A lawyer who represents himself may have a fool for a client — but a PR man who represents himself just became president of the United States, and he’s nobody’s fool.
You can’t understand Donald Trump without comprehending just how much of his shtick – all those self-promoting, make-up-your-own-facts, confrontational go-to moves – emanated from the froth of 1980s and 1990s tabloid New York City. Trump may have added to his family’s already considerable fortune through real estate, reality TV and branding. But his basic job all these years – especially 2016 – has been selling himself, and selling himself hardest to the city’s daily newspapers, especially the New York Post, which is basically a dead-tree Trump.
It’s no coincidence that one the best reporters covering the president-elect this cycle happens to be the one who best understands the tabloid-Trump nexus: Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, who spent much of her career working at the city tabs as they chronicled every doing of the man then known as “The Donald” with the constancy (and reportorial grace) of the daily horoscope.
“It was all about the proximity and the familiarity with him,” said Haberman, my former POLITICO colleague and (in full disclosure) one of my closest friends.
“I first started getting to know Trump when I was at The Post and he would call into Page Six with regularity,” added Haberman during this week’s episode of the Off Message podcast, referring to the Post’s revered gossip page.
“He was tabloid gold. I mean, people loved to read about him,” Haberman said, noting that among the reasons legendary tabloid columnist and former editor Pete Hamill didn’t last as editor-in-chief of the Daily News, the Post’s bitter rival, “was he didn’t want to print Trump stories in the 90s.”
And that’s the key to understanding his seemingly schizoid, love-loathe relationship with the press, she says: Trump intuitively understands that the way to ensure he gets good coverage is to pit reporters and editors from jockeying media outlets against one another.
“He recognized that he was a commodity and that he could get two people — two outlets – to fight over the commodity,” Haberman told me. “So you leak one thing to The Post and then you get the Daily News to be upset.”
Haberman saw the same pattern during the 2016 campaign, when Trump would pit TV outlets against one another — giving him leverage to, for instance, create a new precedent by calling in to the Sunday shows rather than showing up in person.
“‘You’re not going to agree to the terms that I want, George Stephanopoulos?’” she said, channeling Trump. “OK, then Chuck Todd will take me by phone and, you know, I don’t even need to come in.”
Huberman’s connections to Trump’s world, and the hyper-competitive New York media universe, are deep and linear. Her father, Clyde Haberman – a wise-cracking, bookish and worldly child of the Jewish Bronx – was a longtime Times columnist himself. Her mother, Nancy Haberman, is a former newspaper reporter who went on to have a successful career as one of the city’s most influential public relations executives.
Haberman the Younger got off to an early start. Her first byline came at age 7 when her father, then working for the Daily News, brought her into City Hall to talk to legendary Mayor Ed Koch. The result was a kids-page column and a series of photos of the incipient reporter sitting on Koch’s lap asking him questions.
“I yammered at him for a while, because every picture is just him looking and my mouth is open,” she recalled of the motor-mouthed mayor. “It was no small feat.”
Haberman is a furious multi-tasker known for an uncanny ability to win over sources, even those who are hostile to her or her publication. This owes mostly to a work ethic that can blur the line between extremely diligent and downright obsessive – and during our podcast, conducted in the Brooklyn dining room of a mutual friend – I had to pluck the iPhone out of her hand to keep Haberman from texting with sources while talking. She reacted, more or less, as if I had stolen her wallet: “What are you doing?”
When I asked her how many people she emails, calls or texts a day, she replied: “Fifty.”
This isn’t hyperbole – in fact, I think it’s a lowball.
I asked: What’s it like when you put away the phone, and don’t communicate with sources?
“It’s like — it’s almost discomfort,” she answered, peering unconsciously over at her unmanned iPhone across the table.
Over the years, Trump has often been one of those sources – and, over the years, he subjected her to the same hot-cold mind game he uses to steer coverage (he is, lest the American public forget, a guy who once impersonated his own flack to peddle fawning stories about himself). But the rules changed, and not in a dark and nasty way, in 2016.
Trump’s penchant for personally attacking reporters (particularly women) became a hallmark of his campaign, and he’s been especially pointed in his criticism of Haberman – who has broken a succession of stories detailing his chaotic management style, mood swings and quest for personal validation through politics. “They don’t write good. They have people over there, like Maggie Haberman and others, they don’t — they don’t write good,” Trump told adoring supporters in August after Haberman wrote a story he didn’t like.
"They don’t know how to write good,” Trump added for emphasis — prompting one of his advisers at the time to quip, “At least he speaks good.”
But the fallout from a billionaire presidential candidate – who has inspired white nationalists and a wave of vitriol against the mainstream media – personalizing his conflict with reporters isn’t really so funny. Like so many who have covered Trump, Haberman has received threats, anti-Semitic hate mail and been the subject of blatant sexist attacks by at least one high-profile Trump supporter affiliated with Breitbart – the outlet until recently run by the president-elect’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
“I have three kids who would like me to work less, who were very, very eager for this campaign to be over — they were very, very scared,” added Haberman, who thinks the demonization of the media has less to do with New York tabloid tactics than the techniques used against reporters in countries with less robust protections for those who challenge authority.
"The one thing I will say is that this — and this is where I think that Trump doesn’t consider sort of the other side of what he does – is that my kids were not sure of what the implications would be of a president who had personally attacked their mom," she added. "We had to spend a lot of time sort of dealing with that for anxious kids… I don’t even know how I would describe it.”