“The word ‘Rosebud’ is maybe the most significant word in film, and what we all watch. The wealth, the sorrow, the unhappiness, the happiness just struck lots of different notes. Citizen Kane was really about accumulation and, at the end of the accumulation, you see what happens and it’s not necessarily all positive.”
These words were spoken in 2008 by an unlikely film critic named Donald Trump. Perhaps he glimpsed himself as if in a mirror. Like Kane in Orson Welles’s masterpiece, Trump was a swaggering capitalist and media star who forayed into politics, was brought down by hubris, and now rattles around a gilded cage in Florida.
“He’s become something of a Charles Foster Kane-like character down in Mar-a-Lago these days,” observes Maggie Haberman, a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New York Times, political analyst for CNN and author of Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, which has a black-and-white photo of Trump on its cover.
Her analogy raises the question: what is Trump’s Rosebud, the childhood sled that symbolised Kane’s lost innocence? “His father is Rosebud, and I don’t think it’s one particular moment,” Haberman replies. “There’s no single childhood memory that is the key. It’s a series of moments that interlock and they point back to his father.”
Fred Trump was a property mogul who had been disappointed by his eldest son Fred Jr’s lack of commitment to the family business. Donald Trump, by contrast, impressed his father by cultivating a brash “killer” persona and became heir apparent. Decades later, in the first weeks of his presidency, Trump had one photo on the credenza behind him in the Oval Office: his father, still watching.
Speaking by phone from her car in midtown Manhattan, Haberman reflects: “His father basically created this endless competition 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 that became a style of dealing with people, which was certainly better suited for a business than for a household.”
“But it became one that Trump recreated in all aspects of his life. It became how he dealt with his own children. It became how he dealt with people who worked for him and then, in the White House, you read a number of stories about these battles that his aides would have. A lot of it was was predetermined by lessons from his father.”
But if Trump is Kane, who is Haberman? Is a series of media interviews to promote the book, she has resisted making herself the story. When Trevor Noah of Comedy Central’s the Daily Show likened her relationship with Trump to that between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, she demurred that the former president is “uniquely focused” on the New York Times “and I’m just the person who has covered him more often than not”.
Even so, during Haberman’s three interviews with Trump for the book – two at Mar-a-Lago and one at Bedminster, New Jersey – he remarked to his staff: “I love being with her. She’s like my psychiatrist. I’ve never seen a psychiatrist, but if I did, I’m sure it would not be as good as this, right?”
There are echoes of fictional mafia boss Tony Soprano and his psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi, but Haberman again sticks to humility: “I think he just said something that he didn’t really mean, and that was intended to flatter. It’s the kind of thing that he says about his Twitter feed or other interviews. He treats everybody like they’re his psychiatrist.”
But is there anything that Haberman can see in person that the rest of us cannot on TV? “He uses his personality and he uses his physicality in ways that I’ve just never seen anybody do and so he can be very charming and and disarming when you meet him, particularly at first. But inevitably he shows displeasure or anger.”
What is beyond dispute is that Haberman, who turns 49 later this month, was better prepared than almost any other reporter for the Trump presidency. She was born in New York to parents who met while working at the New York Post, a tabloid newspaper that he long courted, and lived most of her adult life in the borough where Trump learned the mechanics of political power.
With printers’ ink in her veins, the workaholic Haberman started her own career at the New York Post, moved to the Politico website and then, in 2015, joined the New York Times, where reporting on Trump became her full-time job. She did not follow him to Washington yet, seldom without a phone to her ear, still “owned” the Trump beat from New York.
Her book distinguishes itself from the many others in the Trump canon by delving into this shared history and telling his back story. To fully reckon with Trump, his presidency and political future, she writes, people need to know where she comes from. American carnage in embryo.
She explains: “Everything about this presidency was foretold. The past is prologue with lots of people, but particularly with him. He ended up having this set of behaviors of his own that were augmented by the world he came from, the climate he came from in New York, the industry he came from and the industries he dealt with in terms of politics, of media.”
This was the shady world of Roy Cohn, a mafia lawyer and political fixer best known for his involvement in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign of the 1950s. Cohn was a mentor and personal lawyer to Trump early in his business career and schooled him in the dark arts of attacking your accuser, playing the victim, never apologising and taking a transactional approach to human relations.
Trump was perversely attracted to authoritarianism and violence even then. In 1990, engulfed in personal crises, he praised China for its deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. His narcissistic fixation on the media was there too. Trump planted stories about himself in New York gossip columns and could be both thick skinned and thin skinned at the same time.
Under the influence of his father and of Cohn, Trump’s racism was baked in early. In one anecdote, Haberman writes that, after his second marriage, he dated a model, Kara Young, who had a Black mother and white father. He asked an associate: “Do you think she looks Black?” Weeks after meeting Young’s parents, Trump told her that she got her beauty from her mother and her intelligence “from her dad, the white side”.
Trump’s and attitudes towards race have barely shifted since the New York of the 1980s. Haberman comments: “His pop culture references tended to be from the 1980s and certainly his view of racial strife and crime was frozen in time in 1980s New York when the murder rate at various points hovered near near 2,000 [per year].”
“New York’s racial politics, not entirely, but to some extent have evolved and certainly the crime rate has gone down. But Trump still describes this apocalyptic life that is clearly resonant with him but doesn’t necessarily reflect where things are. ”
Haberman’s long familiarity with Trump meant she was less surprised than many by his political ambitions. She covered his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2011, noting for Politico that “he was by far the best-received speaker”. He did not run then but took the plunge in 2015, trundling down an escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy.
“The timing was right. He was bored with his company. He was much older and he was running out of opportunities but I don’t believe he expected to win. He was very surprised.”
Did he actually want to win? “I asked somebody close to him in April 2015, does he actually want to be president or does he just want to win? And their response was, that’s a really good question, which I took as my answer.”
Trump shook the political world by beating Democrat Hillary Clinton to become the first person elected to the White House with no previous political or military experience. Step back for a moment and it is still astounding, jaw-dropping. How on earth did it happen?
Part of it, Haberman says, was Trump’s ability to capitalise on leftover energy from the Tea Party, a rightwing populist movement with roots in the racial backlash against Obama’s election. Part was Trump’s fame as host of The Apprentice – voters refused to hear facts that contradicted beliefs shaped by the reality TV show.
And for a swath of the country that felt alienated from Washington, there was appeal in a political outsider telling them they were right to be mistrustful. She comments: “Our politics are broken. They’ve been broken for a while. I don’t think he created that but he fueled it and exacerbated it and benefited from it.”
The 45th president lived down to her expectations. She was on the receiving end of both his insatiable desire for attention and his poison-pen responses to critical coverage. A month after taking office, Trump, while developing a symbiotic relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News channel, branded the New York Times and other outlets “the enemy of the American people”.
Haberman comments: “He has endangered journalists with that language and that language has been used by authoritarians in other countries to legitimise anti-press crackdowns. I don’t think Donald Trump has any sense of what the role of the free press is in a democracy. None.”
Was there anything, amid the four-year madness of all caps tweets, hirings and firings, insults and lies that shocked even her? Haberman picks the day that Trump stood on the White House podium floating the idea that coronavirus patients might inject themselves with bleach. “He was feeling competitive with the doctors because he gets competitive with everybody. That was a pretty striking moment.”
As Trump mused on the utility of disinfectants as a miracle cure, the then coronavirus response coordinator, Deborah Birx, infamously sat silent. It was one incident among many that shone a light on the White House officials and aides who enabled Trump – or at least failed to make a stand until it was too late.
But Haberman takes a more charitable view: “There were a lot of people there who really were trying to do the right thing. There were people who were worried about the country. There were people who realised that this was a guy who didn’t understand government and had no idea what he himself stood for.”
Some White House alumni have been condemned for cashing in by writing memoirs. Haberman herself has been accused of holding back pearls of news for her book rather than publishing them in the Times immediately. Critics seized on its revelation that, following his defeat by Joe Biden in the 2020 election, Trump told an aide: “I’m just not going to leave.” His state of denial culminated in a deadly insurrection by a mob of his supporters at the US Capitol on January 6.
Political consultant Steve Schmidt tweeted: “Was it important information for the public to know Trump said he wasn’t leaving after losing an election? Yes. Was this information deliberately concealed for an economic reason that took higher precedence than the truth and the public right to know? YES.”
Haberman flatly denies the charge, saying that she would have published the story if she could have confirmed it at the time but she only nailed it down long after Trump left office. When, during research for the book, she did land a scoop about Trump apparently trying to flush documents down a White House toilet, she alerted the Times and printed it right away.
“Books take time. They’re a process of going back and interviewing people again and revisiting scenes that have happened. I turned to this project in earnest after February 2021 and the second impeachment trial. My goal was to get confirmed, reportable information in print as quick as possible and, if I had known these things in real time, and had them confirmed, I would have published them.”
For Confidence Man she spoke to 250 people, some of whom were more willing to speak for a book than a here-today-gone-tomorrow news story. There are two questions she did not ask Trump but now wishes she had. Did he ever consider a White House taping system? (he is a fan of former president Richard Nixon) Did he ever worry for Vice President Mike Pence’s safety? (There were chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” on January 6).
She may never get the chance. Haberman and Trump have not spoken since the book’s publication. Does she worry that its deeply reported 508-page narrative, a damning verdict for posterity, has severed the relationship? She says firmly: “It’s not a relationship. He’s someone I cover, and I will cover him whether he’s talking to me or not talking to me.”
Or it may prove that he needs her more than she needs him. If Trump can survive an array of federal, state and congressional investigations to run for president again in 2024, Haberman would surely be the lead reporter. “I don’t know. Maybe. Right now I just want to get some sleep.”
So it was that Haberman told Politico last month that her work is both her curse and her salvation – a comment that hinted at, if not her own Rosebud, a realisation that she is not yet untethered from the man she understands better than anyone. “I love work and I love what I do, but I also don’t have an off switch. When you’re covering someone who also doesn’t have an off switch, that can be a problem.”