. Often confrontational, but never, ever, ever fearful of facing reporters. It was invigorating to cover, and since he was my first experience covering a politician, I did not realize how rare he was. The current mayor of New York, Bill DeBlasio, does not hold three press conferences a day.
The world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. I was in lower Manhattan when the second twin tower collapsed, and I ran up Church Street with a group of people, away from the noise. I turned around, because I couldn’t run anymore, and I watched the second tower sway like this, and then fall straight down. It was the loudest thing I ever heard. I spent the next three years covering rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, which meant tracing a tangle of government agencies, all of which wanted a piece of the land and the process, and none of which wanted responsibility for the disappointment that a group of relatives of those who died were likely to have with whatever redesign plan they chose.
There was an election that year in New York City that turned out completely differently than people had expected. It was the race to replace Rudy Giuliani. At the time, it looked certain to be a Democrat named Mark Green. In New York City, the primary races are generally the real election day, because the registration edge is so outweighed, Democrats to Republicans. Mark Green was leading. September 11th changed the political landscape. Giuliani’s endorsement was suddenly valuable. His popularity had grown enormously after it was quite lower prior to the attacks. Mark Green flailed around, lobbying attacks and insults at Bloomberg, that ended up hurting Green in the process.
Bloomberg won by a relatively small margin, but it was historic for a Republican to win right after another Republican, in a city where the registration, as I said, is overwhelmingly Democratic. It was an important reminder that all the punditing in the world doesn’t necessarily show where voters actually are. I joined Politico in 2010, on the recommendation of an old friend, Ben Smith, who is now at Buzzfeed. I tried to mine the contacts that I had made over a decade covering New York politics to establish myself as a national political reporter. I struggled at it. I had difficulty adjusting my aperture from what made sense in New York to what would be of interest across the country, particularly working for a publication that was focused on the inside political game.
There were some moments of crossover, and they stand out to me now in retrospect. One came in February 2011, when I spoke to a political operative I had known for a long time, named Roger Stone. A man with a frequent air of … Aura of mystery about him. He was a close ally and on and off advisor to Donald Trump. He and I were talking about a potential Donald Trump campaign for president the following year. Now, Trump was seriously considering this at the time. I knew that other Trump advisors, who I had known from New York politics for a long time, were quietly helping Trump look at a campaign. I knew that he had consulted a number of people, including Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster I had known for years, as well as another pollster, John McLaughlin, who I had dealt with in New York.
I knew from other attendees at these meetings that Roger Stone was in them. At my editor’s urging, I did an interview with Stone, where he talked about how Trump would won if he decided to. I would urge you, if you have free time, to Google it on Politico. Basically, everything he said about how Trump would run then held. He went on at length, and the piece ran with a big picture of Roger, front and center. Stone made clear that he was not officially working for Trump, and not speaking for him, but he did describe the contours of a campaign. The next day, I got an email from an assistant to Trump that said Stone wasn’t advising him. Shortly after, I got a phone call from Trump’s assistant, Rona Graff, who could put me through to Trump. Trump got on the phone and said, “Roger Stone doesn’t speak for me.”
It was an early window into the disorienting sensation that has become familiar for journalists seeking to cover reality during the Trump presidency. Based on my interviews with other people, Roger Stone was telling me the truth about what was taking place. Donald Trump was not, yet Trump was asking me to believe what he said instead of what I knew from my own work. Trump, of course, did not run that year. During sweeps week for The Apprentice, he announced that he would not begin a real campaign, which I am sure was a coincidence in timing. Four years later, I got a call from an aide to Trump, a young man named Sam Nunberg. You might also have seen him on TV periodically. By then, I was at the Times, the paper that Trump had always felt never gave him his due, but whose approval he had sought for years.
Sam told me that Trump was going to declare on June 16th of that year and they wanted me to break the news. No, I said in response. When Sam balked, I explained that I was going to write a word about Trump until he actually ran because of all of the shenanigans in 2011 with considering, not running, stoking birtherism, and then dropping out of the race. When Trump, I should note, stoked the birther conspiracies in 2011, he rose in the polls and I think he learned something from that.
In hindsight, not writing about him declaring his candidacy might not have been the best call, but it was defendable. Trump had considered running in 2011, and 2000, and in the late 1980s, and he declined to actually declare a candidacy all three times. However, on this occasion, my gut was not particularly instructive or helpful, because Trump obviously did run. He capitalized on endless airtime from cable networks, who outdid one another to get him on their air. If one network wouldn’t take him for a phone interview, he would find another that would, ensuring the one that rejected him would not do so again in the future. That was a trick that he had used at the New York tabloids for decades.
In New York City, during that period, the view of Trump was as a tabloid sensation and gossip page fixture, a real estate developer with a flair for self-promotion, who had been through casino bankruptcies and two divorces, the details of which, in one case, he personally leaked to the tabloids himself. Outside of the five boroughs, I learned, and I learned slowly, the view of Trump was based not on our reporting and not on New York, but on his decade plus on the series, The Apprentice.
Visiting Iowa to cover Trump rallies, I was told by voters that they planned to caucus for him. He was a self-made man, a successful business leader, an innovator, they said. Roger Stone, the long-time Trump advisor, had once warned me that the line between news and entertainment was not clear for people outside of this business, and he was exactly right. Those trips to Iowa were first-hand evidence of that. No matter how many times we included the context of Trump’s actual business background and stories, it did not penetrate the already formed opinions that many, many, many voters had of watching him sitting in the high-backed leather on his show.
Donald Trump’s relationship with the truth was notoriously elastic when he was a real-estate developer and reality TV star in New York City. We all wrote stories about him doing things, like claiming his wealth was bigger than it is, or saying that he lives on the 66th floor of his high-rise, when actually the number is lower than that, but he liked the way 66th sounded. In November 2015, whose rhetoric about Muslims and terrorism was a staple of his speeches during the campaign, gave an open-ended answer to a question for a reporter from Yahoo during a wide-ranging interview. The question, which was not the most responsible question, because this was not something anyone was talking about at the time, was whether Trump would be willing to come up with anti-terror methods like, say, putting in place a registry of Muslims in the United States.
Trump replied the government was going to be “looking at a lot of things.” He left it open. I thought at the time that it was an important moment from the Republican candidate who was leading in the polls, and who had gotten there by saying any number of incendiary things. I pushed for us to do a story. I called Trump and told him that I wanted to try to understand what he was trying to say, to give him the chance to clarify, say what he meant or didn’t mean. He would only speak to me off the record, a request I honored, but which he broke the ground rules of the next day at a rally, by telling people that he had spoken to me from the stage, thus lifting me from any off the record obligation. He said in that phone call that he of course hadn’t been saying he wanted a registry. I asked him why he didn’t just clear it up? He said he was about to speak in an event in South Carolina, and to watch for what he said there.
I watched. He didn’t raise the subject and he wasn’t asked about it. I texted an aide to the candidate and asked to please talk to him again. I was told he was done speaking for the day. I wrote the story based off his public language, as he had left me no choice. I made an imprecise word choice in the story. I wrote in the lead that Trump had made “calls for such a registry” as opposed to being “open to such a registry.” It’s not a meaningful distinction, but Trump and his critics found the opening that I had given them, and they seized on it. The next day, I found myself in the middle of an online swarm. Breitbart, the website that moved far from the mission its original founder had for it during the course of the last several years, wrote up a piece attacking me as an agent of Hillary Clinton. Trump tweeted link to the piece and thanked Breitbart, saying it was “so nice when media properly polices media.”
My Twitter mentions were suddenly a cesspool. Trump’s campaign ads tweeted the Breitbart story themselves. Later that day, Trump attacked me, not by name, during his rally, the one where he mentioned that he had “talked to the reporter who wrote the story.” On Twitter, where Washington journalists, including myself, spend perhaps too much of our time, several reporters strained to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. He was a first-time candidate and maybe hadn’t realized what he was walking into, they theorized. He might not have understood the question. He would no doubt clear it up in his next interview. He did not. His next interview was the following morning with George Stephanopolous, and he kept it as muddy as it had been before.
It became clear to people over time that approach was a feature and not a bug for how Trump handles controversy. Leave things muddy, never apologize, never walk things back, never admit an error, and almost always punch harder when criticized. I continued monitoring every Trump rally and every interview, my internal radar blipping anytime he said something new or contradicted himself. Sometimes that took place in the same sentence, and still does. When Trump had moved on to other targets in controversies, his fans remained behind, still poking at whatever had triggered him, and that is obviously still true today.
Months later, Trump won the nomination and then the presidency. You are all familiar with that year, and you do not need a rehash tonight. I did remind me of moments during the final stages of the Bloomberg mayoral campaign in 2001, when public and internal polling indicated that he had momentum in a race that had been reshaped by outside factors, but people still didn’t believe it until election night. In 2016, throughout the year, I told colleagues at various points that I thought Trump had a shot at winning. Clinton’s numbers with white working class voters in 2016 foreshadowed problems
The conventional wisdom insisted that Trump was dead after the Access Hollywood tape was revealed on October 7th, 2016. The fact that two Republicans, who withdrew their support for him, were booed by their own voters suggested to me that people were misreading things. I would suggest to all of you watching this impeachment inquiry play out, think of how he reacted that weekend. Think of what he did that weekend, which was invite Hillary Clinton’s … Excuse me, Bill Clinton’s accusers of sexual misconduct to the debate in St. Louis two days later, and made Hillary Clinton walk in front of them. It was the most brutal thing I had ever seen anybody do in politics, and it is what he does when feels like he is wounded.
I stayed on as a White House reporter, covering Trump after he won, traveling to Washington, on average, once a week. Most of my work is still done from my home state of New York, where Trump Tower is still based, and where a number of people from the Trump era still spend time. The president, however, has not changed most of his behaviors. He obviously still incites the swarms to attack reporters he doesn’t like over stories he doesn’t like with regularity. No president has ever liked their coverage, that I’m aware of, but Trump frequently denounces us as “enemies of the people,” setting him apart from a long-standing tradition of presidents who recognize the constitutionally protected role of a freed press in the US.” This is language that has emboldened and enabled despots and dictators elsewhere in the world.
What Trump does with that language, which comes with a real degree of danger, in part for the obvious, but in part because his fans don’t realize that some of this is a game for him, and how much he truly has fed off of and enjoys the mainstream media attention. He still brags to his friends that he’s on the front page of the Times more now than he ever was before he was elected. They have told me they detect a note of pride in his voice. Not everything that Trump is doing is new or something unseen before in US presidential politics, including his attempts to influence how the press does its job. Reporters cannot lose sight of that. He is extreme, but aspects of what he does are not unique.
This president has thrown accelerant on the era of partisan polarization, for instance, but he by no means created it. The 1990s were a singular moment in the partisan shift, during an era where Bill Clinton was president and Newt Gingrich was the Speaker of the House. After that, there was an impeachment fight, a presidential election where the outcome went to the Supreme Court, a terrorist attack that killed more than 3000 people in Lower Manhattan, Pennsylvania, and Washington, two Middle East wars, and the Great Recession. These are seismic events in the life of a nation. We did not arrive in this moment of history out of nowhere.
The amount of noise that reporters are dealing with, and that readers are consuming, is at an all-time high. The lack of actual basis in fact increasingly matters very little for members of political tribes, who adhere to a norm that their leaders set, regardless of evidence that contradicts it. People use that noise to try to fit journalists into a box, particularly in the echo chamber of Twitter and partisan websites. They also try to make us into a story, something journalists should try to avoid, she says, as she stands here telling you her life story. It is our job not to take the bait. Some days that is harder than others.
People are getting increasingly deeply personal, will often use whatever information they have to get a rise out of us. It can get extremely uncomfortable, but we cannot let it get in our head. I had an editor at the New York Post who once cautioned me not to listen to complaints beyond making sure that you had heard someone’s argument, to not get too immersed in their noise. Quote, “Their problems are not our problems,” he told me. I say that to myself over and over these days.
One of the facts of this era that has come into stark relief in the first couple of years of the Trump administration is the limits of institutions in this country. There is one entity whose mission is to serve as a check on executive power, and that is Congress. The GOP Congress generally chose not to play that role for Trump, whose actions in office, had they been committed by a president by the opposite party, would have prompted rounds of hearings, hearings the White House has repeatedly tried to deny committees access to witnesses for. The White House has come to believe, now that Democrats have taken over the House, that there are few consequences from keeping witnesses from testifying. In the court of public opinion, there’s been minimal outrage about it. No sergeant at arms has come to arrest any member of the administration. In terms of legal exposure, by criminal referrals, DOJ is very unlikely to do anything.
A Democratic strategist I know said to me the day after Trump was elected that the nation is about to discover how much of its system is based on norms, not laws. And, he was right. Presidents sharing their tax returns over several decades was a norm, but not a law. Presidents divesting from personal business was a norm, but not a law. A press secretary holding a White House press briefing in the Press Briefing room was a norm, but far from a law, and so forth. We are seeing those limits play out in a number of ways. In the last year, crucial issue of the first two years in office, the probe by the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, concluded with a report to Congress and Mueller’s own testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.
How that testimony figures into House efforts to serve as a check on executive power still remains to be seen, as this impeachment inquiry goes forward. In the last several weeks, you’ve seen a massive shift since the Ukrainian call was revealed. You have seen Democrats who are very concerned about impeachment swing toward it. There remains, however, concern among Democratic leaders about the impact that impeachment will have for Democrats in swing districts. In the meantime, the massive Democratic presidential primary field has shrunk somewhat, and it’s facing a crucial test period this fall.
Right now, that race has generally featured three contenders at the top: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. That order has remained unchanged, even in the last few days. They are all figuring out how to run against a president unlike any in modern history, who is approaching his re-election campaign as a take no prisoners fight, and who seems likely to grind through an impeachment vote the way he has grinded through almost everything else he’s faced.
For reporters, as the White House tries to make us into the opposition party, it is imperative for us not to allow that mindset to take hold, because we are not. But we are also not the property of the president’s opponents or critics. We are not prosecutors who have the ability to subpoena or bring charges. What has made this moment in time particularly distortive, is that partisan debates are no longer about opinions, but as I said earlier, facts themselves. We are facing instances of distorted or fabricated documents that are blended in with authentic ones. It is vital for us to take the time to determine what is real and what is not, even if it means we lose scoop or a story. No one will remember who got certain stories right, but they certainly remember who got them wrong.
I want to talk a bit about Trump, personally. I’ve seen reporters say that his Twitter feed is a real-time window into his thinking. Sometimes, that is true. The tweets that say treason, those are usually how he’s feeling in those moments. Other times, the tweets are very canned. They are workshopped among staff and then posted by his digital director, Dan Scavino. I’ll give you an example. My colleague, Peter Baker, and I had an interview with the president in the Oval Office in January. It was around the time the president was upset because his intelligence chiefs had offered testimony before Congress that was at odds with things the president himself had said. He told us that his top intelligence officials had told him that their words were taken out of context. If you watch the testimony, it’s clear they were not.
While we were in there with him, in the Oval Office, he had an aide walk in pieces of paper that were blown up versions of the president’s tweets that had just gone out a few minutes earlier. I laughed when we were handed the sheets of paper with the tweets, showing a picture of the president and his intelligence chiefs, which was intended to show that they had a good relationship. They were sent as, literally, he was sitting there with us. This was someone else pulling the strings. The issue is clearly bothering him, it clearly was on his mind, but the whole thing was an important reminder that the Twitter persona that the president has is sometimes just that, a persona.
That’s what can be striking to people when they meet him, because he comes off different than the version that’s been described in the press, or that they see with the all caps tweets. He does have a temper. He yells. He gets very angry and vents, as almost every staffer who’s ever worked for him will tell you. And then, he moves on very fast. It’s like watching Miami weather blow in and then blow out very quickly. Sometimes coverage of him makes it sound as if he’s in a perpetual state of rage, and that might be partially true right now with what’s happening with impeachment, but it usually is not so. That has worked to his benefit, when an exaggerated version of reality is presented.
As I said earlier, Donald Trump has a famously casual relationship with the truth. He had never run for office before. He ran for president, and he won his first time out of the gate. He often refers back to that, and I understand why. To explain why he doesn’t listen to experts on certain issues. After all, experts warned him he couldn’t get elected and he did. But an expertise on certain issues is important. Instincts cannot govern all situations for a president. His inexperience with government means he doesn’t always understand the implications of his comments or his actions, and has not shown much interest in learning about them. He is over 70 years old and he is not prone to change, and he tends to try to please whatever crowd he is in front of, saying what they need to hear. That often makes it very hard for people to pin him down.
On the other hand, sometimes he says things that are in keeping with the very few longstanding impulses he has had over time, mostly on trade and immigration. On trade policy in the coming months, there’s the open question as to whether the reworked version of NAFTA will get through a Congress that is investigating this president. I think the president is going to continue bringing it up and talking about it, and trying to push for it. On the other hand, in general, I have found that over time, Donald Trump will say whatever he has to say to get through small increments of time. It is not strategic, it is not about a long-term goal, policy or otherwise. His refusal to be shamed has turned into one of his core political assets.
He is now known as a president with a track record, and that would have changed the political landscape dramatically for him going forward, even without the impeachment inquiry. He has a base of support that will clearly never leave him, and we have seen that play out over and over. But they are not a majority of the country, or even close to it. It’s worth remembering that President Trump was elected thanks to electoral college wins in a handful of states, where there were two third-party candidates on the ballot. And yet, as strange as it may sound, I would not pretend to know how this election is going to turn out. I would not pretend to know what things are going to look like four months from now. Unless something dramatic happens, Republicans in Congress have indicated, with the exception of a few cracks from Mitt Romney and maybe one or two other people, Susan Collins, they are standing with the president. They are telling a version of reality about this Ukraine call that does not comport with facts.
On the Sunday news shows this morning, there was an abundant display of those kinds of comments. These Republicans are not going to vote to remove him, unless their voters start changing their views in all of their polling. We are facing a scenario where a president who has been impeached in the House, and acquitted in the Senate, both of which seem likely right now, stays and runs for re-election. And as strange as it may sound, despite all of that, I would not count him out for re-election. How things look now may not be how they look in a year, 10 months, nine months. All we can be sure of is that 2020 is going to make the nastiness of 2016 look like high-minded debate of ideas. With that, on that happy note, I would be happy to take any questions that you have.
Ed Wasserman: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Ed Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism here at UC Berkeley, and it’s my pleasure to welcome Maggie, and to congratulate her on a lucid and enlightening talk. I have a bunch of your questions that I have … That people here have collected, and my job is to confront you with them. I’ll put you on the other side of that.
Maggie Haberman: Okay.
Ed Wasserman: I have one question of my own, and it’s the question that I think that some of us, many of us, would like to know. That is, how worried should we be?
Maggie Haberman: About what?
Ed Wasserman: About the White House. It isn’t so much about the content of policy. It’s the volatility, it’s the unpredictability, it’s the sense that governance is unward, that every time there seems to be a grown-up wielding influence, he or she is chased out of office. There’s a … One of the areas of confidence that has vanished is confidence in the overall stability and a bottom-line wisdom of direction of the country, and worries us, worries many of us. I just wonder what it looks like to you?
Maggie Haberman: I think it looks much as you just described, but without weighing in on the emotion of it, but he governs by chaos. He ran his business with chaos as the main component. We have seen the ghost in the machines of government keep running things for quite some time. I think the concern for any number of people is, does that start to give way to something that is not sustainable? We just don’t know. He is … The one thing that I have observed with him over time, is that when he is feeling wounded, he will act more erratic and he will lash out. And so, given … I think you … For those of you who follow him on Twitter, the last week shouldn’t be a surprise to that extent.
Decisions are being made with very little process. What policy-making process … There never really was a real process put in place, to be clear. It has never functioned the way a typical White House has. But what existed before and what Preibus tried … The former first Chief of Staff tried, to some extent, to get in place, and John Kelly, the second Chief of Staff had more success at … Mick Mulvaney, as the current acting White House Chief of Staff, has done very little to keep up with, which is policies and process. This is a very whimsical presidency. Now, what the consequences are of that, I don’t know. It’s not anything predictable, and therefore, a certain number of different types of outcomes could take place.
Ed Wasserman: Are there moments when he’s done things that struck you as surprisingly wise and far-sighted?
Maggie Haberman: I think that he has actually … One example I would give is engagement in the Middle East, where he really doesn’t agree, historically, with these long-term military engagements. He has not rushed to do a troop withdrawal, despite advertising that he was going to a bunch of times. He hasn’t, and I think he has tended to listen to, as he would call them, his generals, more than people realize. I think that there are areas of government where he has made more cautious and careful choices. I think it’s more on the issues like immigration, where he has thrown out orders to close the border, or something like that. Obviously, that can’t be done, but I think he’s tried to test what government can do more in those scenarios.
Ed Wasserman: I want to thank the people here for these questions. There are some very insightful questions, and somewhat provocative ones. Here’s one. What is one thing people should understand about Trump that few do?
Maggie Haberman: He’s not stupid. One of the caricatures of him is that he is. He is decidedly not stupid. He doesn’t read briefing books. I don’t think I could point to the last book he did read, but he is not dumb. That’s an area where people underestimate him a lot.
Ed Wasserman: A similar question is, are there things that you are reporting about Trump, that you and your colleagues are reporting, that don’t seem to be getting through? That don’t seem … There must be a measure of frustration. The White House is covered, in my judgment, pretty well.
Maggie Haberman: Yeah, I think so. By everybody. I think universally. I think across the board, all the newspapers and most of the networks are doing very good coverage.
Ed Wasserman: Certainly the tradition of White House journalism is somewhat mixed in that. Access is a big issue, and you don’t want to soil the place where you sleep, and you have to see these people every day. There’s always been a sense that there’s some limits to the palace coverage. Certainly within that tradition, this has been an unusually, I think, aggressive White House coverage, and yet …
Maggie Haberman: I agree.
Ed Wasserman: You’re still facing this kind of implacable and unmovable base of support and solid political constituency that doesn’t seem to be listening. How do you factor that into your own work? How do you …
Maggie Haberman: I don’t.
Ed Wasserman: Think about your readers?
Maggie Haberman: I don’t think our goal is to sway Donald Trump’s voters to be against him, and I think that’s what that question always assumes that we should be doing. I think that … One of the things he does that is sinister is he knows that there’s an enormous amount of distrust in the media that existed long before he got here. He exploits that and he tries to pour gas on it, and make it worse. If our job is to lay out the facts, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. I don’t think that … I think when people talk about their frustrations … I was having this conversation with a friend today, who lives near her, that when people express frustration with the reporting, it’s because they don’t think, generally speaking … And sometimes it’s not because of this, but often, it’s been because they feel like the reporting isn’t moving people away from Trump. That’s not our job.
Ed Wasserman: But you would think that, at a certain point, the overall weight of what you’re reporting would cause a reasonable person to have some doubts.
Maggie Haberman: Well, I think that … I think the people who are … I think that the people who are with him, generally speaking … Or, A, I think the news consumption among voters is very different than it used to be, and it’s very, very agated. People tend to be devoted to their one source of news, and that’s it now. It’s not three networks, or five networks, or what have you, and people reading two papers. I think that for most of his voters, as I mentioned in my talk, I would not underestimate the degree to which the view of him from The Apprentice has just completely taken hold in peoples’ minds. When we write reality, the reality television version is what they hear, and stays with them, and they think that what we’re writing can’t be true.
Ed Wasserman: One of our audience members has asked a question about reporting unprovable lies, and whether we serve the public well by doing that? I guess this is a larger question that comes up in class, when you’re training journalists. What do you do about spreading falsity in order to debunk it?
Maggie Haberman: That’s a good question.
Ed Wasserman: And have you … On balance, are you doing the public any favor, because there are a certain number of people who hear the lie, will believe the lie regardless of the evidence you present against it. Is there a point at which you’re being played by continuing to trumpet what are falsities, numbers of people trying to get into the country, and their character, their criminal records, all of this kind of thing. And somebody to say … And then enabling somebody to come up and say, “Well, that’s not true.”
What do you do? You must have conversations about what to do about, here he goes again. Do we go ahead and report this, knowing that we’re getting greater currency in the thing that are false.
Maggie Haberman: A couple of things. We have this conversation all the time, and it’s an important one. I think, during the campaign, we and others did a disservice because we were doing too much just repeating what he was saying, as opposed to making clear that it wasn’t true. I think that has shifted, but what it means is that the headlines and leads of stories now lead in ways they never would have, even a few years ago. It’s the president falsely said XYZ, which is not true. It’s packing a lot of information into the lead.
He also says so many things that aren’t true, that at a certain point, you have to choose which ones you’re covering. Which ones have actual consequence versus claiming that The Apprentice was the top-rated show on NBC, which it wasn’t, which is something that he says all the time, but not something that I consider to be vital to the national interest to explain. I think we end up in that scenario. I think the other thing just relates a little bit to your first question, your earlier question. One of the things that I have encountered is, I will talk to readers in other states, who will say, “You guys focus so much on lying, and things like that.”
I’ll say, “Yes, because he’s saying something that isn’t true.”
They’ll say, “But all politicians lie.” The degree to which people don’t totally understand that what he is doing is just fundamentally different than what we have seen other politicians do, that is something that I think we all need to be better about presenting, but I don’t know the answer to that.
Ed Wasserman: What distinguishes …
Maggie Haberman: What distinguishes him, and the volume from previous politicians.
Ed Wasserman: I have a question. There’s a question here about president and racism. This is a major issue among my students. They are very mindful of the fact that the race … The climate of race relations in this country is one of the things that has demonstrably and fundamentally worsened under the Trump presidency. He is repeatedly fueling this, in ways subtle and not so subtle. He gets called out on it somewhat. It generally tended to be off news pieces, analysis pieces, that are calling attention to an accumulation of comments that he’s made. There is a central messaging that is going on here that is extremely, I think in my view, and the view of many people, extremely harmful. I don’t know that you and your colleagues in the White House have given it the kind of prominence that it has for a good many people in this country. I’m just wondering … I’m sort of teeing it up without a specific question, but I want to put it out there, because I think it’s a good one.
Maggie Haberman: I think it’s a fair question, and I don’t have a great answer for it. I think that if you … Certainly the earliest coverage that I did of him on the campaign was about this very issue. It was about his comments on race, it was about the demagoguery. I did piece with a colleague, who is now one of my editors, Pat Healy, in I think either October or November of 2015. It was about a week of … We analyzed every word he said that week, and we looked for repetition. One of the themes of repetition was on race. That has remained, whether it’s language is coded or not, in his case.
Maggie Haberman: I think this is where being president … I’m going to say shields him, which isn’t quite the word that I mean, but it means that there are so many other things to focus on, that this doesn’t quite get the attention that it should, probably. I think it’s a very fair point.
Ed Wasserman: As somebody who’s watched Trump’s career over a number of years, is this kind of racism something he learned as president, or was it simmering all along? Wasn’t he a New York liberal once upon a time?
Maggie Haberman: He was never a New York liberal. He was … What he was, he was somebody in the New York social scene, which is a little bit different. He would do things like go to Studio 54 in the 70s. He grew up in the outer boroughs, which was … In the outer boroughs, in Queens, in middle upper class Queens, which was a very different section of the world than say, the Bronx, or Harlem, or parts of Brooklyn. He is … One of his early claims to fame in New York was taking out an ad about the Central Park Five, the five men of color who were accused of raping and beating a jogger in Central Park in an incident that was described as a wilding event.
Maggie Haberman: The headline was, bring back the death penalty. He paid money to run this ad. It was all playing on fears of these five men of color. Those five men, who have been exonerated since, certainly remember it. So, I don’t think any of this is new to him. Remember, one of his earliest interactions with the government was being accused of a racist housing policy, when he and his father were landlords in New York City, and taking government grants. I don’t … You can look really hard and try to find ways in which Donald Trump is some different person. He’s not, really. This is who he has always been.
Ed Wasserman: One of things that has become much more acute during his presidency was Me Too movement.
Maggie Haberman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ed Wasserman: His predation, the evidence of his predation from before, of the Dateline Hollywood tapes, the payoffs, the porn star, that kind of has accumulated at a time when this other movement was gaining a tremendous amount of traction. I’m curious, looking into the 2020 campaign, whether his past, his, shall we call it, predatory past, predatory present, whether that … If you expect that to have a larger role in the campaign, to be more of an issue than it was first time around?
Maggie Haberman: I don’t know the answer to that. The Me Too movement grew in part, or really, I think hit its peak, in part out of a backlash to his election. I think that women were … Women who were upset about the accusations that had made against him, and the fact that there didn’t seem to be consequences for them since he got elected, I think that helped fuel the anger and the bravery that we saw from women who, for instance, came forward about Harvey Weinstein, and other instances involving other well-known men.
I don’t know that it’s going to play more of a role than it did in, say, 2018, which was helping motivate a lot of women to the polls. I think unless there are new allegations made against him, I don’t anticipate it’s going to be central.
Ed Wasserman: It certainly doesn’t seem to be coming up to strengthen the argument for Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy.
Maggie Haberman: The Me Too movement?
Ed Wasserman: Yeah. I’m just wondering how that is playing out, politically?
Maggie Haberman: I don’t think that … I mean, I think that … I think that … I think Elizabeth Warren is running on a very specific set of policy ideals, and I think she’s not running on a particularly … A campaign that’s focused on gender, and to talk about Me Too, I think, conclusively that way, it helps describe it that way.
Ed Wasserman: I’m curious why Trump is expending so much energy on Biden. He’s using a tremendous amount of capital. He’s taking tremendous number of risks. He’s pushing hard … Long and hard on this. Is it because they really are fearful that Biden is a potent opponent? What’s behind this interview?
Maggie Haberman: No, it’s just … I mean, I think it’s a couple of things. I think that it started out because some of his advisors thought … This is months ago, thought Biden was the strongest candidate against him. Trump was actually convinced that he should be taking him on personally, which almost none of his advisors agreed with, because he wanted to do it, and because he felt that Biden was the one who he could make into a new version of Hillary Clinton. That’s what he kept saying to people. He’s Hillary as a man, is what he kept saying.
Because he could paint him as a swamp creature, or in sort of a crazy … You know, he himself could run an outsider-insider race better against Biden than against someone like Warren, who has the same message Trump had in 2016, which is the system is rigged. Now, it’s just basically he just can’t stop punching at him, for a variety of factors, but one of which is to keep this Ukraine issue, and everything was fixed in 2016, and my enemies are all against me, alive. His campaign is running a million dollars worth of ads against Biden in four early states, which is a little head-scratching, because as one person close to the campaign said to me, “Biden is probably our weakest opponent right now. He’s the one we would rather have at this point.”
There’s not always a ton of strategy that goes into this stuff that they do from the campaign. A lot of it is how Donald Trump wakes up feeling each day.
Ed Wasserman: I have a question here about Vice President Pence. We don’t see anything much about him. He’s the gray imminence. He’s lurking around. He’s obviously a potential beneficiary of successful anti-Trump moves in Capitol Hill. Is he taken seriously? Is he going to succeed Trump, one way or the other? Is he a policy force? Do you ever see him?
Maggie Haberman: I don’t know whether he’s going to succeed Trump, one way or the other. He is a policy force, in the sense that he’s been a big proponent of, say, selling the USMCA, the reworked version of NAFTA. He serves as something of a liaison for the president on Capitol Hill. He does a lot of things that are below the radar, and they’re primarily below the radar because nobody wants to put their head up too high around Donald Trump, because it gets cut off.
I think he’s … And because, look, Mike Pence owes his political future, and certainly his political presence, to Donald Trump. He was on his way to a potential defeat in the Indiana governor’s re-election race, and Trump picked him as his VP nominee.
Ed Wasserman: Right.
Maggie Haberman: If Mike Pence actually has a shot of his own at the presidency, which he’s long wanted, it will be because he has cleaved Donald Trump very aggressively. Now, all that said, let’s just hypothesize that there’s world where Donald Trump wins re-election. It’s not clear to me that Pence would be the heir apparent either way. It’s not clear to me that Trump is going to try to crown anyone, regardless. I think Pence is basically making the most of what he can of what he’s got. Right now, I think he’s swept up a bit too much for his own comfort in this Ukraine call mess. I’m not sure how that’s going to shake out yet.
Ed Wasserman: Could you imagine a scenario under which Trump would resign?
Maggie Haberman: I can imagine any scenario. Right? I can fantasy-land almost anything here, but … It’s hard for me to see right now. Very hard.
Ed Wasserman: I have a question from the Sacramento Bee statehouse reporter on advice for young political journalists who are female.
Maggie Haberman: That’s an excellent question. Stay off Twitter is my universal … Just because you just end up saying things that you might regret saying. No, I mean, I think it’s the same as it is … As it would be for anybody covering the White House. I tend to treat White House coverage the same way that I treated covering the city council when I was in New York. The legislature is just a larger city council. Get to know members, figure out what the factions are. It’s much harder, I think, in statehouses now than it certainly was when I was coming up 20 years ago. My advice is generally the same, whether the reporter is a man or a woman, which is just outwork everybody else. That’s usually the best way to do it.
Ed Wasserman: I’m sort of curious, the Times, although it gets bashed for being liberal, and it is liberal, tries to play it pretty straight in coverage of major institutions. I wonder, when you’re at a dinner party with friends, are you … I suppose, do you allow yourself free reign to opinions? Do you vent and express opinions, or do you try to restrain even the formation of opinions?
Maggie Haberman: No. I’m the same way at a dinner party that I am here with you right now. If you feel that that’s forming or not forming an opinion, that’s how I am.
Ed Wasserman: And you were going to be writing a book, and then changed your mind?
Maggie Haberman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ed Wasserman: Did that have something with it impeding your coverage, you felt?
Maggie Haberman: The project was changed after my co-author was no longer going to be on it. After that, I decided that I didn’t want to go ahead with it, for a variety of reasons, but frankly, I’m so happy that I’m not writing a book right now, because I don’t … It’s hard to keep rewriting the ending, right? Also, it just takes up too much mind share. I think it’s really hard to write a book on this White House, because it does change the way people talk to you, if they think that you’re hoarding something for a book, or not. I’m very content and have my plate full.
Ed Wasserman: We have time, I think, for one more question. This is an interesting one. What’s the one question you would like audiences to ask you, but they never do?
Maggie Haberman: Oh, God.
Ed Wasserman: Is there something there that you are surprised people are not more curious about?
Maggie Haberman: I’m thinking. I’m surprised people don’t ask me why I use Twitter so often. That’s the one thing that I’m surprised by, honestly, because I condemn it so often. I’m surprised more people don’t ask me, “Then why don’t you just get off of it for good?”
Ed Wasserman: When you tweet, you’re not edited, right? Nobody in the … You’re just out there.
Maggie Haberman: I’m just winging it.
Ed Wasserman: You’re flying solo.
Maggie Haberman: Yeah.
Ed Wasserman: Here, you have a tightly-controlled, editorially-disciplined news organization that you write for, and if they unleash you for far more powerful channels of communication, just say whatever you like.
Maggie Haberman: If they hear that you’re saying this, my Twitter account is going to be locked up tomorrow. No, I’m just kidding. No, look, they have social media guidelines, and I really do try not to go outside of them. One of the problems with Twitter is that … For reporters, is that sometimes we all tend to forget that we’re not in some Slack chat, or sitting in the press room, talking to each other. The jokes that we would make to each other don’t … We’re making in front of … You’re in public, everyone can see you, and they don’t always play particularly well.
Ed Wasserman: Well, Maggie Haberman, thank you very much for being with us.
Maggie Haberman: Thank you so much.
Ed Wasserman: Thank you for your questions.
Maggie Haberman: Thank you very much. Thank you. Oh my goodness. Thank you so much.