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Opinion Quit dragging Maggie Haberman

Maggie Haberman speaks at The New York Times DealBook DC policy forum on June 9. (Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for The New York Times)

A traitor is defined as someone who “betrays another’s trust or is false to an obligation or duty,” according to Merriam-Webster. The dictionary people, however, might soon have to add an emerging variation: “A journalist who doesn’t give me my juicy tidbits about former president Trump when I want them, dammit!”

New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman is at the forefront of this evolution in English usage. She has been called a “traitor” on many occasions on Twitter in recent weeks, an uproar that has greeted revelations from her new book, “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” The attacks constitute the latest spasm of hysteria from resistance types targeting the New York Times generally and Haberman in particular. They’re based on an ignorance about journalism and an extravagant view of how scooplets can galvanize America. (They can’t.)

They’re also just plain anti-book. And books are good.

“Confidence Man” is fueled by enterprise. Across 500-plus exhaustively reported pages (not including notes and index), Haberman traces Trump’s evolution from an ethically challenged New York real estate mogul to a political phenomenon woefully unprepared to run the United States. There’s plenty of analysis in these pages, but the presentation consists of a relentless layering of fact upon fact upon fact. A significant number of those facts are exclusive to “Confidence Man” — tidbits that keep you turning pages, because you know there are more revelations ahead.

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Because they relate to Trump, the details make for riveting copy. On a trip to India, for example, Trump freaked out about eating because he knew “someone who got gravely sick eating food while traveling in India.” Elsewhere, Haberman documents a meeting in which Fox News host Tucker Carlson lobbied the White House to pardon Roger Stone; delivers a full accounting of Trump’s bout with covid; details how someone who sounded a lot like Trump claimed to be a Post reporter in a call to Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.); and reveals that Trump said “I’m just not going to leave” the White House after his loss in the 2020 election. That’s a sampling.

There was a time, before Trump, when journalistic exclusives were more unambiguous achievements. Bob Woodward’s book “Rage,” released in September 2020, contained quotes from Trump at the outset of the pandemic confessing that the novel coronavirus was “deadly stuff,” an assessment at odds with his rosy public statements at the time. Woodward took hits from people who claimed that delaying publication of that material had possibly endangered lives. “No. How?” scoffed Woodward.

There was no merit to the criticism, considering that Trump never stops saying stupid, whimsical, false or contradictory things. One such comment — “I’m just not going to leave” — surfaced in Haberman’s book and scored headline placement in a CNN roundup story on Sept. 12. Veteran political operative Steve Schmidt blasted Haberman on Twitter for an alleged information-holding foul: “Was it important information for the public to know Trump said he wasn’t leaving after losing an election? Yes,” wrote Schmidt. “Was this information deliberately concealed for an economic reason that took higher precedence than the truth and the public right to know? YES.” Schmidt’s thread drew massive engagement and finds echoes in a plume of like-minded criticism that has surged in recent weeks.

It’s tempting to dismiss the disquiet as a chronic social media phenomenon of ankle-biting dimensions. But it’s making the rounds. In a Sept. 14 Post review of the new Trump book “The Divider” by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Jacob S. Hacker wrote that the authors had sat on revelations pre-dating the 2020 presidential election — a point that The Post later corrected. The introduction to “The Divider” addresses this very matter: “What emerged from our reporting were stories we had never heard and fresh understandings of stories we thought we knew," write Baker and Glasser.

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Haberman said she worked with the Times and her publisher to get the news out when it was most relevant. In the case of the Trump quote about hunkering down at the White House, for example, the author said that if she’d nailed it down around the time it was uttered, she would have published it. As it turned out, she got it during her reporting for the book — “well after” the conclusion of Trump’s second impeachment trial, in which it would have been a relevant item.

New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha issued this statement on the criticism: “Maggie Haberman took leave from The Times to write her book. In the course of reporting the book, she shared considerable newsworthy information with The Times. Editors decided what news was best suited for our news report.”

The nuts and bolts of nonfiction book publishing guard against the sort of corruption leveled by Haberman’s many critics. For starters, journalists such as Haberman, who are employed at mainstream news outlets, don’t go signing book contracts without a good hunch that there’s much more material to be mined — stuff that wasn’t excavated by the beat reporters scrambling on deadline in real time.

Book leave, furthermore, frees them from story meetings, haggling with editors and breaking-news obligations, clearing the schedule for just the sort of reporting that wouldn’t happen under normal circumstances. “It’s a process of going back to sources and re-interviewing and visiting scenes and getting new details,” says Haberman, who notes in “Confidence Man” that she spoke to more than 250 people “specifically for this book.” (She says she attended some story meetings and kept in touch with editors during her book leave, which spanned last fall and winter.)

Those sources are occasionally more willing to speak with reporters for a book than for just another newspaper article. Haberman says that before her book leave, she spotted something that appeared in a book on Trump — something she would have liked to put in a Times story. So she asked the source why they cooperated with a book project instead of a newsier outlet. The explanation the source gave was that “there’s no immediacy. [A book] doesn’t come out right away,” says Haberman, who notes that the unspoken gist was that news articles “tended to get weaponized against people with Trump,” and book revelations land more softly. That exchange, she recalls, “certainly helped explain to me how these folks are engaging.”

Some of Haberman’s scoops, however, were too pressing for a book-publishing schedule. In a February 2022 Times story with four bylines, Haberman reported that “staff in the White House residence periodically discovered wads of printed paper clogging a toilet — leading them to believe that Mr. Trump had attempted to flush documents.” This particular revelation, says Haberman, stemmed “a zillion percent” from her book reporting — not her Times beat work — so she got it into the newspaper long before the book was published. Yet the hordes still threw penalty flags for holding. A representative gripe on Twitter: “Y]ou should have reported on what you found out when you found out, instead of waiting to cash in on a book deal.”

Another key detail from the book reporting: Marc Short, the vice-presidential chief of staff, warned the Secret Service a day before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that Trump would “turn on the vice president, and that they may have a security risk because of it.” That one was also too hot to sit around in book drafts. So the Times put the scoop in a June 3, 2022, story — in advance of the Jan. 6 hearings on Capitol Hill — with this disclosure: “The stark warning — the only time Mr. Short flagged a security concern during his tenure as Mr. Pence’s top aide — was uncovered recently during research by this reporter for an upcoming book, ‘Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America,’ to be published in October.”

Two facts of modern life explain why people rage at Haberman over her book revelations. One is that people feel entitled to keystroke their way to the information they want, when they want it. The second is that for six years running, Trump’s fiercest critics have been pining for the perfect scandal that would harpoon his political viability once and for all — even though promising candidates, such as the “Access Hollywood” tape and his suggestion to inject bleach as a covid treatment, have fallen short. Harmful exclusives from book writers always come too late.

But they come in due course. Haberman’s exclusive details on Trump arrive in time for the midterm elections, with Trump-endorsed Republicans on the ballot across the country. Next come the early stages of the 2024 presidential race, with Trump still the most formidable possible GOP candidate. Demand for information about him will remain high for years to come.

Sure: Maggie Haberman and her publisher, Penguin Press, are trying to capitalize on the situation. It’s hard to think of a more righteous conquest of the profit motive: Spend endless days chasing sources and nailing down exclusives about Trump; bundle them all in a book explaining his rise; and sell thousands of copies. That’s a form of “treason” that will only strengthen U.S. democracy.

Asked about all the broadsides, Haberman responds, “People are entitled to say what they want. I’m going to keep doing my job.”

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