The future, unlike most Trump staffer memoirs, is still to be written. The showman may not escape prison. The world may not escape his second term. Yet, despite the outpouring of words, he somehow escapes explanation. As a filmmaker – and a repeat offender when it comes to Trump documentaries – I have measured out my recent life with Trump era books. Scaling another 500-plus pages is daunting, albeit enticing in the hands of the New York Times’s White House correspondent.
There’s moths and flames. And then there’s Trump and Maggie Haberman. He knows he shouldn’t, but he just can’t help himself. For this book, he has given her three dedicated interviews, regular meetings – and revelations galore. Further antisemitic jibes? Check. (Trump mocks Jared Kushner’s Jewishness.) Racist impulses? Check. (He assumes a row of unfamiliar, racially diverse faces at a White House banquet must be waiters.) A uniquely unpresidential form of document disposal? Check. (He periodically flushes Presidential papers down toilets, clogging pipes.)
But what’s most valuable in this book is not its noisy newsworthiness. Long after the fleeting headlines have been forgotten, its quieter virtues will still shine.
As Pulitzer Prize-winner Carlos Lozada put it a couple of years ago in his book about Trump books (yes, that’s where we’ve got to), it’s an irony of our age that a man who rarely reads has prompted such a salvo of titles. Lozada’s thought-provoking thesis is that the books about Trump’s America, whether written by liberals or conservatives, pundits or players, are invariably vulnerable to the same failures of imagination that gave America his presidency in the first place.
It’s certainly true that Trump memoirs or polemics often reveal, rather than explore, the divided and alienated country that allowed him, with some help from a social media platform, to secure his nation’s most powerful office. But at their best they also transcend their genre – the quest to explain the narcissistic former star of The Apprentice can suddenly become a quest to understand contemporary America. There are moments when it feels this is the territory Haberman is staking out in Confidence Man.
Early on, she gently rebukes many of her predecessors by suggesting that a standard narrative approach, beginning with the launch of the 2015 presidential campaign, or in the Trump White House, inadvertently supports the wrong-headed notion that he was a political ingenue before this all kicked off. He wasn’t. There’s always been a kind of madness. But there’s long been method, too.
America’s patron saint of material success – the compulsive, controversial, transactional, relentlessly self-promoting, former president – was being shaped for the highest office even in the decades when he didn’t choose to seek it. And few know that world better than Haberman. A born and bred New Yorker (her parents met on the NY Post, Trump’s favoured tabloid and her mother, a PR maestro, briefly represented some of his projects), she went into journalism at the turn of the century – and Trump’s been providing her with exhilarating copy ever since.
She promises in the book an examination of the world that made him, as much as an examination of the man who has done his best, intentionally or not, to remake the world. And for anyone coming to the back story fresh, it is fascinating to see how Trump instinctively absorbed influences from the local politics of his time and place, so much so that it was no surprise when his Presidency later functioned like an informal national mayoralty, heavily modelled on the New York of the 1980s and early 1990s. (And just a shame that the city from which he emerged was, as Haberman writes “its own morass of corruption and dysfunction” in which “tribal racial politics dominated aspects of public life”.)
Yet, however crucial, nothing in this origin story (roughly the book’s first 200 pages), feels revelatory, and some of the biographers she name-checks, such as Wayne Barrett or Tim O’Brien, have already told it just as meticulously, but with a degree more verve. Others – Harry Hurt for one – certainly pulled fewer punches. (In the course of Trump’s first divorce Ivana made a striking legal deposition about an incident in 1989 as their marriage fell apart. The subsequent settlement included a gagging order, preventing her from publicly discussing their marriage. This goes unmentioned in Confidence Man.)
This book has been much anticipated, in part because of the psycho-drama. Trump’s notorious obsession with Haberman, which dates from long before his presidency, only deepened when she joined the “failing NY Times”, the paper he hates to love. (Even in the hours he first learnt of his Presidential triumph, it turns out that Trump was more worried about passing messages to her through other journalists, than to giving them copy.)
So perhaps it’s no surprise that where Haberman, who once studied psychology, ultimately triumphs is in her clinical dissection of the Trump psyche and playbook. (“There is the counterattack, there is the quick lie, there is the shift of blame, there is the distraction or misdirection, there is the outburst of rage, there is the performative anger...”)
When beautiful writing and deep reporting intersect, she occasionally seems, at least for a moment, to pin down a man who can possess the thinnest and thickest skin simultaneously and who – still – no one really knows.
Confidence Man by Maggie Haberman is published by Mudlark at £25, to order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books