Maggie Haberman’s Three Conversations with Donald Trump

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Maggie Haberman for The Atlantic. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain information about deep-discount subscriptions, please click here.

Credit: Federico Yankelevich

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“Can you believe these are my customers?” Donald Trump once asked while surveying the crowd in the Taj Mahal casino’s poker room. “Look at those losers,” he said to his consultant Tom O’Neil, of people spending money on the floor of the Trump Plaza casino. Visiting the Iowa State Fair as a presidential candidate in 2015, he was astounded that locals fell in line to support him because of a few free rides in his branded helicopter. In the White House, he was sometimes stunned at his own backers’ fervor, telling aides, “They’re fucking crazy.” Yet they loved him and wanted to own a piece of him, and that was what mattered most.

Almost immediately after his defeat in 2020, Trump began fundraising off his claims of fraud, turning to his ardent fans for support. Plenty of people donated small amounts of money to continue a fight he swore was valid and building toward action. It was difficult to discern, though, whether Trump actually believed what he was saying about the election.

I learned in the spring that Trump was repeating a claim from one of his most vocal allies, the self-made pillow-company CEO Mike Lindell, that Trump would be reinstated as president by August 2021. Trump liked the idea, telling aides he did not want to have to sit through another three and a half years of a Biden presidency. He quietly encouraged some conservative writers to publicize the idea in their own voices, telling the National Review editor Rich Lowry as well that he anticipated being reinstated by August 2021. Trump encouraged Lowry to write about it, saying it could help the magazine. When Jenna Ellis, his former adviser, protested on Twitter the notion that Trump could be reinstated to office, Trump told Ellis that her reputation would be damaged. She took that as pressure to reverse her statement. Trump conceded to her that the scenario was “almost impossible,” but that he wanted to keep the idea alive.

This article is adapted from Haberman’s forthcoming book.

Other moneymaking opportunities arrived, ostensibly tied to the reverent memory of the Trump presidency. The most audacious plan was for a social-media company of Trump’s own. In the days immediately following the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Trump was suspended from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube; he spent most of the next year insisting that he did not care about being banned while also suing the companies to get his accounts restored. In October, he announced that he would launch his own social network as part of a merger with a so-called blank-check company, whose stock price shot up when the merger was announced. The funding mechanism, which sparked an SEC investigation prior to the platform’s launch, was completely opaque.

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None of this came as any surprise to me. For much of the past decade, reporting on Trump has been my full-time job as a correspondent for The New York Times. To fully reckon with Donald Trump, his presidency, and his political future, people need to know where he comes from. The New York from which Trump emerged was its own morass of corruption and dysfunction, stretching from seats of executive power to portions of the media to the real-estate industry in which his family found its wealth. The world of New York developers was filled with shady figures and rife with backbiting and financial knife fighting; engaging with them was often the cost of doing business. But Trump nevertheless stood out to the journalists covering him as particularly brazen.

I have found myself on the receiving end of the two types of behavior Donald Trump exhibits toward reporters: his relentless desire to hold the media’s gaze, and his poison-pen notes and angry statements in response to coverage. His impulse to try to sell his preferred version of himself was undeterred by the stain that January 6 left on his legacy and on the democratic foundations of the country—if anything, it grew stronger. He had an almost reflexive desire to meet with nearly every author writing a book about him. Trump’s aides offered me an interview, and I asked for two additional ones.

Trump typically welcomed visiting authors for interviews in an indoor area at Mar-a-Lago that gets converted to a dining room at night, where a model of the redesigned Air Force One sits proudly on a low table. But after the headiness of being at the center of the world’s gaze, his time after the White House made him seem shrunken. He often played golf and then went to his newly built office at the club for meetings with whoever traveled down to seek his approval. He would watch television before going to dinner, where club members would sometimes applaud him, and then it would start all over again the next day, so removed from the daily rhythms of the broader world that he was oblivious to holidays on the calendar and staff had to remind him.


When I arrived for the first interview, in March 2021, I was ushered away from the usual room to a smaller area where Trump sometimes dined with guests. I learned as we wrapped up that the club was empty because it had been closed off after a COVID-19 scare, but Trump decided to have us sit there regardless, without checking to see if I was vaccinated. “COVID,” Trump said as he described the club’s closure, “turns out, not good.”

Trump greeted me cordially before taking a seat across the table from me; he was in sales mode, not combat mode. His history in New York was the focus of our interview. He thought back to the first major political figure he had observed up close, the Democratic Party boss Meade Esposito, who dominated Brooklyn politics when Trump joined his father’s real-estate business. “Meade ruled with an iron fist,” Trump said. “And he was a very strong leader, to put it mildly. And when I came to Washington, I said, ‘Oh, well, this is now the big league. So as tough as they were, this must be even tougher.’ But I said, ‘How could anybody be tougher than Meade?’ Meade had a cane at the end. He used to start swinging the cane at people. I mean, he was wild.”

Trump had seemed to try to emulate Esposito’s style in his post-presidency, receiving visitors who came to kiss his ring, and picking favorites in primaries to try to determine the outcomes of those races. Trump’s view of strength never changes, regardless of the context, flattening all situations so they appear the same. He used identical language—“with an iron fist”—when describing how Esposito presided over his boroughwide fiefdom and when he praised China’s President Xi Jinping after his own term ended.

I asked him if he had expected the presidency to function the same way. Rather, Trump said, that is how he thought congressional leaders would act on his behalf: “Well, I figured that the Mitch McConnells would be like him, in the sense of strength.” There were plenty of factual problems with the criticism. In fact, McConnell had kept Republican senators in line over and over to advance Trump’s policy and personnel concerns and generally protect his political standing as the leader of the Republican Party. Nevertheless, Trump said to me in another session, using his favorite new nickname for McConnell, “The Old Crow’s a piece of shit.”

Trump also complained to me about senators successfully practicing this type of power politics against him, as Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz had when they persuaded Trump not to back a challenge to a colleague, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse; Trump gave a surprise endorsement to Sasse, who then, after winning reelection, voted to convict Trump during his second impeachment. “Like a schmuck, I went along with it,” Trump said.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

This article is adapted from Haberman’s forthcoming book Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.

Maggie Haberman is a White House correspondent for The New York Times. She is the author of Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.
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