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Trump sees hate as a civic good, 'N.Y. Times' journalist Maggie Haberman says

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Mesa, Ariz., on Oct. 9. Trump is currently facing two Justice Department investigations, as well as an investigation in the state of Georgia.
Mario Tama
/
Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Mesa, Ariz., on Oct. 9. Trump is currently facing two Justice Department investigations, as well as an investigation in the state of Georgia.

As the Jan. 6 hearings resume this week, New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman says former President Donald Trump is likely in greater legal peril than ever before.

"The scale and nature of the investigations that he's facing now are more significant than almost anything else he has faced," Haberman says.

Trump is confronting two Justice Department investigations — one related to the Jan. 6 insurrection, and another specific to the classified documents that were seized from his Mar-a-Lago residence in August. Officials in Georgia are also looking into his involvement in efforts to challenge the 2020 election results in that state.

Haberman notes that though all three of the investigations pose a threat, Trump seems most concerned with the documents case: "The documents case connects more directly to him because there's a clear throughline where he was being told to return these boxes and he wouldn't, and that there were three different efforts to recover documents and they kept finding classified documents with each interaction. It's just harder to blame on someone else."

Haberman has known and reported on Trump for decades. Her new book, Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, chronicles Trump's formative influences in the rough-and-tumble worlds of New York City real estate and machine politics.

Haberman writes that Trump learned early to personalize every conflict and see political relationships as transactional. His father, Fred Trump, cultivated relationships with powerful politicians — including Meade Esposito, the scandal-ridden Brooklyn Democratic machine boss — and then "gifted" those connections to his son, Haberman says.

"I asked [Trump] about Esposito and if he had thought that being president was going to be like that. He said Meade 'ruled with an iron fist,' " Haberman says. "That was how he believed government worked. People made decisions for their fiefdoms and what they said went and people operated in fear. And that was how Trump believed Washington would work."


Interview highlights

Confidence Man, by Maggie Haberman
/ Penguin Random House
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Penguin Random House

On Trump's interests in college

He left scattered impressions on the people he encountered. He either seemed like a hyper-competitive person looking to get into real estate or, more privately, he had this interest in being a star. And he talked about this in an interview a few years back, it was before the presidency, about how he had brought show business to the real estate industry. He had toyed with the idea of going to USC film school. He has been obsessed with movies all his life, and I think part of it is just creating this alternate reality for himself.

On Trump speaking differently for print vs. broadcast interviews

To me, it was one of the most interesting moments of any of the three interviews. He led in by saying, "Well, we've agreed you're not releasing these tapes." And I said, "No, we have not not agreed on that, but I will listen to you if you have an argument to make." And he started explaining that, if [he's] being interviewed for [broadcast] that he speaks differently. And he said, "Whereas if I'm being interviewed by you for the written word, like your book, I use repetition to beat it into your beautiful brain. Do you understand that?" And it was quite a statement. It was quite a statement because it was menacing on the "beating it into my brain." But it was also pretty self-aware about how he uses repetition, which is something that anyone who has focused on how Donald Trump uses language, which I have, and I wrote a whole story with Pat Healy, my colleague, about this in 2015. Repetition is a huge part of his repertoire, but hearing him talk about it was really interesting.

On Trump's longtime habit of tearing up documents, scattering pieces in trash bins or on the floor or flushing them down toilets

The ripping it up just seemed to be a habit that he had from Trump Tower, and he saw no reason to change once it was the government's documents. The flushing it, the staff who was aware of this had all kinds of speculation about why. They all uniformly believed it was things he didn't want people seeing. I do know from reporting that he was very suspicious of burn bags. He would use them. But burn bags are the method by which you get rid of paper in [the] White House, whether it's for the president or for staff. He was always questioning whether the material would actually be gotten rid of or if people would be going through it. He's deeply paranoid.

On concerns for Pence's safety leading up to Jan 6.

Marc Short, Pence's chief of staff in the White House, became concerned on January 5th, the day before the planned rally. Trump was becoming much more aggressive toward elected officials. And he became convinced that Trump was going to publicly turn on Pence and that they might have a security risk because of it. And so Marc Short called Tim Giebels, who was Pence's lead Secret Service agent, to Short's West Wing office, where he told him about this and flagged it. And it was the only time that Short, who was only in that role for, I think, two years, but it was the only time that he flagged a security risk — and the security risk he's flagging is the president.

On Trump's habit of asking everyone around him for advice — including the valet who brought him Diet Cokes

He treats everyone like they're his therapist: Friends and pseudo-friends and White House aides and campaign aides and Mar-a-Lago aides, the guy who brought him the Diet Coke. He is working it out in front of all of us in real time. One of the most interesting bits of color I got around his deliberations on what he was trying to do and how far he was going to take things ahead of January 6th ... he kept asking everyone what he should do, including the valet, who brings him the Diet Coke when he presses a red button on his desk. And this was pretty striking to the people who saw it, who came away thinking, 'Seriously, you're asking the person who's bringing you a Diet Coke what avenue you should be taking and to try to stay in power?' This is just who he is.

On the criticism that her coverage helps "normalize" Trump

I really don't think that's the case. I think we've all pretty clearly captured how outside of normal he is and was as a president. But becoming president is in and of itself normalizing because of the nature of the office. He is, despite his behavior, he is literally human, and so when you're writing about somebody's life, you learn things about their life. ... What I find with him is that just baseline human interpersonal behavior with him, the people who really like him tend to rate it much higher than they would with somebody else, because they're countering it against the bad behavior.

On a photo of Haberman and Trump together that's used to discredit her

When you're seeing that picture, it looks like something other than what it is. That picture was me going to the White House to visit a Trump aide to talk to them for a story when [the administration] had first come into office. So it was really in the first few days and the person said, "The president wants to say hi," or something. I was with a colleague I brought to the Oval Office. Trump said, as he often does, "Let's take a picture." Now, his goal in taking a picture, I think, is normally to have it for some purpose of his own. At the very last minute, he threw his arm around me very hard and it really startled me. And I reacted with the look on my face how I reacted. But Trump is all about dominance. And that seemed to me that's what it was like. So I don't think that's going to calm people down about what they think that is. But that is what that is.

On the "breaking" of American politics

I think American politics was changing to this level of smash-mouth to some extent before he got here. I think the Tea Party era helped usher that in and I think he fueled it and accelerated it and benefited from it. And I think it is defining the Republican Party in large measure right now. I think all of our politics are defined, not just the Republicans at this point, by who you hate and who hates you back. He just happens to fare very well in that kind of an environment, because ... he sees hate as a civic good.

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Heidi Glenn adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.