Donald Trump’s White House is currently the definition of chaos. What else would you call it when a president’s incoming communications director calls the chief of staff a “paranoid schizophrenic”?
In the six months since Trump took office, stranger-than-fiction moments have rewritten the Washington norm. Just when it seemed like nothing could top the ongoing Russia investigation, wiretap accusations against a former president or the firing of an FBI director, the New Yorker published a shocking and detailed account of Anthony Scaramucci’s angry late-night phone call to reporter Ryan Lizza. The tirade about Reince Priebus, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and White House staff was complete with language too vulgar for this publication to print.
This isn’t typical of a presidential administration. But nothing during Trump’s six-month presidency has been. New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman seems to agree. She crossed paths with Trump while working for the New York Post and later for the New York Daily News back when he was just a businessman-turned-reality star. She covered him extensively when he was considering a presidential run in 2011. In 2015, she declined to break the news that he was planning to run, waiting instead until the announcement was official. Later that year, Trump singled her out on Twitter, calling her a “third rate reporter.” Still, hers has remained an interview he covets — he’s done at least a dozen with her. And he recently invited her and her colleagues to the White House. As New Yorker editor David Remnick put it, Trump “is somehow obsessed with her” attention.
It’s safe to say that Haberman understands the inner workings of his dealings better than many covering this administration. A recent podcast she did with Remnick was particularly revelatory. Here’s what we learned:
“We’re not used to a team of the Bloods and Crips, which is essentially what this is in the White House. These are rival gangs.”
Trump encourages rivalry (did we mention the war of the worlds between frenemies Scaramucci and Priebus?). Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred to it as “healthy competition.”
Or as Haberman put it, “rival gangs.” She identified three in the White House as:
- National security advisor H.R. McMaster and the National Security Council.
- Chief economic advisor Gary Cohn and the National Economic Council, with which Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is loosely connected.
- And a miscellaneous band of brothers made up of Bannon and Priebus.
It’s difficult to define who exactly is in these “concentric circles.” Much like the White House, it’s complicated.
“In reality, this is a man who grew up in Ed Koch’s city.”
Koch was New York City’s mayor from 1977 to 1989 – right around the time that Trump became a billionaire. His “you punch me, I’ll punch back” attitude and liberal style of governing had an effect on Trump. So much so that Haberman thinks Trump “fundamentally believes that the role of government is to provide for people” and is more of a “big government type” than many of his supporters realize.
“I think he lives at least loosely by the theory that if not all press is good press, that most press is good press.”
Trump’s got clear opinions of the press. He’s referred to the media as an enemy of the people and has tweeted about the “fake news” media more than 50 times since taking office. But without the news, Trump would get less public attention – something that energizes him.
For the past 30 to 40 years, Haberman said the press has been Trump’s “nurturer and validator.” He’s pitted gossip magazines against each other, all to drum up more interest in stories about him.
“He likes to manipulate the media. He’s a master at it,” she noted.
“Murdoch has always wanted to be an advisor to a president. He certainly didn’t have that with Bill Clinton. And he didn’t even have it with Bush.”
When Australia voted against Labor Party Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2013, people pointed to Rupert Murdoch as the influencer who drove the votes. After all, the papers owned by his News Corp Australia all backed the Liberal Party winner Tony Abbott.
The media mogul never had that same impact on American politics. But he has always sought to, Haberman said. He finally found a willing recipient in Trump, a president who talks to him often about the economy, news stories and major happenings of the world.
Murdoch isn’t Trump’s only outside advisor. Haberman also cited three others: – Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity, Blackstone Group CEO Steve Schwarzman and businessman Ron Lauder. All three have been part of that white male advisory club.
“The New York Post is the president’s first read.”
This isn’t breaking news, but it is an important reminder of how Trump gets his information. The New York Post, Fox and Friends and his own Twitter feed are some of the places that daily shape Trump’s perspective.
“Kushner has what many people in Trump’s orbit have, which is a sense of huge misdirection.”
Trump’s White House is quick to point fingers when there’s trouble in Washington.
“Not much reflection on their own actions,” Haberman said about how the administration has responded to an investigation like Russia, where “leakers” and Democrats have been the subject of ongoing White House blame in the seven months since Trump has taken office.
So, what does that have to do with Kushner? Haberman points to history.
His father, Charles Kushner, served 14 months in federal prison after he was convicted in 2005 for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions.
Haberman said that Kushner still carries a grievance about his father’s prison time, specifically with those who put him behind bars (a list that at one point may have included then- U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Chris Christie, who prosecuted Kushner).
It’s understandable that a son would not want to place direct blame on his father, Haberman noted. But Kushner’s blame game is largely representative of how Trump’s White House acts as a whole.
“Trump’s Oval Office is like Grand Central Station.”
About 750,000 people walk through New York’s Grand Central Station every day. Many tourists and New Yorkers alike come simply to stop and stare and take photos, popping their heads in just to have a look. In Trump’s Oval Office there is no shortage of foot traffic. Former FBI Director James Comey even referenced that in his opening Senate intel statement, mentioning the fact that during one of his spontaneous meetings with Trump, Priebus popped his head in the room near the grandfather clock.
This is by design. When Trump took office, the room was redecorated in gold. Chairs were added in front of the president’s Resolute desk. And military flags were placed around the room. Trump likes bringing visitors to the Oval Office and conducting everyday business there. That’s a change from Oval Offices of yesteryear.
Haberman and other outlets often report that Trump spends much of his time watching television. Look to his routine Twitter commentary on reports he sees on “Fox &and Friends” for proof. But he also spends much of his days “interacting,” as Haberman put it, with those coming and going from the most talked-about room in the White House.
Trump’s been an official Washington politico for less than a year. He’s been a New Yorker for his entire life. Maybe that’s why his administration rivals the commotion of New York City.