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Maggie Haberman and the never-ending Trump story

New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman speaks at an event in New York in May 2018. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Showtime)

NEW YORK — When the first Donald Trump story of the 2016 election cycle came her way, Maggie Haberman decided not to break it.

It was May 2015, and Trump adviser Sam Nunberg was helping orchestrate the imminent announcement of the reality star’s candidacy. He tried to offer an exclusive jump on the story to Haberman, who had recently joined the New York Times after years of covering politics for several smaller publications.

But Haberman had been down this road before, or so she thought. As a Politico reporter in 2011, she had energetically covered Trump’s previous flirtation with a presidential run only to watch him take himself out of the race at an event promoting “Celebrity Apprentice.” (Her headline: “The Donald ducks.”)

This time, “I didn’t want us to get used,” she recalled in a recent interview.

After overcoming her skepticism about Trump as a candidate, Haberman, 47, quickly became the highest-profile reporter covering his campaign, and eventually his presidency. She was the most-cited journalist in the Mueller report, and yet she continues to be attacked from certain corners of the left as a supposed water carrier for the 45th president. Like nearly everything Trump touched, she also became part of the culture war — a symbol, bigger than the sum of her stories.

Trump’s presidency ended, but the story hasn’t ended yet for Haberman. Now on leave from the Times to write a book about “where Trump came from and what he created in the White House,” she frequently emerges to drop a new Trump scoop on the public, often about some drama within the sulking exiled ruler’s camp.

Ten years after her first aborted attempt to make sense of a reality star’s political aspirations, Haberman is stuck on the Trump beat. And so, in a way, are we all.

On Twitter, they always call her Maggie.

“You’re the reason I canceled my NYT subscription, Maggie.”

Maggie, get your story straight. . . . .”

Maggie craves Trump back in power so they can both be relevant again.”

Her loudest social media critics are often on the left — readers convinced that she has gone soft on Trump, that her prolific coverage amounts to dutiful amplification. (“From the right it is, ‘You are all evil,’ ” Haberman told The Washington Post, “and from the left: ‘Maggie, you are uniquely evil.’ ”)

Then again, throughout the Trump years, the loudest voice on the right taking her name in vain was none other than the president himself.

“A third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman . . . who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with,” Trump tweeted in 2018, after she co-wrote a story speculating that his former lawyer Michael Cohen might turn on him. (He did.)

“This was a Maggie Haberman,” he ranted during a coronavirus news briefing last year, detouring at length from the subject at hand to address her story about his chief of staff Mark Meadows seeming emotional and overwhelmed in the job. “A terrible, dishonest reporter.”

She had gotten used to it by then. Years earlier, Haberman discovered she was becoming a character in Trump’s political drama.

She chose to cover him almost by default after joining the Times’s crowded political reporting team in early 2015. She was a new hire, looking for her lane, and Trump wasn’t considered a prime assignment compared with Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, among the more than a dozen other Republicans seeking the party’s nomination, let alone the Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, whom she had covered for Politico.

But Haberman quickly found Trump to be an infinite source of news. Almost every day, one of his outrageous utterances would create a scandal, which Trump would manage to draw out by attacking the journalists who covered it, bringing more attention to himself — and, often, to Haberman.

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After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Trump told Yahoo News that he was open to creating a national registry of Muslims. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully,” he said, and seemed to double down the next day when asked about it by another reporter.

Haberman wrote about it for the front page of the Times. She acknowledges now that her lead included “an off word” — stating that Trump ‘called for’ a registry, when in fact he simply responded positively and did not rule it out when reporters broached the idea.

Any other candidate might have clarified his position and moved on. But Trump’s campaign went on the attack, feeding a story to the right-wing website Breitbart accusing Haberman of an “outright lie,” which Trump then tweeted.

“I just was suddenly in the middle of a swarm,” Haberman recalled.

Trump wasn’t done yet. “It’s a false story . . . they write false stuff,” he said at his next rally, and went on to claim he had witnessed “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center on 9/11. When another Times reporter cast doubt on that account, Trump publicly mocked his physical disability — and set off yet another round of stories.

Haberman covered it all, “this weirdness where he was making an outrageous claim that we had to cover, and then in response to that story, he made another claim that we had to cover . . .” and so on.

It was her introduction to the media phenomenon that she would call “chain-reactive Trump.”

What reporters "had to cover" about Trump evolved, though those choices became a matter of public debate. His attacks and falsehoods were so constant that they became tempting to ignore, and, some argued, irresponsible to report. "But at the time," Haberman says, "we covered things candidates said."

Yet as Trump transitioned from candidate to president, Haberman helped pioneer a new genre of political story — the juicy, inside-the-room account of a chaotic White House’s crisis of the moment, invariably sourced to “dozens of government officials,” or some other such phrasing, almost all of them unnamed.

Barely two weeks into his presidency, she co-wrote a story that described aides unable to operate light switches and Trump watching cable news in his bathrobe. It read like the kind of novelistic account that political journalists used to take months to compile, but Haberman and her peers (including at The Washington Post) turned it into a near-weekly story — provoking Trump into a government-wide hunt for leakers.

Nunberg, the former Trump campaign aide, said Haberman had a deep familiarity with Trump’s inner circle because of her prior work for two hypercompetitive tabloids, the New York Post and the Daily News. There is a “big difference between the way Maggie Haberman is going to be able to cover Donald Trump,” he said, and “the way the legacy Washington establishment is going to be able to cover him.”

The daughter of veteran Times journalist Clyde Haberman, she spent most of her early career writing multiple stories a day on New York political players — including Trump.

“She’s like a great athlete who is collegial but will also kill you,” said Robert Hardt, with whom Haberman covered Hillary Clinton’s first U.S. Senate race and later the 2001 New York City mayor’s race for the New York Post. Hardt scoffed when Haberman, embedded with Mike Bloomberg’s campaign, insisted that the then-Republican businessman could win the heavily Democratic city. He did, and “she never lets me forget it,” Hardt said.

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Haberman moonlighted as a bartender at the start of her career, which she has said helped hone her knack for making conversation — with customers and later sources. But she insists she didn’t glean more information than other reporters from Trump’s leaky inner circle. “The degree to which people wanted to share things was unusual,” she said.

Yet her reputation grew along with her byline count: In 2016, Haberman’s name appeared on 599 articles, by the Times’s count. Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the newspaper, said Haberman’s stories were responsible for 2.2 percent of all article views on the Times’s website in 2019.

Some competitors said they were reluctant to take time off, knowing how relentless Haberman was at working her sources. One told The Post that their sources often worried aloud: “If I tell you this, I’m going to have to deal with Maggie.” (Most of her colleagues and competitors would only speak for this story on the condition of anonymity, though one fretted that Haberman is so wired-in that she would surely decipher who said what.)

“She was the best reporter on the Trump beat from 2016 to 2021 and it wasn’t especially close,” said Jonathan Swan, Axios’s White House correspondent. “I can’t tell you how many times I thought I had a scoop only to Google her stories for the past few weeks and finding she’d deposited this interesting, original detail in paragraph 24. Ugh.”

Haberman met her husband on the job: Dareh Gregorian, now a politics reporter for NBC News, was the night-shift rewrite guy when she first joined the New York Post as a copy aide. And though she resisted pressure to move from Brooklyn to Washington for the White House beat, her home life has remained entwined with her journalism. On a typical day during the Trump presidency, the relentless multitasker — during nearly every interview for this story she was in the middle of something else — would be in touch with about 50 sources by phone, text or other means, often multiple times a day, to the extent that she often recalls key stories in connection with the life event they interrupted — the story she broke about Trump firing campaign manager Corey Lewandowski during her child’s kindergarten graduation, for example.

“My job has been very hard on them,” she says of their three children, now in middle and high school, “to my enormous regret.”

Some see Haberman as almost Trumpian in her penchant for being constantly in touch with a wide circle, and her apparently strong stomach for putting up with withering public criticism. She doesn’t see herself as quite so flinty.

“The trolls obviously get to me, given that I respond to them,” she said.

Haberman used to scold her fellow reporters for their Twitter habits. But by 2016, she had found the platform too seductive and too useful, as she covered an ultrafast news cycle and a candidate who tweeted many times a day.

Well before she reached her current level of 1.7 million followers, she showed a tolerance for highly public Twitter spats, feuding with polling pundit Nate Silver after the 2016 election, for example, about whether the Times had overhyped a government investigation into Clinton’s emails.

But even Haberman’s more anodyne observations have drawn ire. In May 2018, she tweeted that Trump had told “two demonstrable falsehoods” that morning. This prompted Chrissy Teigen, a model, television host and social media personality, to accuse her of “Trump ass kissing.” Haberman, Teigen insisted, should have used the word “lies.”

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Haberman’s most dedicated detractors tend to claim that she’s too kind to Trump, even while he comes across as dishonest, inept and borderline unhinged in many of her reports.

In June, for example, Haberman tweeted that “Trump has been telling a number of people he’s in contact with that he expects he will get reinstated [to the presidency] by August.” No matter that the point of her tweet was to highlight Trump’s delusional tendencies; Haberman’s critics on the left sounded more offended by the messenger.

“Why do you insist on ‘sharing’ nonsense like this from the Trump camp?” asked Dave Hogg, a freelance sportswriter who frequently leaps into Haberman’s replies. “I can’t count the number of times you’ve served as a willing conduit for their messaging.”

Last Tuesday, in her 27th tweet of the day, Haberman enraged her audience by adding her own analysis to a post from Donald Trump Jr., who had called the U.S. evacuation from Kabul “worse than Saigon.”

“Does Trump pay you through the @nytimes or do you have to submit receipts to get reimbursed?” snarked one of the many responding commenters.

Haberman acknowledges some regret for referencing the Trump Jr. tweet. But “the people focused on my tweets spend a lot more time thinking about my tweets than I do.”

This summer, in fact, the years-long Twitter pastime of dragging Maggie Haberman abruptly leaped from the world of political obsessives to an entirely new realm.

“A screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways,” she tweeted last month as she took her seat in the audience for “Springsteen on Broadway.”

Critics howled that Haberman had misquoted the lyrics to “Thunder Road.” Didn’t Mary’s dress wave? “Leave it to MAGA Haberman to get iconic Bruce Springsteen lyrics wrong,” wrote one tweeter.

The kerfuffle attracted so much attention that the New Yorker magazine tracked down Bruce Springsteen’s collaborator Jon Landau to settle the matter. He confirmed it: Haberman had the lyric exactly as the Boss sings it.

Haberman contends that her online critics don't understand journalism.

“It’s not my job to just cover what you want to hear,” she said. “It’s not my job to stand up and say, ‘How dare you, sir.’ It’s not my job to stand up and stage a moment.”

The Times has defended Haberman multiple times, as it did in 2019, after she wrote a much-criticized story about Trump aide Hope Hicks’s “existential” decision over whether to comply with a congressional subpoena. And one of her most frequent collaborators touts her record on investigative pieces.

“Maggie was part of breaking some of the most significant investigative stories of the Trump presidency,” said the Times’s Michael Schmidt, in particular “one of the most important stories” written about Trump’s aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner: that Trump overruled concerns from his intelligence advisers to grant Kushner a security clearance.

Schmidt noted that of the 10 acts of possible obstruction by Trump or his aides that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III laid out in his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, two of them were directly tied to stories Haberman broke. “We needed her,” said Elisabeth Bumiller, a Times assistant managing editor and Washington bureau chief, “in a big way.”

Haberman has a message for the Trump critics who yell at her on Twitter: Ignoring him won’t make him go away.

It is important, she said, to write about a former president who promotes conspiracy theories and urges his followers to disregard the results of an election he lost — and who remains the front-runner for his party’s nomination.

“People go on Twitter to create their own self-selected reality,” she said. “I’m not in that business.”

Just days after the 2020 election, Penguin Press announced that Haberman was writing a book on Trump. When it comes out next year, it will be one of the last in the current boom of Trump books — a phenomenon Trump seems to have loved as much as loathed: Since he left office and was kicked off Twitter, these books, most of them highly critical, have been the primary forum to refocus attention on him.

“He keeps issuing statements — ‘I never said this!’ Or he attacks the authors,” Haberman noted. “The reality is that he is craving the attention. It’s the most attention he’s had in six months.”

Until Haberman’s own book comes out, that is.