Skip to main content

'It Is Roiling Him': Reporter Maggie Haberman Unpacks Trump's Refusal To Admit He Lost

New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman covered Trump before he was President and during his presidency. She gives us her perspective on his tenure in office, and his behavior now that he has to leave the office.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Now that the Trump presidency is coming to an end, whether he accepts it's over or not, we're going to talk with Maggie Haberman about what it's been like to cover him these past four years. Actually, she's been writing about him for about 20 years, including for The New York Post, the New York Daily News and Politico. She joined The New York Times in 2015 and started covering his campaign.

The Times media columnist Ben Smith recently wrote, quote, "for the past four years, Haberman has been the source of a remarkably large share of what we know about Donald Trump and his White House. She's done more than a story a day. 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," unquote. Maggie Haberman has great sources. And until last year, Trump was one of them even though he vilified her on Twitter. She's now writing a book about Trump.

I spoke with Maggie Haberman three months into his presidency. It seems fitting to have her back about six weeks before its conclusion. Maggie Haberman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And thank you so much for taking time out to talk with us.

MAGGIE HABERMAN: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Why do you think Trump is continuing to insist that he won in spite of losing every court case, in spite of Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer, being, you know, in the hospital? Maybe he'll be out by the time this is broadcast. But, you know, he has coronavirus. Everything shows - you know, every time there's been a recount, it's come out against him. Why do you think he's still insisting that the election was rigged and he really won if you count the legit votes?

HABERMAN: Because I think he can't handle the concept of the label loser, which he knows this accompanies. And he has never before encountered a problem, Terry, that he couldn't sue away, you know, through the court system or spin away. This is just an objective fact that he can't do anything about. And it is roiling him. He's just never experienced anything like this in his life.

GROSS: Do you have any clues about whether it's affecting his mental health?

HABERMAN: You know, I am of the theory - I know that there's lots of portraits of him as the mad king and disintegrating and so forth. I think that he is depressed sometimes. I think that he has been very churlish with his staff. But I think that most of what you're seeing was pretty clear that you were likely to see, or we were likely to see, all along. I do not subscribe to the theory that Donald Trump has changed, particularly. I think he is who he has always been.

GROSS: You say he's been churlish with the staff. What is the staff telling you about his mood and about how he has been treating them since he lost the election?

HABERMAN: He's just very snappish. He's, you know, not particularly upbeat. There are times where he will be, you know, engaged in banter with staff. That has really not been the case. Most staff are staying away from the Oval Office. Whereas, before, it was a place that people clamored to get into because they wanted face time with him. And now people don't want to be stuck with him in that room because either he will ask their opinion on whether he lost and they don't want to say that they disagree with him, or because he's just railing and they don't want to be subjected to it.

The other point I should make is that his circle has gotten so much tighter. It was already pretty small. But between departures from the White House and between his lack of trust of a lot of what he's seeing right now, he is not actually talking to a ton of people.

GROSS: Who is he talking to? Who are the insiders who are most influential now?

HABERMAN: Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, with whom the president has had a, you know, up and down views. He still talks to him a great deal. He is, despite the fact that Rudy Giuliani is in the hospital, talking to Rudy Giuliani frequently, including about his claims - the president's claims of election fraud that have been baseless and for which he has not offered evidence that such widespread fraud exists. He's talking to Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser. He's talking to his children. You know, he is talking to the White House counsel. But he's not talking to a ton of people. For instance, once upon a time, Bill Barr, the attorney general, fancied himself as one of the people who the president really relied on and trusted. That's, obviously, not the case right now.

GROSS: You know, I'm surprised he hasn't cut ties with Rudy Giuliani. You know, Trump loves winners. And Giuliani has just lost case after case. And he's just been so mocked. I mean, one day he had hair dye or something dark-colored running down his face. He farted at one of the hearings or in court. He's - like, he is not a winner (laughter). So - he's not winning for Trump right now.

HABERMAN: Those are not behaviors one could describe as winning. The president - and the president was very displeased by that, you know, black rivulets of sweat running down...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

HABERMAN: ...Giuliani's face press conference. But the president has a very long relationship with Rudy Giuliani. He's never going to cut ties with him, he's really not. And Giuliani has convinced the president that it's activist judges, or it's this one, or it's that one who are thwarting them, and not that it's at all Giuliani's fault. And the president - Giuliani is saying to the president what the president wants to hear, which is that the president was robbed. There's, really, very few people around the president who are telling him that.

Now, contrary to this belief that everyone else around the president except for, you know, his own family members are making clear to him, you lost, it's over, that's not true. There are people around him who will say, you're right. This was unfair. This was taken from you. They still don't want him to continue, you know, wreaking such havoc. But there are enough people who are enabling this belief that he has that something unfair was done to him. It goes beyond Giuliani.

GROSS: What are his children and what is Jared Kushner telling him?

HABERMAN: So Jared Kushner has had a pretty consistent knack of disappearing when the going gets real tough at certain moments throughout the last four years. That was not true during the campaign, the first campaign. But Jared Kushner has been in the Middle East for several days. Jared Kushner initially signaled to people right after the election that he would try to portray reality to the president. It's not clear that he ever actually had that conversation. And very notably, shortly after Election Day, on a Saturday, there was a meeting of White House aides and campaign aides at the campaign headquarters. And Jared Kushner was present.

And he asked advisers what the percentage chances were that the president could undo the results of the election or change anything with these lawsuits and various efforts. And advisers were candid and said five to 10%, which, candidly, was probably high. And Kushner sent those advisers to go brief the president. And when they said to him - aren't you coming? - he said, well, you know, I'll be part of the next round of conversations. So Jared Kushner is not spending lots of time trying to usher in the Biden era. He's trying to get done various pet projects of his own before time is over.

GROSS: Trump has managed to raise over $170 million since Election Day for his election defense fund. What are his appeals been like?

HABERMAN: It's interesting. And I think it's well north of 170 at this point. That was the figure we knew several days ago. The appeals have been, you know, we was robbed, essentially. You need to help us fight. And the way to help us fight is to continue chipping in. And I think that alarm at the prospect that is clearly now real - it's not just a theoretical that Joe Biden will be the next president in January - I think have alarmed them to a great degree, and them being Trump supporters. So I think that even, you know, small-dollar donors who have not sent fresh checks in the final months of the race, I think, are doing so now.

What the president plans on using this money for is a big, open question. He can certainly use some of it for his political action committee. He's got - there's a breakdown if you donate. And it's clear that a large percentage of the initial - the donation initially goes to this leadership PAC he's formed. And then the rest goes to this campaign legal fight. Presumably, he can use some of the money for his own legal fees if he faces ongoing legal battles, which many people think he will, over his own conduct and over questions around his children's behavior going forward.

But it does put him in an unusual and formidable category, where he's going to have a lot of money, and he's refusing to let go of his clenched fist of the Republican Party. It's going to make him probably the most influential, you know, after-the-fact president that I can think of. I mean, the closest that would come is - in the last 25 years would be Bill Clinton. And it took him a couple of years until he started really getting back into the political arena. George W. Bush left the stage very quickly. President Obama was, you know, photographed very happily, smiling - and I think it was parasailing - in the days right after he left the White House. That's not what you're going to see Donald Trump do. He's not just going to quietly exit.

GROSS: Well, but if he's using money for his political action committee, for his PAC, and he can use a lot of that money to pay off his own expenses - legal fees, maybe campaign expenses - but he's asking for the money so that he can take back the presidency, he's kind of - is he scamming his own followers?

HABERMAN: Oh, is he misleading people? There's no question that he's misleading people. And some of his advisers had believed he would eventually pay a price for that. But so far, there's no evidence of it. There's no question that he is misleading people.

GROSS: Is there any penalty for that? Is that legal? I mean, is there, like, truth in advertising or...

HABERMAN: No, because I don't know how you would prove that he doesn't really believe this, right? I mean, and I think that once he's out of office, they'll change the pitches. You would think that there would be some political cost to it. But so far, I'm not seeing that.

GROSS: Well, see - that's so interesting, though, because, like, Trump at this point is a loser. He lost the election. He's lost all of his court battles in trying to overturn the results of the election. What insights do you have about the power he still has over the Republican Party? Because you're saying he's still going to have a lot of control, probably more than any other previous president has had.

HABERMAN: The - Terry, the second-biggest vote-getter in history was Donald Trump; the first was Joe Biden. That's a substantial number to head off into the sunset with. This president has made clear over time that he loved hearing about how his endorsements impacted Republican primaries. I believe he wants to continue throwing his influence around in Republican primaries, and you're going to see early tests of that in 2022. He has this massive data list of supporters, this email list, that he can blast out appeals to. He likes having power.

Almost everything about Donald Trump for, you know, 50 years at this point has been about power and dominance, and he's not going to easily give it up. When he gets pushed about it with people, he's - you know, he says, my people expect this; my base wants me to fight. Whether that's actually what he thinks or not, he knows that he has a group of millions of people. And is it the full 74 million who voted on the Republican line? Probably not. But it is a substantial segment of that group that will go with him. And so if he sets out when he leaves office and not just tries to be influential but indicates he's running for president again, which he has told many, many people he's going to do, that is essentially going to freeze the Republican field because it's going to be very hard for other candidates to say they will be the person to carry on Donald Trump's legacy if Donald Trump is standing on the field still.

GROSS: Do you think that's why some Republican officials are still supporting Trump in his claims that he won? For example, like, the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, said on Tuesday of this week that the state of Texas filed a lawsuit against four states - Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - at the Supreme Court for exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to justify ignoring federal and state election laws and unlawfully enacting last-minute changes, thus skewing the results of the 2020 election. And I think what's being referred to there is, like, the expansion of mail-in ballots.

HABERMAN: Yes, I think that is what's being referred to. And, you know, I don't think that it's going to be a successful lawsuit because states don't get to tell other states what to do in this system.

GROSS: Yeah, what standing does he even have in that?

HABERMAN: Well, where I think he's coming from - and I'm not a lawyer, so I can't speak to what actual standing he would claim to have, although looking at it on its face, it's hard to see how this is going to work. But Paxton is somebody who is under investigation himself, and I think it is worth bearing that in mind, given that we are ending a term of a president who has been happy to use his pardon power for allies. So I don't think you can completely take one out from the other.

GROSS: Oh (laughter).

HABERMAN: Just to be slightly cynical.


HABERMAN: I just - one needs to consider that.

GROSS: But do you think a lot of Republican officials are continuing to side with Trump's claims that he really won because they think he's going to continue to have power and money?

HABERMAN: So I think a couple of things. I think that they are afraid of him. They're afraid of him because he does have such sway with the party's base. They are afraid of the damage that he can inflict with his Twitter feed or with comments that he makes, both in terms of swaying voters and, frankly, in terms of siccing a swarm of people on whoever his target is. We've seen that with the secretary of state in Georgia, for instance. But mostly, these are people who are afraid of losing their own seats, and so if the president riles up voters against them, that creates a problem.

I do think, Terry, that next week when electors are selected, I think that you might start seeing Republicans more vocally saying, OK, it's time to move on, because I think the fig leaf has just gone at that point. Where there is going to be reservations from Republicans, at least in the Senate, in terms of moving forward, is they are waiting for the outcome of these two runoffs in Georgia Senate races. Those are January 5. They need those two seats to hold on to their majority in the Senate, and they're going to not want to do anything to really rock the boat.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for The New York Times, and she's been writing about Donald Trump for about 20 years. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for The New York Times who has been covering Trump for The Times ever since his presidential campaign, and then she covered him for other publications for years before that.

So getting back to Trump's election defense fund, raising money to overturn the results of the election - since he can use that money for other things, do you think part of his claim that he actually won and that the election was rigged is a way to make money, that it's actually a moneymaking scheme?

HABERMAN: I think without using the word scheme, I do think that Donald Trump has a very long history of using other people's money to pay for his endeavors. Remember, he was going to be a self-funder when he first campaigned in 2015, and in fact, they started taking donations. And the way he put it was, I can't help it; people just want to support me. In 2020, he never considered putting in his own money, claiming that he would at the end. He's often talking about some hundred million dollars he's going to put into various efforts and generally does not.

I don't think that he is going to change who he is in terms of relying on other people's money. And so I do think this is a way to keep money rolling in to pay for legal fees or pollsters for himself or to pay for travel for him to go around the country. I think there are limits - right? - under FEC guidelines to what can be done. It's not a full blank check, but I do think that it creates a cushion for him.

GROSS: So Trump continues to insist that he won. You point out, at the same time, he's insisting that he's also renovating Mar-a-Lago. What does that tell you?

HABERMAN: Well, it tells me that he's preparing for life after the fact. You know, we know that Mar-a-Lago has been - being worked on in terms of the, I think, updatedness and the scale of the residential quarters that he and the first lady and their son Barron have at Mar-a-Lago. So it does tell me that he anticipates, you know, there will be a reality. And look - even as he says, this was taken, this was taken, people who are in touch with him make clear he knows he is leaving on January 20. I know there has been this ongoing fear that he's going to somehow barricade himself in the White House. I've never thought that's reality, and I still don't.

So this is, I think, railing against what's before him, but also prepping for life after. He is supposed to go to Mar-a-Lago next week, at the end of next week, and then was expected to stay through Christmas. I'm told by a couple of people that it's actually now not clear that he's going to go, despite the fact that he spent close to a year's worth of his term at properties other than the White House, and those properties were his own properties - golf clubs, his private clubs, etc. I think that he and the first lady realize that time is running down, and I think they don't want to squander what days they have.

GROSS: I thought there was some kind of zoning or something that would prevent him being a full-time resident at Mar-a-Lago.

HABERMAN: It is an agreement with Palm Beach that was forged in the '90s when he wanted to turn what was a private residence into this private club. It had been a private residence that he bought, and it was originally just his property. When he wanted to turn it into a club, the agreement that he made with the town was that it couldn't become anyone's permanent residence.

This started becoming an issue back in 2018, I believe it was, when - or early 2019 - when The Times, we first reported that he had changed his residency to Florida and had made Mar-a-Lago his permanent address. And people who were familiar with the zoning there or with the permissions that were given by the town said that this was in violation of the agreement that he had reached. I don't anticipate that issue to go away. People in Palm Beach take this stuff very seriously.

GROSS: So what would the implications of that be - that he can't really live there full time?

HABERMAN: I think the question is then going to become whether he can retain his permits to have it as a club. And that would then be the issue. Does he then have to go buy another home for himself and the first lady down in Florida?

GROSS: Either way, it's going to be expensive.

HABERMAN: There's going to be a controversy about this in the coming weeks and the coming months.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for The New York Times who's been covering him for The Times since the 2016 campaign, and she covered him for nearly 20 years total. So we'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for The New York Times. We're talking about the Trump presidency and what it's been like to cover it these past four years. She has great sources and has broken many stories. Haberman also covered Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, and for several years before that, reported on Trump for The New York Post, the New York Daily News and Politico. We recorded our interview yesterday.

So in one article, you asked a question, which is, why is Trump fighting so hard and putting the country through so much to keep a position that he has often not appeared to really want? And a lot of people say he never really wanted to become president in the first place, that it was, you know - it was a way to increase the value of his brand. So a lot of people have been asking the question you asked, why is he fighting so hard to keep a position that he never seemed to really want that much? What do you think?

HABERMAN: I think that he doesn't like being a loser. I think he doesn't like being told he can't have something. You know, one of the things that I say about how he views advisers and people close to him is that he never wants someone more than when their back is turned to him because he wants to see if he can win them over. And he has trouble being told that the sale is over. You can't do it anymore. And I think that he is constantly fighting for things that he has cost himself. He's very, very self-destructive. I mean, that should be pretty obvious. But he has gotten away with being self-destructive and facing few costs for it for so long. It's very hard for him to hear that now, that that's a problem for him, if that makes any sense.

But it's - I think that is why he is fighting so hard for. Look; I think he liked being called president. I think he liked knowing that he lived in the White House - lives in the White House. I think he likes Air Force One. I remember asking a friend of his at the end of 2017 if he liked being president. The friend said, oh, absolutely and seemed surprised by the question. And I said, what does he like about being president? And the friend said, Oh, you know, Air Force One, Air Force Two, Marine One. And that's - I think he likes the accoutrements. I think that the act of being president, the job of being president, has not always thrilled him.

GROSS: Apparently, he likes pardoning people.

HABERMAN: Well, it's - that's a very regal power, right? I don't think that should be a surprise to people that he likes that act.

GROSS: And he doesn't need to ask Congress or anybody about it. I mean, he can, but he doesn't have to.

HABERMAN: Correct. He can just do it. It's what he thought being president was going to be, you get to just do things. And he found himself stymied at almost every turn by Congress in 2017 because this is not somebody who is a student of history or who understands executive power beyond, you know, what he learned with Democratic Party bosses in the five boroughs in New York or the mayor's office in New York City. That was his understanding of executive power.

GROSS: Trump had actually been one of your sources until last year. Did he break up with you?

HABERMAN: I don't actually talk about whether he was or wasn't a source.

GROSS: But you did have - it's on the record that you had phone calls with him.

HABERMAN: Yes. I mean, that's clearly true. But I do think that - without getting into, you know, break up, not break up, do I still talk to him? - he's been very angry at the coverage of the administration's failures around the coronavirus. And that was never made more clear than - we did a six-byline story - I was one of the bylines - in early April of this year. And the headline was either "He Could Have Seen What Was Coming" or "He Could Have Seen It Coming" - I think it was could have seen what was coming - about the pandemic and just about his blinder attitude toward it and refusal to hear concerns about it from a lot of his advisers. And he was what I described before about how he feels wounded by things. He felt very wounded.

And so he lashed out at me by playing a misleadingly edited clip of me in the White House briefing room either the next day or two days later, and then attacking me for - I think it was six minutes from the podium because I had written a story about his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, crying in front of people at the White House in his early days in the role. You know, there is - you're never going to see a president. All presidents follow their media coverage to some extent. And all presidents are irked by it. But you're never going to see a president, anytime soon, who reacts the way this one does to news coverage. It's just fundamentally different. And he is incredibly reactive to The Times. And he is incredibly reactive to me. And that's just the way it is.

GROSS: During the past four years, have you had a lot of sources - and I'm not asking you to name names here or anything - sources who were supporting Trump in public and then criticizing him while talking to you?

HABERMAN: Oh, many.

GROSS: And you knew that what they were saying in public had nothing to do with what they really thought?

HABERMAN: Many, many in the White House and many outside the White House. You know, one of the things that he's very good at doing, though, is he's very good at getting - because he turns everything into an up or down referendum on himself, there will be sources who are disagreeing with him. But then they will still find some area of common cause with him even in the private conversations. Or they will find a way that certain things that he's done that are badly behaved aren't his fault. They're the fault of some other staffer. He is excellent at getting people not to hold him accountable for things. It is one of his talents.

GROSS: Do you kind of burn up a little bit thinking about the hypocrisy of people who are supporting him publicly and enabling him in his misrepresentations and his baseless claims who privately know that those are baseless claims?

HABERMAN: I don't like hypocrisy of any kind. But certainly, the hypocrisy by which people have, you know, either rolled their eyes or talked about how hard their own situations are and then have helped enable him either by parroting it publicly or encouraging him privately is anger-inducing.

GROSS: What have your frustrations been over the past four years reporting on Trump, reporting on his baseless claims, on the falsehoods, the misrepresentations, the disinformation and watching it continue and watching his followers not believing the facts and believing the falsehoods instead?

HABERMAN: It's - and the frustrations are enormous because we're - you know, he - I remember in 2015, after I had some really elaborate fight with his folks and with him about a story - it was, again, just one of these areas where it was just a bad fact set for him. And he responded by trying to torch me. I remember saying to a Republican strategist a few days later that never before had we covered somebody where I'll be sitting on the - on a chair and they'll point to the chair and say, that's a table and insist on it, insist on it and insist on it. And it was just a fundamentally asymmetrical experience.

Look; it's very frustrating. I think it's going to take a few months after this presidency to get my head around some of it. You know, it's frustrating because we are just (laughter) writing. We are writing facts. And he takes them and twists them or lies or preemptively says everything is fake news. It's very, very hard to do our job in that climate. It has been very hard to get a baseline of just accurate facts sets from this White House. And it has been harder still that there are millions of people who don't believe things because he says they're not true. That has never been more frustrating than during the pandemic, when he is saying, you know, unscientific things to people about a virus that is a life-threatening illness for people who have other factors in their lives, you know, obesity or heart disease or so forth. Or in some cases, there have been people who have died, and they have not appeared to have other health problems. And just - he has just completely dismissed himself of any responsibility for this and has said all kinds of things that are not true. He has mocked people for wearing masks, both within his White House and outside. That - the mask-mocking to me is actually the most frustrating thing that I have seen, an angering thing.

GROSS: Two White House correspondents from The New York Times got COVID. Was it because they were in the White House? Were they able to trace how they got it?

HABERMAN: One of them had been traveling with the president during that period where a bunch of people got sick around the Amy Coney Barrett celebration in the Rose Garden. I don't want to say more than I know. I don't actually know whether they were ultimately able to contact trace it back that way. But certainly, you know, we were all aware that we were being put at some level of risk.

GROSS: You might not be able to answer this, but have you been in a room with the president since the virus? Because he's just - my understanding is he's discouraged people from wearing masks in his presence.

HABERMAN: Well, look, he has - I mean, you've seen it. He has - and we've reported on this. In meetings, he would say to people, get that thing off. And he would use an expletive to emphasize his point. With reporters, he has said, you know, can you take that thing off? It's really hard to hear you. We were - I was on Air Force One several months ago, I think it was during the summer. And he was not masked. We were all masked. He came to the back of the plane to talk to us. And I had several back-and-forths with him. Again, he was unmasked. This is before he got sick. We learned later that somebody we were on the plane with got sick. You know, that was just another reminder of sort of the lax culture there. It has just never been something that he has favored, ever, because he thinks it looks weak. And he doesn't like the way things look on people's faces.

GROSS: Something that's always baffled me - my understanding is that Trump is a germophobe, and that's affected his behavior.

HABERMAN: That's true.

GROSS: But if he's a germophobe, why doesn't he care about COVID? I mean, it's like the ultimate germ in a lot of ways.

HABERMAN: I said to somebody yesterday who's known him for a very long time, I said, why do you think he's so self-destructive? And they said, he's inconsistent. Yes, sometimes he's self-destructive, but other times he's, you know, incredibly self-centered and self-focused and self-attuned. So I don't have an easy answer for why he is a germophobe, but, you know, has been so dismissive about things that could prevent germs. I think that if you look at it through the lens of everything is how it impacts him, he convinced himself he was safe because he was getting tested. And he was not getting tested every day, despite the fact that the White House led us to believe that. But I think he just convinced himself that he was in this - you know, he was living in this unreality bubble where he was safe because he was the president and because people who came in contact with him were tested. And that just obviously was not - was not foolproof.

GROSS: OK. Let's take a break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Haberman. She's a White House correspondent for The New York Times and has covered Donald Trump for the Times ever since his campaign. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for The New York Times who has broken many stories about President Trump and has incredible sources. She started covering him for the Times during the presidential campaign, but she wrote about him for years before that for other publications. So you have a lot of great sources who you have relied on over the years. You do not mention who your sources are, and I will not ask you. But I will ask you, how do they protect themselves from being discovered?

HABERMAN: That's a great question. Look, I mean, I'm - in terms of how I keep sources from being discovered - and there have been many, many leak hunts related to things I've reported. I mean, I'm very careful about discussing these things. There are encrypted messaging apps. There are, you know, ways to have conversations that are not over the phone. I don't have a great answer for the question other than just by being careful and by really watching your trail. You know, I think that there are a lot of people who have worked in this government who have been dismayed by things they've seen and who have wanted to make that clear. And, you know, we've seen very famous examples of it, like Alexander Vindman at the NSC during the impeachment battle. You know, and then we - there are a lot of whistleblowers who the public will never know anything about in terms of their identity. But I think it's just - it's, for lack of a better way of putting it, it is handling with care. But in general, you know, talking in person tends to be the best way.

GROSS: Which you can't really do right now. How has COVID affected your ability to report in the way you always reported?

HABERMAN: It's a great question. COVID has made things very challenging. You know, there was - I live in New York. I don't live in Washington. And there was - which has - you know, the pandemic, in terms of just work situation has, you know, been - and the pandemic has been horrible, but it has been strangely something of an equalizer in terms of me and my colleagues because we're all not going to office. But there have been people who won't talk to me over the phone, and therefore I, you know, have had to drive to see them in D.C., for instance; that kind of a thing. It's been challenging. I mean, it's just been - it has simply been harder to either connect with people or to get certain pieces of information just because of the physical issue.

GROSS: When we first spoke three months into the Trump presidency, you had written about how Trump would retire at around 6:30 in the evening to watch TV and tweet, and that he was lonely. At that time, Melania and their son, Baron, were staying in New York, so Trump was alone. And you wrote that he was not used to being alone. So he was lonely. He wasn't working in the evening. He was in his room tweeting and watching TV. How much has that changed?

HABERMAN: Not a lot. It hearkens back to something I said to you earlier in this recording, that I don't subscribe to the theory that he's changed a whole lot. That year - I think it was April 2017 - I did an interview with Charlie Rose on which I said that the president watches a lot of television, which is just an - it's an objective fact. And he just erupted that I had said it and for days was bringing my name up in meetings. And he was very angry. He had seen it because I think he was switching during commercials on Lou Dobbs and saw me on television saying this. And there just - there were days of this, of his anger about it. He's very sensitive to people talking about how much TV he watches, but he's not so sensitive that he's going to change his habits. And one of the things about him on the TV-watching front is that the TV is often just on in the background, and then he hears his name said, and he stops talking, and then he puts all of his attention on the TV. His name is obviously said a lot since he's been president.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. I was going to point that out.

HABERMAN: Yeah. So, you know, he - not much has changed. You know, he is going to the Oval Office late, as he began doing in 2017 because those meetings had been on the schedule. They would try to get them on at 9 so he would have less time in the Oval Office. But he, when he was at Trump Tower, wouldn't come down before about 10. And so pretty slowly, the meetings started moving back. And now he comes in very late. He has for years. He's been staying later some nights in the Oval Office. And again, I think that is some of that wistfulness that things are coming to an end, and he knows it, even if he doesn't want to admit it. But not much has changed.

GROSS: What about being lonely? Because at that time, Melania and Baron were in New York, not in Washington with Trump. How much time have they actually spent together as a family?

HABERMAN: So they - my understanding has always been that they wouldn't eat - he would not eat dinner with them every night, but there were some nights a week that they would eat dinner together. I think she is the one who spends the most time with their son. I would say that, yes - and I remember writing that - that he was lonely at the time, and it was true at the time. He's still lonely. I think he's a lonely human being. And it goes back to those inconsistencies that I talked about. He - even when surrounded by a lot of people, he can make himself alone. So I think he has - a constant theme of this presidency has been his loneliness.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman. She's covered Trump for the Times ever since his campaign. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Maggie Haberman, who covers the White House for The New York Times. She's been covering Trump for the Times ever since his campaign, but she wrote about him for years before that when she was working for other publications. How much attention are you going to pay to Donald Trump after he leaves office?

HABERMAN: So I'm probably going to pay more attention to him than a lot of reporters just because - certainly the White House reporters. I'm not going to be covering the White House specifically anymore, so there's that. I am going to be covering the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, I anticipate, anyway. And he is clearly a big part of that. I don't know that I'm going to keep Twitter notifications on. In fact, I don't plan to for him because they can be constant. And in the last couple of months, they've gotten more frenetic, more frequent. I will still be paying attention to him, but I do think the bar for news coverage changes significantly.

GROSS: Is it a question, in part, of how much of the coverage is important and how much of it is just enabling his desire to see himself in the media and to be talked about to build his ego? And is it enabling the falsehoods that he spreads when he is in power?

HABERMAN: I think that if he does something that is objectively newsworthy - makes an endorsement in a primary, you know, gives a speech, depending on what he says, and so forth - I think those are worthy of coverage. He's still a former president, right? I mean, I think that that is - and there are still 74 million people who voted for him. But, you know, Donald Trump tweets - just on its own, to me, that's not a story. And frankly, I have for a long time in 2017. On the one hand, my view is don't ignore the tweets just as a rule because sometimes policy's being made or stated, and they're often just his views, but don't treat the tweets as news just for the sake of it. Is the - you know, the 11th, you know, witch hunt tweet, is that really news? I don't think so. So that's the way in which I've looked at it, and that's the way I'm going to continue looking at it. I think if he says he's running for president, I don't see how we ignore it.

But that said, I think we are all mindful of not being used for whatever purpose. I mean, look - this is why I didn't write that he was planning to run when his folks asked me to write about it in - whenever it was - April or May of 2015. They wanted me to write that he was going to announce in June, and I said no. And they couldn't understand why, and the reason why was because in 2011, when he had talked about running - and he did actually do more extensive prep around running in 2011 than people realize. But when he did that and then didn't run and declared during sweeps week that he wasn't running for "The Apprentice," I didn't want to go through that again. So...

GROSS: Did you feel like you were being you used to boost his ratings?

HABERMAN: Whether that was the intention or not, I fear that was the outcome. And what I said in 2015 was, we're talking about a guy who has been talking about running for president since 1987. So until he actually runs, I'm not writing it. And while it was maybe not the best call, in retrospect, I think it was a very defendable one.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you've had a lot of mood swings over the past four years covering the president because there's times it must have been very exhilarating to be covering what was going on because you had this view that very few people had, and your stories really had an impact. At the same time, I don't know how you ever got any sleep during the past four years.

HABERMAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: Like, Trump tweeted in the middle of the night. I mean, it's just like an ongoing 24-hour news cycle day after day. And, you know, after a while, it must have just been depleting and exhausting.

HABERMAN: It's funny. I didn't - (laughter) the phrase mood swings. I didn't really hit a wall until the last two weeks or so, especially because when he got sick with coronavirus, the president got sick with coronavirus, that was a very intense period of time just in terms of covering it and, again, challenging in terms of them not telling the truth because we had reporting that he had been on oxygen, and we were waiting for officials to say it, and then the White House doctor elided the question, and so I tweeted that he had been on oxygen. And I initially got a lot of pushback from some of the people around the president until they learned they were wrong and we were right.

I have not had a lot of sleep in the last four years. It has been a privilege to be able to do this job, and I think of it that way. It's a privilege to cover the White House in general, anywhere. And it's been - this has been a - it has been an exhausting experience that has often been a humbling one. I said to somebody the other day that I feel like I got off one of those centrifugal force rides at the amusement park that pushes you against the wall because it's spinning so fast.

And I think that he has had a - this presidency has had a disorienting effect on a lot of people - in Washington, outside of Washington, across the country. And I think a challenge for reporters was not getting disoriented. So I think I'm still processing all of this. And we still have another five weeks, so (laughter) it's not done. But these actual legal challenges are wrapping up.

GROSS: Are you feeling a sense of relief that the Trump presidency is ending? And I don't even mean that in a political way. I mean, like, you won't have to cover it anymore; you'll be able to get some sleep.

HABERMAN: I'm looking forward to getting some sleep (laughter). I think - I don't have full clarity on what I'm going to do next, but I am looking forward to getting some sleep. I think that if he had - I mean, if he had won, A, I don't know whether we would have continued with the same composition on our White House team, but I had felt an obligation to see this through to the end, and I don't know that that would have changed if he had won. And if he had won, it was going to be - this was a very exhausting year. So, yeah, I mean, I'm - in general, I'm looking forward to getting some sleep.

GROSS: What do you expect to be doing on Inauguration Day?

HABERMAN: That's a great question. Watching to see what Donald Trump does, I suspect.

GROSS: Watching on TV?

HABERMAN: I mean, I'm not going to physically be with him. Yes. watching on TV, watching on, you know, livestreams. But, yes, I don't anticipate I'll be doing Joe Biden's inauguration. I do anticipate I'll be watching whatever Trump is doing.

GROSS: Maggie Haberman, thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

HABERMAN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Maggie Haberman is a White House correspondent for The New York Times. Our interview was recorded yesterday. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed - like this week's interviews with actor Kate Winslet, who stars in the movie "Ammonite," or photographer Bob Gruen, whose new memoir is about the rock musicians he's photographed and befriended, including John Lennon, or lawyer Brittany Barnett, who's won the release of dozens of prisoners serving life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance today from Charlie Kaier. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue