What will the New York Times’s Trumpwatcher-in-chief do now?
Reporter Maggie Haberman has lived in Donald Trump’s head for the past four years
The New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman in New York, November 6th, 2020. “For the last four years, The Times reporter has been the human incarnation of a nation riveted, like it or not, by Donald Trump,” writes New York Times columnist Ben Smith. Photograph: Benjamin Norman/The New York Times
Maggie Haberman lives rent-free in Donald Trump’s head, all over the front page of The New York Times and also in a brick house in an unglamorous Brooklyn neighbourhood out beyond the Citi Bikes and stately brownstones. On election night, as the votes started coming in, she was seated at her dining room table with her husband and one of her three children, drinking from a litre bottle of Foodtown raspberry seltzer, eating leftover Kit Kats from Halloween, typing and texting, and, still, still, working her sources.
“We’ll see what the late exits look like, but that’s not great?” Haberman began on one call around 6:20pm, typing on her laptop as she talked on the big black iPhone held up to her ear. She told another caller, “I have a funny feeling the president’s going to do better than people think.”
That was the beginning of the end of one of the most astonishing runs in the history of American journalism. Haberman has been, for the past four years, the source of a remarkably large share of what we know about Donald Trump and his White House, from the Mueller investigation to his personal battle with the coronavirus to his refusal to accept defeat. She’s done more than a story a day, on average, and stories with her byline have accounted for hundreds of millions of page views this year alone. That’s more than anyone else at The Times.
She has consistently painted a portrait of a man who is both smarter and less competent than his enemies believe, a portrait vindicated again this past week as the president impotently poisoned politics with lies about election results.
She was shocked, but not surprised, when he attacked the election results in a dark Thursday night briefing. But as we sat outside her house waiting for the final call Saturday morning, she told me she believes he “will continue to say the things he’s saying as he walks out the door.”
Politics used to be covered as a kind of a sport, but it doesn’t feel like that anymore. (John King of CNN was jeered for calling vote counting “fun” on election night.) And despite the television glamour and lucrative book contracts that flooded in for reporters in the Trump era, the real work of reporting is painstaking and exhausting: getting people, one by one, to tell you things they should not, and then telling your readers about them.
Haberman was particularly well-suited for this journalistic moment because of her sheer relentlessness and hunger, and her lack of smug self-satisfaction. She seems to need to prove herself every day.
She texts while she drives, talks while she eats, parents while she reports, tweets and regrets it, doomscrolls. She hates Twitter so much she stepped back from the platform in 2018 and wrote an Op-Ed about it, and then started tweeting again. (Relatable!)
For the past four years, she has been the human incarnation of a nation riveted, like it or not, by Trump, a reporter driven by a kind of curiosity that feels more like compulsion to find out what is going on — and has dragged us all along for the harrowing ride.
“She has been the dominant reporter on the Trump White House beat for four years, and it’s not really close,” said Jonathan Swan of Axios, one of her fiercest competitors for breaking news. He described her as “the bane of my existence for the past four years,” adding, “I get high anxiety most days wondering what she will break that I should have had.”
I know the feeling. I learned to report from Maggie — and to fear her — in City Hall in New York, where she was a reporter for The New York Post, and where she first covered Donald Trump. When I arrived in 2001, Haberman cut a striking figure there: She wore a leather jacket and smoked cigarettes on the building’s front steps, chatting with the cops.
But she did her real work in Room 4a, in the basement, where the junior reporters for the tabloids and assorted other misfits like me were relegated, downstairs from the legendary main press room, Room 9.
Room 4a was a cluttered office with mismatched desks and, once, a squirrel. I sat facing her and every morning watched her routine, which was terrifying. First, she picked up the competing newspaper, The Daily News, and leafed through for stories she wished she’d broken, deducing who had been the source of each one. Then, she called the sources — she already knew them well, of course — and chatted in a friendly way, before telling them she felt genuinely betrayed that they hadn’t gone to her, that she was worried she’d be in trouble with her boss for getting beaten and, honestly, that she was incredibly angry at them.
These weren’t the blithe transactions of a slick journalist. This was how you report when you take your sources and your work dead seriously, and make no real distinction between your reporting and the rest of your life. I learned from her never to treat it as a game.
Haberman and I finally got to work together at Politico, where she threw me a byline on a 2011 story about Trump, in which she got at what would become a familiar theme: “The widespread assumption that Trump’s flirtation with the presidency is a publicity stunt is no doubt at least partly true. But that’s merely the point of departure for a man for whom almost every public move over the past 30 years has been a publicity stunt.”
(We remain friends, as well as colleagues. This is another one of these columns where you have every reason to doubt my neutrality.)
She arrived at The Times in February 2015, the sort of midsenior hire who can easily get lost at a big institution, with the nominal mandate of writing a newsletter. She had a scoopy aggression that made her feel a little “scruffy” at the broadsheet. Then, she just started breaking news — of a meeting between Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton, of a big endorsement for Jeb Bush.
Everyone wanted to cover the likely Republican nominee, Bush, and journalists at the time had “this impulse to just not cover” Trump, she recalled, which she thought was a mistake. So she became the Trump reporter more or less by default, and covered both the campaign’s rolling leadership crisis and the candidate’s divisive words.
When Trump stunned the country by winning, The Times’s Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller, invited Haberman and another reporter on the Trump beat, Ashley Parker, to brief the Washington bureau on what was to come.
In a meeting that has become Times lore, they told a room full of seasoned journalists what to expect. “Always assume you’re being recorded, assume anything you put in an email is going to be tweeted about by him or read aloud, that his aides lie to each other,” she recalled saying.
Bumiller and much of her team were skeptical. “I remember thinking that the president-elect she was describing — impulsive, unaware of the workings of government, with no real ideology — was exaggerated, and that the office would change him,” Bumiller said. “I was completely wrong and Maggie was completely right.”
Parker, now a White House reporter for The Washington Post, recalled that “Maggie and I were like aliens from another planet describing this Martian king to the people of The New York Times in a way they could not fathom.”
They didn’t have to wait long for Trump to test the limits of the presidency. In his first month, Trump carried through on his promise to ban immigration from seven Muslim countries, leading to mass protests in the streets and at airports. The Trump era had begun in earnest, though many journalists had to learn and relearn the lessons about covering his presidency.
Haberman topped out at 599 bylines in 2016 — that’s both solo bylines and shared ones — and she also leads The Times this year. She’s often the only one able to reliably confirm facts in Trump’s chaotic and dishonest orbit.
She was also under his skin: He attacked her personally on Twitter and sparred with her in person, but kept giving her interviews until last year. This October 19th he tweeted directly to her about his confidence in winning the election and his “BOFFO” rallies.
As Haberman produced scoop after scoop, she became the centre of intense attention. Much of that has played out on Twitter — which she sees as an “appalling website” that she can’t quit. She feels she’s never quite found her footing there, she said, and “regrets” tweets that she fears cast a shadow on her reporting.
Women in journalism, and high-profile women at The Times, in particular, receive unending abuse on the platform. The worst of it has come courtesy of Trump.
“I don’t think that people fully understand what it’s like when the president of the United States is personally attacking you,” she said, noting that while it’s simply the way Trump works, among his supporters “there are enough people who think that’s real and who don’t get that”.
But other days, the abuse has come from Trump’s critics, who are sometimes simply shooting the messenger. And there have been times, Haberman said, that she just sends an off-key tweet to her 1.5 million followers and tortures herself for it.
“I have never adjusted to the fact that I have so many followers. So I think I continue to treat it as if it’s like a small group of people who I know. And then when I get attacked by people who don’t know me, I have not quite understood why they’re attacking me,” she said. “And I think the biggest mistake I have made on Twitter is fighting with people.”
Her most recent Bad Tweet came on October 14th, when she pasted in a quote from a New York Post article on photos and documents the paper said it had taken from the hard drive of a laptop purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden. She’d intended to raise an eyebrow at the mention of FBI involvement — suggesting they hadn’t found the information serious and, perhaps, a hint as to where Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani got the information.
Democrats interpreted her tweet as simply promoting a story whose origins were shadowy. “MAGA Haberman” trended. She sent a round of frantic texts to friends asking if she’d screwed up, and ultimately deleted the tweet.
Trump’s own Twitter account is mostly hidden behind warnings these days. The president, though, will go. And Haberman is not going to move to Washington to join the new White House team, she said, but instead anticipates covering some blend of the new administration and the enduring Trump orbit from New York.
She hopes that she’ll break more news, and worries that she’ll lose her touch. “I’m dispensable,” she said, an assertion that Times editors would take issue with.
After the election was called late Saturday morning, she drove her children to IT’SUGAR and bought some pockys and the game BeanBoozled, then drove without stopping through Grand Army Plaza so they could look out the window at the celebrations of the Biden victory. Then, she drove home, where she taped a valedictory “Daily” podcast episode and filed yet another article.
“Nothing about any of this is normal, including, like, how much attention is on me,” she told me. “I will not miss that.” – New York Times