Journalist Describes The Loneliness And Leakiness Of Trump's White House

Apr 20, 2017
Originally published on April 20, 2017 8:12 pm

As the first American president to be elected with no prior political or military experience, Donald Trump has had to adapt quickly to the responsibilities of public office.

"The magnitude of the job is sinking in for him," White House correspondent Maggie Haberman says. "The degree to which whatever he does is going to impact millions of people — and the responsibility of that — is slowly settling in."

Haberman has been covering Trump since the early 2000s, when she worked for The New York Post and The New York Daily News. In 2015, she joined The New York Times, where she covered the Trump campaign before moving on to the White House.

Haberman describes the president as a homebody who hates interpersonal conflict. Looking ahead, she predicts that the reported feud between Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and strategist Steve Bannon will not result in Bannon's dismissal anytime soon. "The 'you're fired' guy actually ... really doesn't like firing people and, generally speaking, will try to leave it to other people," Haberman says.


Interview Highlights

On what it's like inside Trump's Oval Office

We have not seen this leaky a White House in my memory, in forever, just in terms of the back and forth. And he surrounds himself, and always has, with people who are very focused and interested on the personnel issues. ...

His chief of staff, Reince Priebus ... is in a very unusual role, in terms of what we have seen of a White House chief of staff in the past. We're used to a White House chief of staff playing something of a traditional gatekeeper role.  Trump doesn't like gatekeepers. Trump's office style is much more Grand Central Station than therapist's couch, like the door is always open; people come in and out. When my colleague Glenn Thrush and I did an Oval Office interview about two weeks ago, people were just constantly moving in and out. It was really a cast of thousands, it felt like.

On why she thinks Trump hasn't yet made any trips abroad

He is uncomfortable sleeping outside of his own bed, which I know sounds strange to say about a 70-year-old leader of the free world, but you're talking about somebody who during the campaign, most nights — not every night and there were times when it was not feasible — but he would fly home from pretty far distances. ... He would fly home to sleep in his own bed. He is a homebody, and he's incredibly provincial and he is approaching the job in that way.

I do think that his preference is never going to be being far from home. The thing that I keep hearing about this president over and over from people close to him is he's very lonely. He is unused to living alone. He has always had someone living with him. He is on his third marriage. He has a young son. He spent, as I said, almost every night in his own bed; it wasn't just about his own bed — it was about the familiarity of his family.

On reporting on Trump for The New York Post and The New York Daily News as he became a celebrity in the 2000s

Trump was in frequent contact with Page Six, the gossip page at The New York Post, which I think played a pretty big part in introducing him to the city and then the country at large. He was very used to a type of story approach on Page Six where he maintained good relationships with them, and he recognized that he was sort of a commodity in terms of gossip gold.

But in terms of stories that were about him, it was ... things like ... him holding a press conference to say that he wanted to rebuild the twin towers. It was usually in the realm of stunt, because that's really what he was doing. In the 2000s ... that was really when he moved out of being a real estate developer and into the celebrity realm, so it was a different kind of Donald Trump, but he was omnipresent.

On how Trump's way of talking has changed over the years

His vocabulary was more specific. When he was in an area that he actually knew and understood and had some sort of emotional and intellectual connection to, he was more at ease, and it was reflected in how he would talk. Even now, frankly, when you get him talking about business or you get him talking about real estate, he speaks with much more fluidity than on almost anything else that he's involved with as president.

It's funny — there's a video of him that's been kicking around the Internet for a year now, and it's a video of him in the '90s, I think it was '95, doing a review of Citizen Kane — and he's a big movies guy, Trump. He loves Sunset Boulevard -- and one of the reasons he loves Mar-a-Lago is it sort of reminds him of that kind of a movie set and there's a grandeur to it — but he gave this very, very long exposition on his views of Citizen Kane and what "Rosebud" meant and he sounds very different. He sounds much more at ease with the subject matter; the timbre of his voice is different.

On reporting on Trump at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago

He loves Mar-a-Lago. ... There is this social greeter aspect of him at Mar-a-Lago that I had never seen before until I was there, and he loves it. It's like watching a kid host a party, and he goes from table to table, and he talks to people and he asks if they're having a good time and "What are you eating?" and he knows details about their lives.

There's a huge patio, and he sits in a corner of the patio — it's a table for about 10 — usually his wife, Melania, is there. And then he sort of roams around the patio, and people are spread out and they're watching him eat. And there's a bar area a little closer to the inside of the building that people hang out at before dinner is served and then eventually you gravitate out.

For him there is a socializing contact element that I think he just loves. But I think ... you can't hold national security meetings on the patio of what is essentially a restaurant, and he is adjusting to why that is different and he doesn't love these adjustments.

Radio producers Amy Salit and Mooj Zadie, Web producers Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Dana Farrington contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today marks three months that Donald Trump has been president. He's the first American president to be elected with no political or military experience. And these first months have seen no shortage of unprecedented stories coming out of the White House. There are reported power struggles between the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon, questions about the Trump family's conflicts of interest. His national security adviser had to resign. The FBI is investigating possible collusion between people in the Trump campaign and Russia. And the repeal and replace of Obamacare failed.

Those are just some of the stories my guest, Maggie Haberman, has been covering for The New York Times. She's well-positioned to be covering the new president, since she reported on him when she worked at the New York Post and the New York Daily News in the early 2000s. Although President Trump has lashed out at her on Twitter, he's also granted her several recent newsmaking interviews. She joined The New York Times in 2015 and covered the Trump campaign before becoming White House correspondent.

Maggie Haberman, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've been covering conflicts in the White House. And it's often referred to as, like, palace intrigue. But when you're writing about conflicts involving the president, his daughter, Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, what's the real importance of writing about those kinds of conflicts? What do they tell us that we should know?

MAGGIE HABERMAN: Well, first of all, thanks for having me. Second of all, it's a great question because I was saying to a colleague yesterday that I'm starting to feel like I'm living in a version of "Groundhog Day" where we write essentially a different version of the same story repeatedly. And to be clear, I've been covering this man now for going on two years. And I covered him long before that but just in terms of campaign mode. And so we've been writing a version of this story for much longer than the time he's been in office.

But it does matter now because it has a broader implication for policy. It has a broader implication for who exactly he's going to listen to guide him on issues like trade, tax reform, the Affordable Care Act, whether to drop out of the Paris accord on climate change. But this is why it matters. It's not interesting gossip, although you certainly do have an element of that, where people get interested in the gossip end of it. And I think that we have not seen this leaky a White House - in my memory in forever, just in terms of sort of the back and forth.

And he surrounds himself - and always have - with people who are very focused and interested on the personnel issues themselves and then they feed it with reporters. So there is a symbiosis. But it does matter in terms of how marginalized will Stephen Bannon be? How much impact are Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and his daughter, Ivanka - both of whom are now formal members of the administration - how much impact will they actually have on guiding him? His chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who you mentioned before, is in a very unusual role in terms of what we have seen of a White House chief of staff in the past.

Usually - we are used to a White House chief of staff playing something of a traditional gatekeeper role. Trump doesn't like gatekeepers. Trump's office style is much more, you know, Grand Central Station than therapist's couch. Like, the door is always open. People come in and out. When my colleague Glenn Thrush and I did an Oval Office interview about two weeks ago, people were just constantly moving in and out. I mean, it was really, you know, a cast of thousands, it felt like.

And so it is harder for Reince Priebus to do that kind of job in the way it has traditionally been done but Priebus also has no legislative experience. And so you are not seeing the kind of liaising to Capitol Hill and to congressional leaders that we might have seen with previous chiefs of staff or that we might see with a different chief of staff if the president makes a change.

GROSS: The conflict within the White House is often portrayed as primarily between Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, who is President Trump's chief strategist. So how much influence would you say Steve Bannon has now over President Trump?

HABERMAN: I think he still has some. I would not treat it as done or completely circumscribed. I'm going to think it as he is on the wane. Certainly, I think he has to keep his head down for a while and just be seen as doing the work. But what I had heard last week was that the president's desire was not to shove him out for a couple of reasons. But one of which is that the president, in 2015, did a campaign shakeup.

And he fired one long-serving aide named Sam Nunberg. And he parted company with his longest serving adviser, Roger Stone, who left the campaign on his own, although Trump later claimed he had fired him. But Stone had - according to all my reporting - had quit. But basically, they existed outside of the tent. And Sam Nunberg was repeatedly very critical of Trump.

And I think that Trump is mindful that there's a real danger in having somebody who had been inside, you know, roaming the quiet countryside. It's a bit of a rendition of the old LBJ line about - something about, you know, urinating inside the tent versus outside. So I think that Bannon still has his ear, it's just that he doesn't unequivocally have his ear anymore.

GROSS: Do you think the president Trump is afraid that if he fired Bannon, that Bannon would use Breitbart media to get back at Trump with negative stories and maybe revealing things that the president would not want revealed?

HABERMAN: I think there is certainly an awareness, both by the president on some sort of level and then by his aides I think on a more granular level, that a weaponized Breitbart is problematic. And, frankly, it wouldn't just be Breitbart. It would be, you know, radio hosts like Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who nonetheless has a pretty large following of Trump supporters. It would be other radio hosts, other conservative bloggers. Bannon has made himself the tinder of this nationalist populist flame for Trump.

In reality, Trump has basically been talking about these themes in a broad way for 30 years. Bannon did not give him this message but Bannon did put some scaffolding on it. And Bannon has created a persona around himself as the keeper of that flame. And I do think that you will see certainly outrage if anything happens to him on his own behalf and, yes, the potential for damaging stories based on actual information.

GROSS: So Jared Kushner went to Iraq representing President Trump. President Trump hasn't made any trips abroad since becoming president which I think is unusual...

HABERMAN: Yes.

GROSS: ...After having served this amount of time in office.

HABERMAN: At this point, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. Is he uncomfortable traveling?

HABERMAN: He is uncomfortable sleeping outside of his own bed, which I know sounds strange to say about a 70-year-old leader of the free world. But you're talking about somebody who during the campaign most nights - not every night, and there were times when it was not feasible - but he would fly home from pretty far distances. But he would fly home to sleep in his own bed. He is a homebody. And he is incredibly provincial. And he is approaching the job in that way.

GROSS: Back to the idea that President Trump does not like to sleep in strange beds. This has implications for diplomacy, doesn't it? I mean, presidents spend a lot of time traveling to other countries, meeting with heads of state.

HABERMAN: Yes. I mean, I think that it's - assuming that it stays this way, I think that you will see at minimum an ongoing outsourcing of handling these kinds of diplomatic meetings. You have Vice President Pence, who is in Asia right now, who has been doing the kind of visit that you would expect to see a president be doing at this stage. And that may change as President Trump becomes more comfortable with the issues, becomes more comfortable, you know, in his own skin in the White House, is less prone to make an error or say something that is problematic or inadvertently gets himself in trouble and captures the stylistic aspect of this as much as the policy pieces.

But I do think that his preference is never going to be being far from home. The thing that I keep hearing about this president over and over from people close to him is he's very lonely. He is unused to living alone. He has always had someone living with him. He is on his third marriage. He has a young son. He spent, as I said, almost every night in his own bed. It wasn't just about his own bed. It was about the familiarity of his family.

His wife has not yet moved to D.C. She is said to be looking at a potential move over the summer but she's has been very focused on their son's schooling. And she's very focused on maintaining a level of privacy for her son, which is just much harder when you're actually in D.C. And so I will candidly believe it when I see it that she moves.

And she might but I think that she has a lot of psychological obstacles to clear before that happens. And consequently, I think you have a president who is spending his evenings pretty isolated and in a way he is unused to. Whether that ultimately forces him sort of out of the white cake castle of the White House remains to be seen. But at the moment, we are looking at a presidency that is more ceremonial than we are used to seeing.

GROSS: You've written that Donald Trump likes to play people against each other, play advisers off one another, encouraging a sort of free-for-all competition for influence and ideas within his circle as long as everyone demonstrates loyalty to him. Is it kind of like "The Apprentice"? I mean, did you watch "The Apprentice"?

HABERMAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: And do you think his presidency has any resemblance to that show?

HABERMAN: I think I watched the first season. Look. I think that - parts of the first season. And, you know, Omarosa is a cast member now in the White House, so look at it that way. I don't think it's quite like that in the sense that I think it's - some of some of it is that he likes the theatrical aspects of choosing people. So when you saw him auditioning Cabinet secretaries, I do think he treated that like a reality show in a way we weren't used to seeing. It was, you know, all the red carpet was laid out in the lobby of Trump Tower for these people to walk through and walk down. I think it is just the way he manages. He likes to keep his options open till the last possible second.

So, for instance - and I was thinking about this a lot yesterday - when he was choosing his vice president back in the summer of 2016, he had very clearly, quote, unquote, "settled" on Mike Pence and decided that's where he was going. That's where Paul Manafort, his then-campaign chairman wanted him to go. It's where a lot of people wanted him to go. But he literally until the last possible second was questioning whether he had made the right decision right before the announcement. And he did, by my reporting, have a last minute, you know, should I pick Chris Christie, and then did not.

But a couple of people who I spoke to - and who my colleague, Alex Burns, who I did most of that race with spoke to - said at the time when we would ask about but didn't he say, you know, am I making the right decision, is this the right move? And two very close advisers to him told us that is just how he talks. One of them said to me, you know, how many times have you spoken to Donald Trump?

And I, you know, I've spoken to him countless times. I've - I covered him at the New York tabloids. And the person said how many times has he asked you your opinion of whether he has made the right decision on something? And the answer was a lot. And so this is a stylistic tic with him as much as it is anything else.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Haberman. She covers the White House for The New York Times and has written about Trump for years because - before covering his campaign and his presidency, she wrote about him for the New York Daily News and the New York Post. We're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Haberman. She covers the White House for The New York Times. She's been writing a lot about President Trump. She covered his campaign as well and wrote about him also when she was reporting for the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

One of your most famous articles about President Trump was from February 5, co-written with Glenn Thrush, who you often co-write with. And this was about - it was headlined "Trump And Staff Rethink Tactics After Stumbles." And this was about how President Trump and his inner circle were so unfamiliar with the workings of government and with the White House, they were sometimes literally in the dark because they couldn't find the light switches and they had to search for the exits for doors that actually lead to the exit.

And how Trump would retreat in the evenings after 6:30 and tweet or watch TV in his bathrobe. And that with his wife Melania and son Barron staying in New York, he's almost always by himself. You also wrote in this that he's obsessed with West Wing decor. And that for a man who sometimes has trouble concentrating on policy memos, he was delighted to page through a book that offered him 17 window covering options (laughter).

HABERMAN: Yes. And that is true.

GROSS: So Trump did not like this article very much. He tweeted, the failing New York Times writes total fiction concerning me. They have gotten it wrong for two years and now are making up stories and sources. And then Sean Spicer criticized the piece for factual errors but the only one he cited was that Trump was not in a bathrobe at night 'cause he doesn't wear bathrobes and he doesn't own one.

HABERMAN: I'd like to just point out that when Sean Spicer said that, the Internet exploded with older pictures of Trump lounging in bathrobes over the last three decades. But anyway, go on.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right. So I guess - what's it like for you when you get that kind of pushback, you know, from the press secretary and the president himself tweets, you know, that you're wrong, wrong, wrong but they don't mention anything outside of the bathrobe that actually challenges any of the facts that you've presented?

HABERMAN: I mean, look. I've gotten used to this. So for me, it's not like any other day. So I am used to him reacting that way when there is a story that he thinks is problematic. I think that we were unused to seeing it from the White House. I think he felt vulnerable.

The main thing that he objected to, as it was described to me, was the bathrobe line. And to be clear, two senior advisers to the president knew everything that was going to be in that story, didn't object to any of those facts including the bathrobe. If that wasn't true, they had a bit of an obligation to say that beforehand.

GROSS: Why the bathrobe? Why was that the thing that bothered him?

HABERMAN: Because it was getting to his personal time in the residence.

GROSS: Let's talk about Vice President Mike Pence's role for a moment. What is his role in the Trump White House?

HABERMAN: It's evolving. You know, he has been sort of searching for the right spots to pick to put himself in. I mean, he's essentially been - it's interesting seeing him on this foreign trip because really he has been relegated primarily to domestic policy which is his experience and his area of focus certainly throughout the campaign. And he was governor of Indiana for years, so he knows little about foreign policy. And I think some of this is him getting up to speed on his own.

He's been sort of the Trump translator with Congress. He is a confidant to the president in a way that we often don't see vice presidents, although I would say that the relationship between Barack Obama and Joe Biden was quite close. But this vice president is the person whose opinion Trump wants sought or weighed or measured in some way on almost everything, regardless of what it is, before he makes a final decision.

He trusts that Mike Pence has his best interests at heart. He does not believe that Mike Pence is doing anything to undermine him. And for Trump, that is enormously important. I mean, for Pence, who's a former congressman, explaining to people on the Hill what the Trump policy endeavors are going to be and how this president will approach them is of huge importance.

But I think that we're going to see him take on perhaps a more expansive role on foreign policy, perhaps a more expansive role as an envoy. And that's pretty interesting in an administration filled with people who already see themselves in that role.

GROSS: But they are so different, I mean, just on the level that President Trump bragged that he grabbed women by the P-word because he had enough power to be able to do that. Mike...

HABERMAN: Did that happen? I don't remember that. I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You didn't hear about that one.

HABERMAN: I didn't. I wasn't - I wasn't in the country for that.

GROSS: You weren't on the planet.

HABERMAN: Right, exactly.

GROSS: And whereas Mike Pence, you know, it's been reported, like, won't dine alone with a woman unless his wife is accompanying him. So it's hard to imagine them being compatible.

HABERMAN: Yes. And when - yes, it is hard to imagine that. And yet, it actually has worked. It's funny because when he was first getting to know Pence during that summer of 2016, and they really didn't know each other at all, they were actually first introduced by Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, who had been in charge of the Republican Governors Association, and knew Pence that way. And he made the introduction, got them together at a meeting during the Indiana primary, which was the last significant one of the Republican presidential race of 2016. Now, Pence then endorsed Ted Cruz in that race, a fact that Trump has never forgotten. Trump never totally forgets anything, although people can overread, you know, his grievances being held as a motive for something. Sometimes it's just sort of a, you know, a sheen that's left, and he'll remember it and bring it up from time to time.

But Pence very quickly melded himself into being a Trump person. Pence has long harbored national ambitions of his own and has always seemed not quite able to get there. And so for Pence's advisers, when he signed on with Trump - and to be clear, this was well before the "Access Hollywood" tape that you were referring to - they took this as a high risk, high reward gamble. When Trump and Pence were first getting to know each other, the one thing that Trump had relayed to people, according to several advisers I spoke to at the time, was that he was a little uncomfortable with how frequently Pence prayed. And Pence is fairly devout about his praying. Trump is not a serious churchgoer and in an anomaly for a presidential candidate, very rarely went to church services when he was running. I think he went to church in Iowa maybe twice. I remember once because I was with him, and at one point, when the - when they were passing around the communion plate, he reached for his wallet thinking it was the collection plate. So he and Pence are very, very different.

Pence is, for lack of a better - I don't want to say malleable because that suggests a lack of core beliefs in a way that I don't mean it, but I do think that Pence, for somebody who is a pretty dyed-in-the-wool conservative, can be willing to take a seemingly contrary stance when it suits him. I think for Trump, it's, frankly, less of a contradiction. You know, he's a novice politician who needed help balancing the ticket, and he needed somebody who wasn't going to overshadow him. His two other true - three options at the time, one was Mike Flynn, who crashed and burned during a road test on a Sunday show with ABC - which was probably for the best Given everything we know now - one was Newt Gingrich and one was Chris Christie. And in both cases but particularly with Newt - and I enjoy covering Newt Gingrich a great deal - but one of the Trump advisers said to me at the time, if we pair them up, they will end up fighting with each other by the end of the campaign. And Pence is never going to overshadow Trump, and he has no illusions about who is at the top, and that's very important for Trump.

GROSS: My guest is Maggie Haberman, who covers the White House for The New York Times. After a break, we'll talk about how although President Trump has tweeted critical things about her, he's also given her interviews, which have made news. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman. Before covering President Trump, she covered Trump's presidential campaign. She also interviewed him and wrote about him in the early 2000s when she was a reporter with the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

Trump has said some very insulting things about you on Twitter, calling you sad and third rate and, you know, criticizing you for just being wrong. And yet, he calls you and he gives you scoops. I mean, he called you right before deciding to pull the plug on repeal and replace of Obamacare to give you a heads up about that. You know, you've interviewed him a bunch of times. It seems very contradictory that he'd be so publicly critical of you and then seek you out in the way that he does.

HABERMAN: I mean, look. There's a - the person who I think is most similar to Trump in terms of how he approaches the media, honestly, is Chuck Schumer. And both of them come out of this New York City tabloid media market milieu. So they sort of understand the high and enjoy the high of getting a good story and have made an art form out of trying to find one. You know, Trump talks to me, I think, 'cause he believes it's advantageous for him sometimes. I also think that - he's known me a long time. And I think it's - I wouldn't underestimate the degree to which the familiar is something that's really important to him, going back to my earlier point about being a homebody.

That said, you know, he perceives all slights as the same. And they're all of the same scale or all - anything that he perceives as a slight is definitely a slight. It's not debatable as to whether it's just a difference of opinion or whether you can just be debating a fact or, I mean, this is what he does. And he's very good at kind of summoning and harnessing outrage against people. Look. If I didn't work at The New York Times - I mean, I'm just being honest - if I didn't work at The New York Times, I'm not sure that I would be hearing from him when asked.

And to be clear, when I spoke to him the day of the AHCA legislation being yanked, I had asked earlier in the day to speak to him that afternoon. I didn't know they were going to pull the bill at that point but I had asked to talk to him. When I have spoken to him, it's because I have asked for these interviews. I asked to talk to him for a story about how he was adjusting to White House life.

But the Times - The New York Times holds a huge place of fascination for Trump. And it's something that I think his base, frankly, really struggles with the reality of. I think certainly, like, the folks at Breitbart struggle with that reality. But Trump is a Queens guy who always feels like people aren't giving him his proper respect. And getting proper respect from the Times has played an enormous role in his psychic life.

And so I think that - I think that's a piece of this. Don't forget that one of the first real interviews he did right after he won was he came to The New York Times and did an on-the-record interview with us and with members of the editorial board but also reporters, with our publisher, with our executive editor. We didn't go to him. He came to us. And it's just an important thing to remember.

GROSS: Let's talk about what it's like to interview President Trump. You referred to the interview that you and Glenn Thrush did with the president that was supposed to be about infrastructure but he started talking about Susan Rice, the former national security adviser, and how she had unmasked the identities of some Trump associates who were swept up in surveillance of foreign officials during the campaign. And the president said this is a massive story that The New York Times isn't covering. And then you pointed out that the Times had written about it twice.

But he wouldn't give you any evidence to back up what he was saying, that there was something, you know, illegal, there was something inappropriate with what she did. And he declined to answer your questions about Rice. You asked if he would declassify some of the evidence. And he said, I don't want to talk about it.

HABERMAN: Right.

GROSS: So I'm wondering whether aides with him in the room - and when he started going off on the Susan Rice thing in an interview that was supposed to be about infrastructure - what was their reaction?

HABERMAN: First of all, when we walked into that interview, there were so many aides in there. It was quite the show of force. And I think some of it was aimed at us. And I think some of it was aimed at keeping him on message. But Gary Cohn was in there. Reed Cordish was in there. Jared Kushner, I believe, was in there. I didn't actually see him. Ivanka Trump was in there. Hope Hicks was there. Sean Spicer was there. And Hope and Sean should be there. At one point, the vice president and Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, wandered in.

It was really quite something. I had asked him a question about Gorsuch. I mean, one of the - he has this very discursive speaking style, as you know. And sometimes you have to just sort of go with it and see what he wants to say. And I asked about Gorsuch. And then he - and Democrats - and then he sort of leapt into Susan Rice. And he really has this staccato speaking/thinking style, so you have to just kind of go with it.

And it was from there that he mentioned O'Reilly's name at one point in an off-the-record moment. And I asked, you know, if he thought that O'Reilly was being treated unfairly. And we asked to go back on the record when I asked that. When he brought up Susan Rice, I don't think that he actually was intending that as a redirection of us per se, although that certainly was what it turned out to be and he does like doing that. But it was a way to criticize the Times.

It was a way to placate his base. It was a way to insinuate this story into our interview. And it was a way to needle me. He said something about Susan Rice giving an interview to Andrea Mitchell at NBC a day earlier. And he said, well, she went to Hillary Clinton's PR person. And then he turned to me and said of course you've been accused of that also. And I said mostly by you, though. And he said no, no, no, mostly by a lot of people. But it ended it and he just moved on to something else. He sometimes does that.

He'll set up something so that he can get to a point that he wants to make that's essentially an insult and that has, like, nothing to do with what you're actually talking about. I mean, the other thing I was struck by that day was when we walked in I had been hearing for two weeks that he was very frustrated with coverage. He was angry at me. He was angry at this one. He didn't see the point in talking. But when we came in, his arms were folded very tight which he sometimes does at the beginning of a conversation.

And he eventually sort of settled in. It was like watching, like, a child sort of go to sleep. And I don't mean that he's a child, I just mean that in my experience it's like watching somebody relax. And he got into it. And he is - look. I saw him early on in the presidency, had a brief meeting with him. And he was very overwhelmed and understandably so. I think that he is growing into the job to some extent. And that came through to me in that interview.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Haberman. She covers the White House for The New York Times. We're going to take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman. She also covered President Trump when she was a reporter for the New York Post and the New York Daily News before he ran for president.

So you started reporting on Donald Trump when you were reporting for the New York Post and the New York Daily News. In what capacity were you reporting on him? What kind of stories were you covering involving him?

HABERMAN: So, you know, I was not assigned to cover Trump. I was a general assignment reporter, then I was a city hall reporter. In the context of covering city hall, you would often end up dealing with something related to Trump or Trump was a quote who you would try to get for a story because he would always juice up a story or Trump was in frequent contact with page six, the gossip page, at the New York Post, which I think played a pretty big part in introducing him to the city and then the country at large. You know, he was very used to a type of story approach on page six where, you know, he maintained good relationships with them. And he recognized that he was sort of a commodity in terms of gossip gold.

But in terms of stories that were about him, it was either, you know, things like him, you know, holding a press conference to say that he wanted to rebuild the Twin Towers or - it was usually in sort of the realm of stunt because that's really what he was doing. In the 2000s, when I first became a political - first became a political reporter in '99 - but in that decade, that was really when he moved sort of out of being a real estate developer and into the celebrity realm. So it was a different kind of Donald Trump, but he was omnipresent.

And when I began at the New York Post, there had been this huge controversy at the Daily News when Pete Hamill was running it, about how frequently to display stories about Donald Trump who had just gone through these bankruptcies and he had gone through the divorce with Marla Maples. And the New York Post was obsessed with it and all over it. And Pete Hamill was really struggling with how to deal with it.

In 2011, when I was at Politico at that point, when Trump was seriously thinking about running - and he was actually, seriously thinking about it. He just didn't treat it seriously at the end. But I covered him a lot. And one of the reasons - when he first was planning to run in 2016 and declare his candidacy in 2015, Sam Nunberg, his aide, called me and said, you know, he's going to announce on June 16, and we want you to break it. And I said, no. And he said, why? And I said because I'm not doing this again. You know, he's - I'm writing a word about this until he actually runs because in 2011, he gave this speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

And it was basically his kickoff of a lot of the themes that we heard throughout 2016. He went up to New Hampshire. He gave all these interviews. He talked about how much money he would have to spend on a race that he was going to self-fund. By the way, that was the whole conversation then.

That's not quite what he did in 2016, despite his claims that he was - or that he was mostly self-funding. But then in sweeps week during "The Apprentice," he announced he wasn't running. And it was like the air coming out of a balloon. So this time when he ran or said he was running, I wanted him to actually say the words before I was going to write about it.

GROSS: When you were interviewing Trump back in the - and was this the aughts that we're talking about, the 2000s the '90s?

HABERMAN: It's the 2000s, yeah, yeah. It's the 2000s.

GROSS: The 2000s, yeah. Was his vocabulary similar? I mean, he seems to have - when talking about policy and when talking about the presidency, his vocabulary seems to be limited. He talks a lot, as you pointed out, in generalizations, using a lot of superlatives, but few specifics. When he was talking about himself in more familiar territory than the presidency, when he was talking about his own business and his own life, was his vocabulary different?

HABERMAN: Yeah, that's a great question. That's a great question.

GROSS: And was his...

HABERMAN: His vocabulary was more specific. I mean, he was - when he was in an area that he actually knew and understood and had some sort of emotional and intellectual connection to, he was more at ease. And it was it reflected in how he would talk. You know, even now, frankly, when you get him talking about business or you get him talking about real estate, he speaks with much more fluidity than on almost anything else that he's involved with as president.

It's funny. There's a video of him that's been kicking around the internet for a year now. And it's a video of him in the '90s - I think it was '95 - doing a review of "Citizen Kane." And he's a big movies guy, Trump. You know, he loves "Sunset Boulevard." And one of the reasons that he loves Mar-a-Lago is it sort of reminds him of that kind of a movie set, and that there's a grandeur to it. But he gave this very, very long exposition on his views of "Citizen Kane" and what rosebud meant. And he sounds very different. He sounds much more sort of at ease with the subject matter. The timber of his voice is different. I mean, some of this is just getting older.

But I think that he's very good - he's always selling, Trump. I mean, that's, I think, the prism through which people need to look at him. He is always selling. And, you know, the reason you asked earlier about why does he call me because he's trying to sell me on him. And so if you look at everything through that lens, he recognizes that he can sell you sometimes in generalities and that he can get from point A to point B in five minutes or less without actually ever really saying anything. On topics that he knows and cares about, he speaks in much more granular detail.

GROSS: What are some other ways that he's either similar to or different from his pre-President Trump?

HABERMAN: I do think that the magnitude of the job is sinking in for him. And, you know, yes, it would be ideal if people who ran for president understood the enormity of the job before getting it. But I think the degree to which whatever he does is going to impact millions of people. And the responsibility of that is slowly settling in.

But in most ways, he's still the same person. He is somebody who, you know, is very transactional. He is driven by a desire for loyalty. He is obsessed with cable coverage - I mean, just obsessed. He still watches a lot of cable TV, even though his aides have tried to limit the time when that happens or put earlier meetings on his calendar. And in most ways, he is - I think most people just don't change at age 70. But I think that he has more respect for how hard this job is. I mean, the story that we all heard after his first Oval Office meeting with President Obama during the transition - and very shortly after he won that, Trump came away overwhelmed and a little freaked out by whatever he heard from the president - then president.

And President Obama came away sort of horrified with how little Trump seemed to know or understand. There's a very, very high bar for him learning. I don't think he is a different human being. I think that he struggles with empathy and always has. And I think that's a difficult thing for a president.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Haberman. She covers the White House for The New York Times and has covered President Trump for years dating back to when she worked for the New York Post and the New York Daily News before joining The Times. We're going to take a short break then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman. And she's covered Trump for many years, including before he was a candidate and including before she worked at The New York Times when she was a reporter for the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

You've reported on President Trump from Mar-a-Lago. Would you give us a sense of what it's like to be there and, like, the setting in which he has meals with heads of state? You know, there was that Saturday night a few weeks ago when he was entertaining the prime minister of Japan.

HABERMAN: That's right.

GROSS: And that night he learned about Korean missile tests and how to make a statement about that. And as I recall, the person who carries a nuclear football was there. And it was all in, you know, kind of...

HABERMAN: Posing for pictures with guests (laughter).

GROSS: And it was in a dining room when which, you know, members who had paid $200,000 to join Mar-a-Lago, you know, were there as well. So give us a sense of what it's like there...

HABERMAN: Sure.

GROSS: ...As compared to say the surroundings of the White House.

HABERMAN: Look, it is the most symbolic synergistic place of his personal, his business and now his presidency. So, I mean, that moment - and it now seems like a lifetime ago - that moment that you're talking about with the Japanese prime minister - but, you know, there were those pictures of him on the patio at Mar-a-Lago using an iPhone light that an aide was holding up to read documents. I mean, that was I think not something that they're going to seek to replicate again.

But I think that he still has yet to understand why it is that he needs to make certain changes, and this is one of them. He loves Mar-a-Lago. So remember, you're talking about somebody who - and in this way, he's strangely prepared for White House life because you get up at a residence, and you go downstairs to your office.

That's what his life was like at Trump Tower for the last 30 years. You know, he lived at the - in this penthouse that was ostensibly on I think the 66th floor. But in reality, it was 58 or something like that because he lies about how many floors there are on Trump Tower and just changed the number to make it sound slightly better.

And then he goes downstairs to his office on 26. And at Mar-a-Lago, he's - when I have seen him at Trump Tower, he's more sort of energized and intense. There is this social greeter aspect of him at Mar-a-Lago that I had never seen before until I was there, and he loves it. It's like watching a kid host a party, and he goes from table to table. And he talks to people and he asks if they're having a good time and what are you eating? And he knows details about their lives. There's a huge patio, and he sits in a corner of the patio. It's a table for about 10. Usually his wife Melania is there, and then he sort of roams around the patio.

And people are spread out, and they're watching him eat. And there's a bar area a little closer to the inside of the building that people hang out at before dinner is served. And then eventually you gravitate out. For him, there is a socializing contact element that I think he just loves. But I think that to your earlier point about the Japanese prime minister, you know, you can't hold national security meetings on the patio of what is essentially a restaurant. And he is adjusting to why that is different. And he doesn't love these adjustments. He has really recoiled from most of them.

Remember the whole argument about his phone, and he didn't want to give up his cell phone. He was still taking calls from, you know, almost anyone on his personal cell phone up until basically the very last minute of the transition before his swearing in. He still uses that personal phone. He just doesn't pick it up. People call, and then he calls them back usually these days. He needs constant social points of contact, and Mar-a-Lago really gives him that.

GROSS: A question about you, Maggie. Your father is Clyde Haberman, who was a longtime correspondent for The New York Times, was a foreign correspondent. Were you inspired to become a reporter watching your father?

HABERMAN: I was not (laughter). It's an excellent question, and I have - I respect my father, I think, really more than I respect any journalist other than than my rabbi who was Jack Newfield at the New York Post. But I had always wanted to be a fiction writer. And my joke when I was first, you know, working in tabloids after I got out of college was that, you know, my studying fiction writing was being put to use. It was obviously not true, but it was the easy punch line.

But I did not live with my father when I was growing up, and I saw the news business as sort of something that consumed and didn't really give back in a big way. When I got out of college and I wanted to get a job in magazines and I couldn't, I got a job as a clerk at the New York Post. And I just fell in love with the newsrooms - of the rhythm of the newsroom and the way it worked and the energy and the sort of exquisite adrenaline rush of reporting on a story. And I think my father has enjoyed that I went into his field.

I look back in a very different way on my father as an adult and as a mother doing this than I did as a kid. I'm extremely proud of my father. But the thing that I remember the most about my father - and this is going to sound ridiculous - but I remember watching a movie with him - and I remember Mel Gibson was in the movie. And it was about journalism, and I can't remember which - what the title was. But at the at the end of the movie, Mel Gibson ends up leaving the story behind. He's in a conflict zone, and he ends up leaving.

And my father said to me - I think I was about 10 - and he said no real reporter would ever leave the story like that. And that left an enormous impression on me. Things like that left an impression on me, but I have these kind of, you know, thumbprint residual memories more than sort of an overarching I'm watching his career for how to do this myself.

GROSS: So you watched him be gone when you were growing up, you know, reporting from other countries, and now you're the mother of three. It's so hard for, you know, most people to balance the responsibilities of parenting and work, and it must be, like, really hard for you because, you know, Trump can be tweeting like late at night or early in the morning and like these stories - the news just does not...

HABERMAN: Terry, think about that sentence. It's going to be very difficult because the tweets are coming in, but it is true.

GROSS: No, no...

HABERMAN: It does not stop.

GROSS: No, but seriously like Saturday night news breaks.

HABERMAN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: You know, the news 10 o'clock, 10:30 at night news breaks. I just don't ever remember news cycles like that.

HABERMAN: No, it's crazy.

GROSS: Yeah. Like, you're never off duty, so...

HABERMAN: I'm trying to - I mean, I think that we're all facing this to be clear. And one of my colleagues Julie Davis also has three children. And I think that she's, you know - she is also adapting to this novelty. You know, my male colleagues all have children, too.

Some of them just have children who are not as young as ours, but it's hard. I mean, it's not - I'm not going to pretend this has been easy on my kids, and I'm really struggling with how to make this palatable and explain to them why it is that this is important and not some life choice I'm making. I try to bring them with me to events. I try to bring them with me to work when I can.

The biggest struggle to your point about tweeting is just putting the phone down. That's the hardest thing to do because, you know, the next tweet is just around the corner or the next tip from a source is just around the corner. And it is hard to reach a point where you realize it's really got to be your own internal monitor to just turn it off.

GROSS: Yeah, and you're very active on Twitter.

HABERMAN: I am. I should probably be less so, but sometimes I look back at the day and I think, oh, I didn't realize I did that. I'm trying - I mean, the good and bad of the fact that this never ends is that, you know, I've found a way to work it where I can make time at strange moments to do things with my children that I might not have otherwise if I had a different kind of job.

GROSS: Maggie Haberman, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

HABERMAN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Correspondent from The New York Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed this week like our interview about helping run President Obama's White House with his former White House deputy chief of staff for operations Alyssa Mastromonaco or our interview with Merriam-Webster dictionary associate editor Corey Stamper about controversies like how to deal with the F-bomb and the N-word in the dictionary or our interview with David Grann about the serial murder of members of the Osage Nation after oil was found on the reservation, check out our podcast.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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