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Opinion New York Times’s Maggie Haberman on ‘soup stock’ process of discerning Trump truth

Copies of Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” at a bookseller in Liverpool, Britain, on Jan. 11. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
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Since Michael Wolff failed to properly fact-check his book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” readers have performed that service for him. There are screwups about CNN, White House communications director Hope Hicks, former House speaker John A. Boehner and beyond. In defending himself from fact-related criticism, Wolff has repeatedly said that his fundamentals were sound, his thrust on target. It’s the day-to-day White House press that’s misguided.

“They’re stuck in the weeds,” Wolff said of his counterparts in the U.S. media. “I’m clearly not stuck in the weeds. I have obviously managed to convey this story in a way that people get, that moves them and they understand.” Book sales speak to that point: “Fire and Fury” is on track to eclipse “The Art of the Deal.”

The whole “weeds” argument amounts to some clever snark, though let it be known that White House reporters from the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Daily Beast, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and many others had been gathering Wolff-like vignettes of White House dysfunction and publishing them to astonished audiences long before “Fire and Fury” hit the presses. Credit Wolff for assembling some fresh stuff, securing some good quotes from Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, and putting it all in one package.

At the same time, let’s not dis the weeds, either. If Wolff botches some facts here and there, well, whoop-dee-doo: His sales are bonkers, so he can just stonewall the critics and move on to his next book project, far away from the Trump White House.

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But White House reporters don’t have this luxury. They work for news organizations that are constantly under siege for errors large and small. If they mislead sources or otherwise misrepresent their intentions, their abilities to continue on the beat are compromised. They can take no liberties.

In a recent podcast with Katie Couric and Brian Goldsmith, Maggie Haberman, White House reporter for the New York Times, explained just what sort of drudgery is required for proper weeding in the Trump garden. Asked by Couric how hard it was to find reliable sources, Haberman held forth:

It’s difficult because Trump and the people around Trump have historically told a lot more untruths than any other campaign that I had dealt with, so we developed a system in the campaign — Ashley Parker, Alexander Burns and I did — of sort of how we would arrive at a common, base soup stock of what was true based on a number of people overlapping in the same account, and then anything that did not comport with that would get shaved off. And we still use that. The difficulty is just that there is so much untrue stuff floating around and the true stuff is called false.

Those realities explain in part why the New York Times and other outlets — including The Washington Post and Politico — added reinforcements to their White House teams. Truth extraction from the Trump White House is a team pursuit.

Having worked for both the New York Post and the New York Daily News, Haberman has a history of following Trump’s political moves and non-moves over the years, an experience that helps discard certain narratives. Such as the idea that Trump’s mental health is deteriorating. “He’s the same person who I was interviewing six years ago,” she told the Couric podcasters.

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