Maggie Haberman on Trump: 'He became the character of Charles Foster Kane'

Author of a new book about a former president reflecting on his turbulent tenure, and getting into his head

“The word 'Rosebud' is probably the most important word in film, and what we all watch. Wealth, sadness, unhappiness, happiness just makes a lot of different tones. Citizen Kane is really about accumulation and, at the end of accumulation, you see what happens and it's not necessarily all positive.

These words were spoken in 2008 by a film critic named Donald Trump. Maybe he saw himself as in the mirror. Like Kane in Orson Welles' masterpiece, Trump was a haughty capitalist and media star who plunged into politics, was knocked down by hubris, and now rumbles around a golden cage in Florida.

"He's become like the character of Charles Foster Kane at Mar-a-Lago these days," said Maggie Haberman, Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New York Times, political analyst for CNN and author of Donald Trump's Confidence Man: The Making and Breaking of America. , which has a black-and-white photo of Trump on the cover.

The analogy begs the question: what is Trump's Rosebud, the childhood sled symbolizing Kane's lost innocence? "His dad was Rosebud, and I don't think it was a special moment," Haberman replied. “There is not a single childhood memory that is key. It's a series of intertwined moments and they point back to his father."

Fred Trump is a property mogul who is disillusioned by his eldest son Fred Jr.'s lack of commitment to the family business. Donald Trump, on the other hand, impressed his father by cultivating a brash "killer" personality and becoming the heir apparent. Decades later, in the first weeks of his presidency, Trump has one photo on the credenza behind him in the Oval Office: his father, still watching.

Speaking by phone from his car in midtown Manhattan, Haberman reflected: “His father basically created an endless rivalry between Trump and his older brother Freddie, and pitted them against each other. Donald Trump spent a lot of time seeking his father's approval and it became a style of dealing with people, which is certainly more suited to business than home."

“But it became something that Trump reinvented in all aspects of his life. It became how she dealt with her own children. It becomes how he deals with the people who work for him and then, in the White House, you read a number of stories about the battles his aides will have. Much of it was determined by the lessons of his father. ”

But if Trump is Kane, who is Haberman? Was a series of media interviews to promote the book, he has refused to make himself the story. When Comedy Central's Trevor Noah of the Daily Show likened his relationship with Trump to the relationship between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, he denied that the former president was "uniquely focused" on the New York Times "and I was the only one who had covered it up. more often than not."

Even so, during Haberman's three interviews with Trump for the book — two at Mar-a-Lago and one in Bedminster, New Jersey — he commented to his staff: “I enjoyed being with him.

He's like my psychiatrist. I've never been to a psychiatrist, but if I did, I'm sure it wouldn't be as good, right?”

There are echoes of fictional mob boss Tony Soprano and his psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi, but Haberman once again holds to his humility: “I think he just said something he didn't really mean, and that was meant to be flattering. That's what he said about his Twitter feed or other interviews. He treats everyone like they are his psychiatrist."

But is there something Haberman can see live that the rest of us can't see on TV? "He uses his personality and he uses his physique in a way I've never seen anyone else do so he can be so charming and and disarming when you meet him, especially at first. But he couldn't help but show displeasure or anger."

What's undeniable is that Haberman, who turns 49 later this month, is more prepared than almost any other reporter for the Trump presidency. He was born in New York to parents whom he met while working at the New York Post, a tabloid newspaper he had long courted, and lived most of his adult life in an area where Trump studied the mechanics of political power.

With printer ink in his veins, the workaholic Haberman started his own career at the New York Post, moving to the Politico website and then, in 2015, joining the New York Times, where reporting on Trump became his regular job. She hasn't followed him to Washington, rarely without a phone to her ear, still "owns" Trump's beats from New York.

His book sets him apart from many other books in the Trump canon by delving into this shared history and telling the back story. To fully account for Trump, his presidency and his political future, he wrote, one needs to know where he is coming from. American massacre in embryo.

He explained: “Everything about this presidency was prophesied. The past is a prologue with many people, especially with him. He ended up having his own set of behaviors coupled with the world he came from, the climate he came from in New York, the industry he came from and the industry he worked in in terms of politics, media.

This is the shady world of Roy Cohn, a mafia lawyer and political problem solver best known for his involvement in Senator Joseph McCarthy's 1950s anti-communist campaign. Cohn was Trump's personal mentor and attorney early in his business career and educated him in the dark arts of attacking your accusers, playing the victim, never apologizing and taking a transactional approach to human relations.

Trump was very interested in authoritarianism and violence even then. In 1990, hit by a personal crisis, he praised China for its deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. His narcissistic fixation on the media is also there. Trump planted stories about himself in New York gossip columns and can be thick and thin at the same time.

Under the influence of his father and Cohn, Trump's racism emerged early. In one anecdote, Haberman wrote that, after his second marriage, he dated a model, Kara Young, who had a black mother and white father. He asked a colleague: "Do you think he looks Black?" A few weeks after meeting Young's parents, Trump told her that she got her beauty from her mother and her intelligence "from her father, the white side". Trump's attitude and attitude towards race has barely changed since New York in the 1980s. Haberman comments: “His pop culture references tend to be from the 1980s and of course his views on racial strife and crime froze in time in 1980s New York when the homicide rate at various points approached close to 2,000 [a year].”

“New York's racial politics, not completely, but to some extent it has developed and of course the crime rate has gone down. But Trump still portrays this apocalyptic life that clearly resonates with him but doesn't necessarily reflect where he is. ”

Haberman's longstanding familiarity with Trump means he's not too surprised by his political ambitions. He covered his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2011, noting for Politico that "he was the most widely accepted speaker". He didn't run then but took the plunge in 2015, down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy.

“The timing is right. He was bored with his company. He's much older and he's out of chances but I don't believe he expects to win. He was very surprised.”

Does he really want to win? “I asked someone close to him in April 2015, if he really wanted to be president or just wanted to win? And their response was, that's a very good question, which I took as my answer."

Trump rocked politics by defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton to become the first person elected to the White House with no previous political or military experience. Take a step back and it's still astonishing, astonishing. How did it happen?

Part of it, Haberman said, is Trump's ability to tap into the residual energy of the Tea Party, a right-wing populist movement rooted in racial reactions to Obama's election. Part of it is Trump's fame as the host of The Apprentice - voters refuse to hear facts that contradict the beliefs shaped by the reality TV show.

And for swaths of the country that feel alienated from Washington, there's a fascination beyond politics telling them they're right not to believe. He commented: “Our politics is broken. They have been broken for a while. I don't think he invented it but he triggered it and made it worse and benefited from it. ”

The 45th president lived up to his expectations. He was on the receiving end of both his insatiable desire for attention and his poison pen response to critical coverage. A month after taking office, Trump, while developing a symbiotic relationship with Fox News channel Rupert Murdoch, branded the New York Times and other outlets as "enemies of the American people".

Haberman commented: “He has harmed journalists with that language and it has been used by authoritarians in other countries to legitimize anti-press crackdowns. I don't think Donald Trump has any sense of what the role of a free press is in a democracy. There isn't any."

Was there something, amid four years of madness of all the tweet stamps, hiring and firings, insults and lies that even shocked him? Haberman chose the day when Trump stood on the White House podium with the idea that coronavirus patients might inject themselves with bleach. “He feels competitive with the doctors because he is competitive with everyone. It was a pretty striking moment.”

As Trump contemplated the use of disinfectant as a miracle cure, the then-coronavirus response coordinator, Deborah Birx, sat in silence. It was one of many incidents highlighting White House officials and aides that enabled Trump - or at least failed to take a stand until it was too late.

But Haberman takes a more generous view: “There are a lot of people out there who are really trying to do the right thing. There are people who worry about the country. There are people who realize that this is a person who does not understand the government and does not know what he himself is fighting for.”

Several White House alumni have been condemned for cashing in by writing memoirs. Haberman himself has been accused of withholding news pearls for his book rather than immediately publishing it in the Times. Critics caught his revelation that, after his defeat by Joe Biden in the 2020 election, Trump told an aide: "I'm not leaving." His denials culminated in a deadly uprising by mobs of his supporters at the US Capitol on January 6.

Political consultant Steve Schmidt tweeted: “Is it important for the public to know that Trump said he would not leave after losing the election? Yes. Was this information deliberately withheld for economic reasons that take precedence over the truth and the public's right to know? YES."

Haberman vehemently denied the accusations, saying he would have published the story if he could confirm it at the time, but he only settled it long after Trump left office. When, during research for the book, he came across news stories about Trump apparently trying to flush documents down the White House toilets, he alerted the Times and immediately printed them.

“Books take time. They are the process of going back and interviewing people again and revisiting scenes that have occurred. I turned to this project in earnest after February 2021 and the second impeachment trial. My goal is to get confirmed, reportable information in print as quickly as possible and, if I know these things in real time, and have them confirmed, I will publish them.”

For Confidence Man he spoke to 250 people, some of whom would be more willing to speak for a book than here-to-day-go-tomorrow news. There are two questions he didn't ask Trump but now he wants to have. Has he ever considered the White House recording system? (he was a fan of former president Richard Nixon) Did he ever worry about the safety of Vice President Mike Pence? (There's a chant of "Hang Mike Pence!" on January 6.

He might never get the chance. Haberman and Trump have not spoken since the book was published. Was he worried that the deeply reported 508-page narrative, a damning verdict for posterity, had cut ties? He says

firmly: “This is not a relationship. He's someone I protect, and I will protect him whether he talks to me or doesn't talk to me.

Or maybe prove that he needs it more than he needs it. If Trump can survive a series of federal, state, and congressional investigations to run for president again in 2024, Haberman will surely become a major reporter. "I don't know. Maybe. Right now I just want to sleep."

So Haberman told Politico last month that his job is his curse and salvation — a comment that hints, if not his own Rosebud, an awareness that he hasn't been separated from a man he understands better than anyone.

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