And now, from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio, The Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.
Maggie Haberman and Donald Trump will be tied forever in the public consciousness. Haberman, a Pulitzer Prize winning political reporter for The New York Times, has covered Trump for decades, dating back to her years as a reporter for the New York tabloids, which is when I first met her. Now she’s written a definitive biography on Trump, which puts him in the context of a life dating back to his roots in the sketchy world of New York real estate and politics, and not just his relatively brief political career. I spoke with her the other day about her long history with Trump and her new bestseller, “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and Breaking of America.” Here’s that conversation. Maggie Haberman, my friend, it’s great to see you. You’re the the talk of the town, whatever town you’re in. You’re the talk of the town now because of your new book, “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” I want to talk about all of that, but I want to start with your. This whole book could be, could have been titled past as prologue. That’s really sort of the leitmotif of your of your book, which is that Donald Trump didn’t start behaving this way in the last seven years. This is behavior that’s been modeled, of course, over the course of a lifetime in business, as well as politics and entertainment and all of that. But you have covered him for a very long time. And before we even get to the substance of this very, very meaty kind of look at the man, how did you become sort of at once the Trump, sort of the bane of Trump’s existence and his his whisperer? It seems like a weird balance.
So, first of all, thanks for having me. It’s great to see you always. I don’t think the term whisperer is actually that the right one.
I knew you’d object to that.
I threw it out there anyway [crosstalk].
I saw you doing it. I saw the wheels turning. Yeah.
But but but you know what? You you yourself, in your book, you talk about your interactions with him. At times, that he’d flay you in public and then be calling you in private, which is such weird behavior, really.
It is. It’s different. I mean, I guess what I would say is, from my perspective, David, he’s a subject who I cover the same way that I covered Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton.
Mike, Mike Bloomberg or, you know, at a more of a remove, three presidents. But he, his desire to sort of hold media attention is just fundamentally different than anyone else that I’ve ever covered. And certainly I think any any president we’ve ever had. I mean, you know, it’s. A president in the United States gets a fair amount of built-in and baked-in media attention, and that’s still, like, nowhere near enough for him. So, you know, he he lashes out and he attacks, because that’s – sometimes he’s just having a reaction, and sometimes he’s trying to intimidate you on coverage. And then, you know, he sees if he can sell you and and, you know, either reaches back out or takes a call. And it’s it’s disorienting because, you know, it is. It is. And I think I think what I, what I was dealing with as a journalist is what a lot of journalists dealt with with him. But it’s also maybe maybe it was more visible in terms of him attacking me. And a lot of it is about his obsession with The New York Times.
You know, which has existed for decades. But but it’s also this this sort of whipsawing effect is very similar to what he had on the country. And I think it’s no different.
There’s so much to unpack in in just what you just said. But let me start with this. This obsession with The New York Times is sort of a reflection of a longer story that you tell here of the outer borough guy, the guy whose father was a real estate mogul who sort of made his bones in Queens and Brooklyn, but never really penetrated the sort of hoity pilloi world of Manhattan. And that was Trump’s objective from the beginning. He wanted to penetrate that the society of of of Manhattan, of which the Times is sort of, you know, reflected. The Times is kind of, that’s the paper of record for those folks, you know. The tabloids, which love to cover the Trumps, they’re sort of an outer borough thing. So what is it about why why was Trump so driven that way?
For whatever reason, he got very obsessed with becoming famous very early on. His father wanted him to be in the real estate business. And Trump talked, you know, in college about becoming the king of real estate, which is clearly what his father wanted. And Trump always wanted to do something bigger than his father was, you know, in a constant state of, you know, resentment.
Yeah. And respect and and, you know, anger and competition with his father that becoming famous was just such an objective for him. Very early on, he, you know, toyed with the idea of going to USC film school. It became clear from a very early age that so much of what he did was about being showy as opposed to the substance of what he was doing. And the other thing that became clear early on, although, you know, early on in hindsight, he’s such an unreliable narrator of his own story, which I realize is sort of a dichot, you know, a problem when we’re relying on him to talk about things. And I do have to do that at points in this book. But I tell this story about how he defined this moment as sort of seminal for him when he’s 18 years old and he goes to the dedication ceremony of the Verrazano Bridge with his father and Robert Moses, who Trump had a bit of a fascination with, master master builder.
Yeah. Huge figure in New York history. Sort of ran everything.
Ran everything. You know, the kind of person about whom Trump would say ruled with an iron fist. Right. And he would mean that very admiringly. Moses is the master of ceremonies. And Trump tells this story, you know, some, I think, 16 years later, to a New York Times reporter, and he brings it up again with with someone else later, at least once, that, you know, all these jerks were standing around in the pouring rain, congratulating themselves for the fact that this bridge they opposed was getting built. And there indeed have been decades of delays. And, you know, over there in a corner being ignored by everybody is this is this poor bridge engineer, you know, who came all the way over here from another country to to design this bridge for us. And I realized that in there that you can’t let yourself be anyone’s, you won’t be anyone’s sucker. I won’t be anyone’s sucker.
Yeah. Now, the story’s all bullshit.
It’s almost, it’s almost entirely a confection. The only thing he gets right is the guy’s age. He gets the country he’s from wrong. He gets how long he’s been in the country, how long he’s been here wrong.
But why was the parable, why did he create the parable? What does it say about him? Because he, does he worried that he was going to be that poor schlub?
Yes, I think it was basically, number one that he is going to be that poor schlub. And number two, he appeared to be focused solely on Robert Moses. Someone else actually did say the guy’s name. But it was based. Moses spent many minutes praising the guy, and that still wasn’t enough because Moses didn’t actually say his name. And so, a, he seemed to take from it that, you know, no slight could happen by accident. It was all, you know, to make you a sucker, number one. And number two, that, you know, if someone did did something to you, it was intentionally to harm you. And number three, that there was nothing worse than not having your name out there. And it’s almost entirely concocted. It’s so I just found it to be a pretty revealing moment. And it was not pouring rain.
You talk early in the book about formative relationships, but the most formative was his relationship with his father, as you as you suggest. You know, I read somewhere that his father said to him, I don’t think it was in your book, but you’ve said similar things. His father said to him that, you know, there are two kinds of people in the world. There are killers and there are, there are killers and there are losers. And, you know, the message is very, very clear, which is that the world’s the Hunger Games, you know. The strong, the strong survive, the weak fall away, and you’ve got to be a killer. The worst thing in the world is to be a loser.
And have people laughing at you, which Trump is completely consumed by.
Yeah, I know. I was at that White House Correspondents Dinner. I may have participated in some of the, of that preparation.
But we’ll get back to that. But this seems to me one thing that comes through in your book is, you know, he lost the Iowa caucuses and immediately suggested it must, it was stolen from us. And there have been that along several stages. Even when he won the election in 2016, he couldn’t take that he had gotten 3 million votes less than Hillary Clinton. And, you know, we all remember, impaneled a commission under Pence to try and find the votes, which, of course, they couldn’t. Is this all part of that? Is it that he just can’t be seen as a loser, that a loser is worse than death?
That’s traumatic. I certainly think that’s a big part of it. I also just think that so much of it is him, even if it’s not about losing per se, if it’s just about something he doesn’t like, he refuses to accept somebody else’s version of reality. And David, he refuses to accept that systems should apply to him, that rules and regulations should apply to him. And I think that’s a big piece of that, too. So he spends all of this time creating these alternative realities.
Well, if you believe, as we were saying a few minutes ago, that the world is sort of this dystopia, this, you know, the the Hunger Games, then you also believe that rules and laws and norms are for suckers and that nothing is on the legit.
Mm hmm. I think that’s true. I agree.
That that seems to be something that courses through his life, as well. And certainly we saw it in his presidency. What, you and I are talking right now on the day of the final January 6th hearing. And, you know, I don’t know what could be, what will happen in a court of law if it ever gets there, but certainly a very strong case was made that that he was the central player in propagating this fraud about fraud and then inciting a an insurrection. And it all seems of a piece.
Yeah. I mean, it’s the ultimate systems don’t apply to him. Rules don’t apply to him. You know, you talked about his father. I think there’s a third or second, I guess, piece to remember that he gets from his father. It’s not just sort of this mentality about killers and losers. And his father was, in Ivana Trump’s words, brutal. But he was, Trump as a child of privilege who was raised by a wealthy guy who had, you know, chauffeured cars in the driveway and was driven on his paper route. And when you grow up to believe that everything is going to be hardwired for you, you tend to think the rules shouldn’t apply. And I think that the sort of childhood privilege aspect of Donald Trump gets really lost, because he has so repackaged himself as this outer borough working class guy, which is just not at all who he is. Now, he sounds that way, but that is not who he is.
Yeah, well, he sounds that way and he appeals that way. You know, one of the things that I’m interested in who Donald Trump is, and your work will contribute now and for history to that portrait, has become pretty clear, you know, even in these hearings, it’s, you know, you know, this long ago, this game of Worldle has been solved, and the word is Trump. Everybody knows what the answer is. But what’s really interesting is how many people follow him. And, you know, there are a whole lot of people in this country. We did a poll at the Institute of Politics that, you know, it’s 56% of people said they thought the government was corrupt and rigged against them. He recognized that. That that’s a market for him.
Absolutely. This was something to tap into. No question.
So if you’re a rule breaker, and you’re kind of giving a finger to the system that they think is screwing them, that’s a powerful thing.
Yeah. It’s just the problem is when you take that system over, and you have to be responsible for that system, and you are the president, who are you blaming? I mean, you know, the thing with him is that, and this is always sort of the issue with defining what exactly, what strain of behavior he represents in a governing context, is that everything is about avoiding responsibility and all about getting credit. Right? So, I mean, it’s not. To describe him as an authoritarian, I think it ends up looking that way. But authoritarianism is actually a theory of governance and it’s an approach. And it’s, you know, by people who don’t really mind taking responsibility for things. His is much more about sloughing it off and trying to avoid blame.
Yeah, it’s also about facades.
But his gig is about, or his approach. You know, I think it’s so symbolic that the set for “The Apprentice” was actually a facade.
Correct. The set for “The Apprentice” was a facade. So much of what he, you know, the way, this artifice he built of himself in the seventies, eighties and nineties as this self-made man was largely a facade, as this, you know, this facade of of a successful tycoon commensurate with titans of industry. You know, he he he had done more than the average person, and he had done more than some some real estate developers in New York. But again, heavily reliant on his father to get a lot of it done. You know, much smaller portfolio than other people. You know, claiming, claiming claiming net worth that, you know, he would pretend to be a publicist to get on the phone with with Forbes reporters compiling this list of the wealthiest. You know, posing as somebody representing Donald Trump. And it just goes on and on and on like that. And so by the time you get to the presidency, it’s very hard for the public to tell what’s real and what’s not real. And so many people felt, particularly to your point about “The Apprentice,” which was some of it was filmed while he was going through yet another bankruptcy, you know, but but he’s just branding himself as this massive success. People didn’t. A lot of voters did not understand that “The Apprentice” was not who he actually was.
Well, listen, you have a great anecdote, not from the 2016 election, but from when he was just tipping his toe in the water before I guess before 2012, right?
You were you were in Iowa, and you grabbed a voter and you asked them, you know, about Trump, and what did they tell you?
Well, actually, that was that was 2016.
And it was it was it was right before the caucuses. But in 2011, when I was following him around in New Hampshire, you know, the impulse was to say, well, these are probably some of these are tourists coming across the New Hampshire state line. But there were clearly some voters in the state who were just riveted by him. And, you know, when he was driving, he was driving around in a limousine. It was unlike anything else I had ever seen.
What I wanted to tell you. So, the anecdote I was thinking of was where you grabbed the voter and the voters said, “Well, I’ve seen him run his business.” So the degree to which “The Apprentice” was his actually political base is pretty significant. I asked someone to do a poll back in 2015. I asked him to put in a cross tab, and the tab was, are you an “Apprentice” watcher?
That’s really interesting.
This was for Republican primary voters. And first of all, a significant number of Republican primary voters were “Apprentice” watchers. The show really hit the demo. Secondly, among those, as you might predict, his numbers were astronomical. Among all the other Republicans, they were flat.
So one thing, David, that I was thinking about as you were talking about that is that the “The Apprentice” was created by Mark Burnett, who was, you know, an “Art of the Deal” mega fan. And “The Art of the Deal” was the book that Trump, quote unquote, wrote with Tony Schwartz as the ghostwriter in 1987. And it created this character of Donald Trump. If you want a much more authentic book that was written by Trump in Trump’s voice, it was the 1990 Surviving at the– or actually, maybe it was a little later than that– “Surviving at the Top,” which was a book that he wrote when he was, you know, selling him, that he was on on the upswing again when he really wasn’t. But it’s just filled with grievance and anger, and, you know, talking about, you know, how bitter he was that people had been had been, quote unquote, covering up for, I mean, I’m paraphrasing covering up, but that people have been covering up the fact that that Malcolm Forbes, who had just died, was a gay man and not reporting. I it’s just it’s it’s just filled with actual Trump, to your point about none of the behavior changes. But basically Trump was starring in a show that was him playing a character based on himself off of the book, based on a Donald Trump character. And the first polling that I know of that was done about a Donald Trump presidential campaign was 1988.
By Doug Schoen. Yeah. And among the things that Doug tested, you know, and his methodology was not clear in the in the memo, it was clearly done for Trump’s consumption. But either to make him feel good or to sell him on a future [crosstalk].
Or to make him run so that he could make some money.
And a future. I mean, that’s that, it reads like it’s trying to sell him on a future in national politics. And so. But one of the things they tested was how “The Art of the Deal” was having an impact on voters and how it was, you know, impacting his image and people seeing him. And it’s fascinating because it was just very clear that he was tapping into something pretty early, you know, portraying a character he he he wasn’t really.
Well, you also write about having covered Trump before “The Apprentice” and covering Trump after “The Apprentice” and just how differently people reacted to him. It’s like the power. It’s the power of television.
Yes, it’s and he was real, he was really aware of it. And, you know, again, the show, as I said, was taking place at a time when he was really, you know, not, he was never quite back after his early 1990s problems. But but at that point, when he was when he was doing this show, he starts getting greeted like a star in a way he just hadn’t been before. For all of the interviews he had done and movie cameos, and, you know, his name has been so ubiquitous in pop culture going back to the 1980s. I mean, this isn’t in the book, but I, I was rewatching, because who among us doesn’t, Mystic Pizza recently. And there’s a scene where one of the characters is walking into a room, and in the background on television is Robin Leach talking about Mar-a-Lago. So, I mean, this is the nighteen, that movie came out when I was in high school. There’s, he’s just been everywhere for a very long time. But “The Apprentice” made him a star in a way that he just hadn’t been, in a way he always wanted to be.
Yeah. And is obviously very, very important to him. You you asked him why he wanted to be president, and he said something like, How many rich guys’ names do people remember? You know, it’s not enough just to be a rich guy.
He said he wanted to be. It was. Well, there were two things that he said. There were. He started telling the story. I don’t actually. I cannot remember. I don’t have it in front of me, I don’t remember what the lead-in was. But he started telling me the story about. He said, before I did the presidency, that was the quote. And he said, you know, he was he was like like it was some show. And he said it was he was he was famous and rich, and he had all these friends who were rich but not famous. And they couldn’t get a table at a restaurant. But he could, and they would call him asking for help. And it was an identical story. And he makes up some friend, you know, hey, Don, can you help me? It was almost identical to something he said to Lois Romano then at the Washington Post in 1984 for a style section piece that she writes. And he then just talking says, The question I get asked more than any other is, you know, would I do it again? Meaning run for president. And I said, What’s the answer? And he said that the answer was yes, because the way he looks at it, he has so many rich friends and nobody knows who they are. And I was pretty shocked that he said it, because it was, you know, it has been an article of faith for people around him for a long time that the real reason that he ran for president was to be famous. But he basically said it.
We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You talked before about him not wanting to be laughed at. And you live in New York. You travel in these circles. If you talk to very successful businesspeople in New York before he got elected president. Like I talked to one three weeks before the election. And I said, well, you must know Trump. Yes, I know, Donald. I said, do you ever do business with me? Are you kidding? I’d never do business with him.
I think he, you know, he stiffs his partners. He stiffs his contractors. You know, he’s. And he was derisive of him. Well, Trump kind of trumped all of those guys by becoming president. I mean.
Yeah. That’s what he thinks. Yeah. I mean, I think he he feels like, you know, I mean, one of the one of the pinnacles of the presidency, and I write about this, was when he takes that trip to the Middle East, when he’s first president, it’s his first his first trip overseas. And there’s all of these titans of finance who come to some event there, some meal, and they’re basically sucking up to him, and this would never have happened anywhere else. And it’s it’s you know, the presidency was. Actually think about this, that, you know, the question comes up a lot about normalizing Trump, quote unquote. There’s there are few things that are more normalizing than being president of the United States and and elevating. And he used all of that to great effect.
You know, on this issue of his craving for attention. I was at that White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011 when President Obama kind of took him apart with humor. And I was, you know, sitting nearby Trump. He obviously, he was a little stoic while the whole thing was going on. But I ran into Ivanka Trump the next day and I said, gee, I hope your dad took it all in good fun, you know? And she said, Oh, don’t worry about him. As long as he’s the center of attention, he’s happy.
I don’t think that’s, I don’t think that’s true, though.
But in your book, you say he wasn’t happy?
He was really unhappy, because he knew that he was being made fun of.
Right. And one of the ways that. There are a lot of methods that the people closest to him, his family, some of his advisers, use to try to tell everyone that everything is just fine all the time. And so something like that, you know, no, no, no, he’s fine. All press is good press. He doesn’t actually think good press is good press. It’s also, that’s a Roger Stone line, too. And Roger Stone being one of his oldest advisers.
Yeah, we’re going to talk about Roger Stone.
Oh, sorry. I don’t want to get I don’t want to get ahead in the program. But but no, no, no, but but.
I’ve got no plan here. You can see that.
Trump, you, you and me both, my friend. Trump is does not believe that all press is good press. He likes to say that. But he gets so worked up about minutia about his image. You know, if you say he watches too much television or a lot of television, then that’s a slight on his intelligence. You know, if you talk about his weight, he doesn’t like that. If you talk about, you know, certain aspects of his physicality, if you talk about his health. I mean, that’s why you would see those briefings from White House doctors that were as if they were talking about, you know, a hero of modern science. Right? So like and so that’s, he doesn’t.
Although, listen, the doctor who talked about it ended up in Congress. So there’s a benefit beneefit to catering to the president, I guess.
There you go. I was going to say an ancillary effect. But that not. He was not happy that night. And it took, you know, a really long time for people around him to admit that to me. You know, I spoke to somebody who spoke to him the next day and he kept claiming Obama, it was Obama’s fault. And he said something like, I never did anything to him. And, you know, and it was it’s just it’s how he views everything.
You know, he called me in 2010. I don’t know if I ever told you this.
I know I. But I love this story. Please tell this story.
Well, no, no, no, no. But he called me because we had this oil leak in the Gulf, and we were having a hard time stopping it. And he he said, you know, you got that you got that admiral. There was an admiral, Thad Allen his name was from the Coast Guard who was in charge. He said, you know, he seems like a nice guy, which we now all know for Trump is like a prelude to saying something bad about somebody, because I think he thinks nice guys are sort of suckers, you know?
Yeah. So he says, he’s kind of, he’s a nice guy, but he don’t know what he’s doing. He says, why don’t you sent me down there, and like, I don’t know what to do with this. And I said, Well, Mr. Trump, I think we’ve almost got this under. And we actually, I knew we were close to getting it, so I said, I’ll call you in a week. So I call him in a week and he says, Yeah, yeah, it looks like you get that done. He said, But I got another thing for you. I build ballrooms. I build the greatest ballrooms in the world. Ask anybody, come down to Florida, you can look, he said. You’ve got state dinners, you’ve got these shitty little tents. And, you know, let me build you a modular ballroom that you can assemble and disassemble when you have these state dinners. And I’m sitting there thinking, well, we’re in the middle of this 100 year recession. I’m sure what the nation’s clamoring for is a modular ballroom for state dinners. And and I said, well, I’ll give this to the social secretary. And he never got a call back, which is not good, but he still tells that story from time to time. Except Maggie, he says one thing that I don’t recall him saying when we talked, he said, and I told him I’d pay for the whole thing.
That part was not in his presentation when he said that. You know, in terms of. You say he he’s not, people think, speak of him as an authoritarian, and you said that’s not, that that you suggest that that that suggests a seriousness and a kind of intentionality that isn’t really real. Even if the effect of what he’s doing is. But in his dealings with the press, you know, he had this conversation with Lesley Stahl that she reported that, you know, that you’re aware of, that I thought was really revealing. Where he said, I, she asked why he was always shitting all over the press, and he and he said, because I don’t want them to believe you when you write bad things about me.
That was a. First of all, that was an authoritarian instinct, even if he wasn’t thinking of it that way. But he’s been really successful at that, has he not?
No question. So let me let me just say something about the story that you told about him calling you. I mean, that is like that is like out of the 1980s Donald Trump playbook of calling people up and offering to fix problems that he’s not at all equipped to do, because it’s just a way to get himself news coverage and make himself relevant, and someone’s taking his call. And seeing if people will take their call, and I write about that. In terms of the press, there is no question the behavior toward the press has deep echoes of authoritarianism. But again, I would I would posit that it’s, there is intentionality there, but it’s not because of a. He was this way when he was a businessman, too. I mean, you know, he is undermining and completely interested in control, obsessed with his own image, and wants to dominate. And so you could describe that as authoritarianism, as bossism. You could pick whatever you want. He is not somebody who has a coherent throughline about anything other than himself. And that’s what the press coverage relates to. And I think that is important to bear in mind. But on that intentionality piece, I write about this that, you know, he had this line to me. He said at one point toward the end of the final interview, you know, we’ve agreed you’re not releasing these recordings. And I said, no, we have not agreed on that. But I will listen to you if you have some argument you want to make. And his argument was that when he was being interviewed, he kept saying for a platform, but I think he meant a broadcast, that he speaks very differently. That he, he said, I don’t I don’t say uh 100 times, you know, whereas when I’m being interviewed by you for the for your book, for the written word, he kept saying the written word, I use repetition to beat it into your little your beautiful brain. Do you understand that? And I mean, take out the whole beating it into my brain thing and the the violent overtones. But him talking about his use of repetition, and he said it again at another point. His awareness about it and talking about it was interesting to me. And he does focus on sort of how he is covered and what he said. I remember, I don’t write about this, but I spoke to him when he hired Paul Manafort and my colleague Alex Burns, then colleague Alex Burns, had gotten a tip about it, and I called Trump to confirm it because his campaign aides were dodging us. And he confirmed it and he said, you can say that Donald Trump says, yes, it’s true. Or you can say Donald Trump said, yes, it is true. What is the difference? But this was the kind of this is the kind of thing he focuses on.
Yeah, you mentioned Roger Stone. You know, he was a he he came up for some time in this hearing today. And, you know, your book was interesting, because I was reminded in reading your book that, you know, their relationship goes back years, and Stone has done all kinds of sort of missions and mischief on Trump’s behalf. Talk about their relationship, because it seems kind of important here relative to what happened on January 6th, in which Stone seems to have been deeply involved.
He denies it, by the way.
He denies it, but but certainly with the caveat that the that the you know, that he denies it. And at the same time, the House Select Committee has been working to present a I think what they feel is a pretty comprehensive case that, you know, he has connections to various people involved. And so Stone and Trump meet through Roy Cohn, who was Trump’s first, you know, brutalizer defender.
Sort of, yes. A notorious figure in American history actually.
Correct. He’s he is a former Joe McCarthy acolyte who was a closeted gay man who was deeply homophobic and led purges of gay people in the federal government. He was ruthless, and he cut corners, and he, you know, was ultimately in legal trouble himself and investigated and so forth and so on. And he had a really, really sort of perfect symbiosis with Donald Trump up until the point that Roy Cohn got AIDS, at which point Trump basically dropped him as a as an associate, because Trump was terrified of AIDS, and and, you know, and it was the 1980s when there were a lot of people who were quite homophobic. And I have some reporting about that in the book on Trump. He meets Stone through Cohn, and they become close pretty quickly. And at that point, Stone was part of a consulting firm, a sort of flagship consulting firm, lobbying firm in in Washington that became, you know, the first.
Charlie Black. And. Yep. And and and he.
I was going to say, he had a close relationship with Lee Atwater. And they were notorious for, you know, working to get people elected and then you know lobbying that same government soon after. And in the case of Paul Manafort, representing some of the most notorious bad guys across the globe and their interests in Washington in particular. And, you know, Stone and Trump developed this symbiosis, and Trump has this history of developing these these very intense relationships with people, men and women. And Stone was one of them. Stone becomes, you know, this pretty key advisor to Trump as Trump is getting his political, you know, sense from, you know, outside of the five boroughs and outside of New York State, which is where he was really learning from his father and to some extent Roy Cohn. Stone represents.
Can I just interject one thing?
I mean, Stone’s, you know, Stone’s history goes back half a century.
He was like a young sort of Nixon sort of acolyte.
Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, he’s another guy for whom rules and laws and norms and institutions mean absolutely nothing.
And he’s another and he’s and is another guy who really loves smoke and mirrors as a as an approach to life and, you know, passing things off as a gag if if you get called out and, you know, using using, you know, a menacing approach, same as Trump.
And certainly same as Roy Cohn. And so they all got along very well together. And, you know, Stone starts tending to this dream of a Donald Trump presidency pretty early and starts encouraging him. And when Trump does “The Art of the Deal” in 1987, the book, Stone comes up with the idea of combining a possible presidential candidacy float with the book. And that takes Trump up to New Hampshire, where he makes this early visit as a as a possible candidate in 1987. And so, you know, he, Stone and Trump have, as I said, a symbiosis. Stone actually understands politics and history in a way that Trump does not. And he was often sort of providing a lot of information and background.
Yeah, but you, you know, you write about, for example, his his work on behalf of Trump to try and scuttle.
A Native American casino, tribal casino in upstate New York, because Trump felt that would threaten his businesses in Atlantic City. And, you know, it was a kind of scuzzy and, you know, deeply hidden from Trump.
Well hidden from view. I think Trump knew about it. I think it was hidden from the public.
No, no. He had hidden from others that Trump was [crosstalk].
That Trump was that Trump was behind it. You talk about Stone, you know, and his interactions around Eliot Spitzer and issues involving Spitzer, I guess when Spitzer was A.G.
When Spitzer was the governor. So, Stone by then. In 1999, Stone is a is an early flag for the fact that Trump, people having personal, you know, issues that disqualify them and to other people or in other settings rarely bothers Trump unless he decides it does for some reason. So, Stone in the ’96 Dole campaign, which he was advising, there becomes a scandal involving his personal life where he and his wife are reported to be, I think appearing in some magazine for swingers. That that helps drive Stone outside of the two party system in a real way. At a time when Donald Trump is really not existing in in the business milieu the way he had been previously. And so that is part of why a possible campaign for president for Trump in ’99 as an independent as, sorry, as an independent candidate in the Reform Party, appeals to them. By the time we get to Eliot Spitzer as governor, Stone is really operating on the periphery of of politics. And he’s, but he’s operating frequently in New York. And he claims to have had a role in the prostitution scandal that brought down Eliot Spitzer when he was governor. And Stone was very proud of this. Prior to that, Stone was working as a consultant for state Republicans in New York. He had a long relationship with Joe Bruno, who was one of the one of the Republican leaders, the state Senate leader.
In Albany. And. And Stone is accused of calling Spitzer’s father and leaving this really threatening voicemail on his phone. And they trace the phone to Stone, and Stone, I think first he says it’s faked and– I’m going to get the chronology wrong here. But he says it couldn’t have been him because he was at the play Frost Nixon that night.
Yeah, but there was no performance [crosstalk].
There was no performance that night. And so this is and so this is the smoke and mirrors thing. And so trying to get. Now, the flip side of that, and Trump says this himself, because he then ends after that whole experience, Trump and Stone have some estrangement. And Trump’s tells Jeffrey Toobin, for A “New Yorker” magazine piece, that that Stone is a, quote unquote, stone cold loser, and he’s always taking credit for things he didn’t do. And so one of the things with Stone is figuring out exactly what he did versus what he didn’t do, which is the same as the issue with Trump.
Mm hmm. And Trump resents when others try and take credit for things that he thinks should be credited to him.
Trump resents the idea that Stone either gets clients because of him or is prominent because of him or claims to be his his brain, which Stone really doesn’t do. But Trump is still quite sensitive to that idea. And I had this experience where Trump called me to protest something I had written because of it.
In these hearings, you know, a lot of focus, as you say, because they’re trying to draw connections, a lot of focus on Stone. And today they showed his interview and him taking the Fifth when he asked if he was if he had called Trump during the period of the 5th and 6th of January. Have you asked Trump directly about that?
About them subpoenaing him?
Whether he talked to Stone?
Oh, no, I have not had that conversation with him.
And how plausible do you think that is that they were in touch, because Trump likes to keep a degree of separation.
He seemed to, he seemed to, he asked Meadows, according to testimony, to call Stone.
With the caveat that, well, and Stone and Stone has denied that he spoke to Meadows. With the caveat that I have no idea if they spoke or didn’t speak.
But but I, yeah, but I can I can certainly see. I could see a world where he would call Stone, because he often calls Stone when he’s in the middle of crisis. I can also see a world where he did not talk to Stone because, for instance, I know that there was there was a a picture that was on social media of Trump talking to Roger Stone at Mar-a-Lago at the very end of December. And my understanding of that event in real time was that Stone was brought to the club as a guest of someone else and saw Trump for a very brief period of time in front of other people. And there was no private conversation about what might happen a few days later. So I could see both things.
Stone was pardoned in the midst of the election of 2020. Do you think that was that he was pardoned in in part to free him to be helpful in that election?
I think anything is possible that that was on Trump’s mind, but I think mostly Trump was getting a lot of pressure to commute, to provide clemency, because initially he commutted clemency. [crosstalk] He pardoned him at the end. He was getting a lot of pressure from Tucker Carlson in particular, who has a long friendship with Stone and was championing his cause on television. And I think Tucker Carlson is somebody who Trump fears and is intimidated by. And I think that Stone is somebody who Trump doesn’t ever really want to make a permanent enemy out of. So I think it’s less plausible that that Trump, who I don’t think is capable of any kind of strategic planning whatsoever, had January 6th on his mind when he granted that clemency in the summer of 2020.
We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. The subhead of your book is “The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” Talk about the breaking of America piece and what you think the what you think the impact of Trump has been and what you think it is right now and moving forward in the next few years.
I would answer that a couple of ways. You know, I don’t think, and I write about this. Trump did not create the partisan rift in the U.S. He just didn’t. If we go back decades. But he certainly fueled it and then benefited from it and capitalized on it and expanded it. And we are now in a moment where politics are defined by who you hate and who hates you back, and, in large measure, not only, but but a lot of it. And certainly what he dabbles in. And he’s very comfortable in that in a way that not everybody is. And so the moment has kind of benefited him deeply. Prior to 2016, it was very easy to dismiss him as a play actor, but he did garner a large amount of support from millions of voters, and that was real. And now he still maintains real influence within the Republican Party.
Most significantly, the fact that he continues to deny the 2020 election results and encourages other people to do the same. And so, you know, it’s not just that there’s questions about whether Republicans will certify the next election in Congress, which is a big one. But there’s also questions about how all these secretaries of state who, you know, are echoing what Trump says are going to enforce rules. And so when you have a president who sees rules and regulations and norms, which is much of our system regarding presidents, as optional at best, other people take their cues from that. And that’s, I think, his biggest legacy right now.
Yeah, well, you see a candidate like Kari Lake in Arizona who’s running for governor, who ran really on the election denier platform and very much as a a Trump aficionado and follower and believer. And she, you know, she says on the campaign trail, if we lose this election, it’s only because they’ll have cheated.
Yeah. It’s it’s giving everybody a template for why nothing should. I mean, his impact on our politics, David, because I mean, again, there’s been. I don’t need to tell you this, you know history far better than I do. There have been really terrible moments in this country of division.
We had a Civil War, I read somewhere.
We did. We, I heard about that. What feels similar to the era from which Roy Cohn hails to me, and I’m saying that as somebody who was not alive then.
McCarthy, the McCarthy era.
Yeah. Is that the distrust that exists. That is what Trump’s biggest footprint is, I think, is just the degree to which, you know, he has. And again, he didn’t create it, but he has really exacerbated it. You know, the sort of trust nothing approach. It’s very hard to operate that way.
Yeah, but he didn’t create it, but he certainly exploited it.
And now he needs it, doesn’t he? I mean, with all of these investigations closing in on him, disbelief is essential for him.
Absolutely. And I think disbelief has has always been essential for him. But I just.
Yeah, and the stake the stakes didn’t really matter before, but they do now.
Yeah. You, I’ve heard you say elsewhere you believe he’s going to run.
I think he’s backed himself into a corner where he has to. Yeah.
Do you think he wants to?
No. Now, maybe that will change once he actually is. His heart doesn’t quite seem in it the way it once was, which is not surprising. Once you’ve been, as you know better than anyone, once you’ve been president, you know, the way you look at the things you have to do to become president, you might look at differently. But I suspect he will change once he’s in rally mode. But he’s not there yet.
Yeah, and it’s not just. Even if you don’t take the duties seriously, the pressures of that job, you know, with constant celebrity and attention come constant scrutiny, as well, comes constant scrutiny as well. Even for someone whose constitution, and I mean his personal constitution, is different than most people. There must be an aggregate. I mean, do you sense that, having talked to him over the years, I mean, do you.
I think that the pressures of the job weighed on him in different ways, but not because he felt responsibility for them. It’s just that the stress got to him. And the the the the weight of it bears down on on anyone. I wouldn’t say the scrutiny adds up. I think the investigations add up. I think that to your point, what he’s facing right now, particularly with this documents investigation, is very problematic. Between CNN and my paper and The Washington Post, there has been a lot of pretty extensive body of reporting indicating that he was warned repeatedly to give the boxes back and wouldn’t. Gave all kinds of directives about, you know, not doing so or at least trying to avoid it. And had, it turned out, hundreds of individual classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, which is, you know, hard to explain.
You had some interesting reporting this week that he had contemplated trying to arrange a swap with the, with the FBI, where he would give the documents back if they gave him documents pertaining to the Russia probe back in 2006. Was he serious about that?
Yeah, he was serious about that. His his aides would not go along with it. But, you know. So what happened was in the final few days of the presidency, he declassified, as I understand it, he declassified a bunch of documents in what was known as the Crossfire Hurricane Binder. And Crossfire Hurricane was the Russia investigation. The binder went back to DOJ for a variety of reasons. There were duplicate copies of those records that went to the archives. Those markings were not changed. They were still marked classified. So when he wanted to access them so he could, he doesn’t even know what he thinks he’s accessing, so he could prove that it was all rigged against him, as he keeps saying, that he was told he couldn’t have them, because they had to be released to somebody with a security clearance and viewed in a SCIF. And so he, upon hearing this, you know, over and over, said, you know, fine, what if we make a trade? You know, I’ll give them the boxes if they give me those documents that I’m asking for. It’s pretty striking.
Yeah, it is. And emblematic of someone who really doesn’t believe anything’s on the legit and that everything’s negotiable.
Everything is up for trade. Everything can be traded.
Yeah. So I want to return to what I started. Where I started, and maybe where you skillfully, as a trained professional, evaded me. But. But I am, you know, you and I are friends, and we’ve talked over the years and stuff. There are pressures associated with covering a guy like Donald Trump and being identified as someone who covers him and who talks to him and who reports on him. What was that like for you to be in his crosshairs, to report on him, to get those weird calls from him and have these conversations with him? I mean, it must be a weird place to live inside of Donald Trump’s head.
Well, to the extent anyone can actually get there. But look, you know, he’s he’s he’s a he’s a more challenging candidate and politician to cover than anyone else I’ve ever covered. And there’s no question about that. And the challenge isn’t just about him. The challeng is the world he creates and this hall of mirrors around him all the time. You know, just getting a baseline of truth is incredibly hard. And people who work for him are really, really, you know, often not everybody, but a bunch of them are very negatively impacted by it. So, you know, all of all of that is is fatiguing. Yeah.
I mean, obviously, in some ways, you become famous for your reporting on him. You know, you you were part of winning a Pulitzer Prize. Everyone knows your name. I mean, not everyone, but a lot of people know your name.
What is this, “Cheers?” Ok, anyway, sorry.
But when you say it was fatiguing, that sounds like sort of an understatement for me because, you know, he puts targets on people’s back.
Yeah, he does. I mean, there’s no there’s no question about that. And, you know.
How hard is that? How hard has that been for you? How hard is it for others who, I mean, he’s he’s he’s targeted others, as well.
I think there are a lot of reporters who have been targeted by him. And I think that you just do the best you can and you go forward. You know, reporters have been targeted by people since the dawn of time. It’s just that he does it on a larger scale, and he does it using social, or did it using social media and sometimes his rallies. But you can’t, you know, it can’t it it’s it’s a distraction if you let it become a distraction and you sort of can’t let it become a distraction. And it’s, you’re ultimately still covering an elected official, and you do the best you can.
Well, in this case, though, you’ve been covering a personality as well for.
That’s true. Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. And I and and it’s not. Yeah. He is sui generis in our politics. I mean, as much as there are aspects of him that we have seen in other in other industries and occasionally with other candidates, there are aspects of his of his behavior that are just very different.
He may he may be suit generous to.
That’s that’s a different episode. Yeah. But and it is exhausting and it is constant. And he, he is driven by the need for media attention and anger and grievance all the time. But we still have to do our job.
Do you have any idea if he’s read your book?
I’m quite confident the answer is no. It will remain no.
But he’s read the coverage for sure or heard the coverage.
He’s heard some of it, I’m sure. I mean, you know, he often hears what people bring to him when they’re trying to steer him in one direction or another.
Mm hmm. Just take out your crystal ball.
Yes. Take out your crystal ball. Donald Trump runs again. I think he’s got. The problem for the Republican Party is they can’t live with Trump and they can’t live without him. He’s very popular within the base. He’s very controversial and unpopular outside the base. But let’s assume he becomes president of the United States again. What does Trump 2.0 look like as someone who is a, you know, the foremost student of him?
He is, it is going to be a presidency of spite. I’ve seen it said that, you know, he’s learned how to do this better next time. I don’t think he’s learned how to do the job better. I think everything for him is about personnel, and he thinks he’ll get the right people in the jobs to carry out what he wants. It will not be about how to use systems. He. By year three, he still really didn’t understand how his government worked. He had no use for most of his cabinet. But it will be about grievance, and it will be about getting back at people who wronged him. I mean, I think one piece, David, that I think really gets over or is not fully appreciated, Geoff Berman wrote about this in his book, The Former Manhattan U.S. Attorney. It’s not just that Trump wanted to use the Justice Department to protect himself, which he did over and over again. But he wanted to use the Justice Department to hurt his political opponents. And he was really, really explicit about it. And I certainly think that you can expect to see more of that.
Yeah, well, I mean, you know, one thing we’ve seen is that a number of people in the Justice Department, a succession of attorneys general, refused at pretty important junctures to act on his requests. I presume, you know, Bannon’s talked about. I mean, I don’t know how involved Bannon would be. But he’s talked about we’ve got 20,000, we know, we’re going to wipe out the whole kind of deep state permanent structure and so on. I don’t know whether that’s the case, but certainly he’s going to, you know, he’s not coming with he’s not coming with the group that he came with last time.
No, he’s coming. He would you would come much more with the group he left with, frankly. And that’s, I think, something that people really need to understand. I mean, I think about, you know, there’s been there was reporting by Jonathan Swan at Axios about Trump’s efforts on schedule F, which were to convert civil service to political appointees. And that had started before he left office, and he didn’t get very far. So he wants to make that a new focus. And he’s got a lot of allies and conservative groups, even if they don’t believe in Trump per se, who see an opportunity to do that if there’s another Republican president. Trump has a different attitude, which is just, I want to get people in there just to do whatever I want. And you will, you know, I don’t know who he will appoint who can get confirmed by the Senate for attorney general. I don’t know. You know, it’s there’s there’s all kinds of questions about what another term would look like.
You talk about his legacy. We’re sort of seeing it play out in some of our politics today. You see what’s going on with Herschel Walker, who was drafted for this role by Trump to run for the Senate in Georgia. He’s run into problems because of past history that he denies but seems fairly well, you know, seems pretty credible. And that whole notion of deny, deny, deny, blame the media, blame the, blame the other party and so on. That’s a playbook now.
It is. And it’s not. And look, you know, when you deny, deny, deny. I mean, we first heard that when Bill Clinton was president. Yeah, sure.
So it’s not like it’s not like it’s never come up before.
That’s fair. That’s fair.
But but it is but it it it has sort of swallowed the entire Republican Party whole. And that is a difference from from what we saw before. You know, and I don’t, I don’t expect that you’re going to see a lot of Republicans who are going to very willingly say, yes, you know what, I did X, Y, Z, and that was a problem. Because it turns out that if you blame the media and if you blame everybody else, you know, there are enough voters who are going to take that.
Yeah. Are you ready to move on with your life? Would it trouble you if Donald Trump went off to a quiet retirement?
I’d be okay. I’d find a way to go on. I appreciate your concern. I’d be okay.
Well, I’ll tell you this. Anybody who really wants to understand who he is and who he is not, by the way, because you explode a lot of myths, as well. You really need to read this book. I think many people will, I suspect. “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America” is one of those books that’s going to be source material for generations to come. And as a friend, I congratulate you. I’m proud of you. And I’m grateful that on this never ending book tour of yours that you were willing to stop by and spend some time with me.
The Never Ending Story. I always love coming and spending time with you, so thank you for having me.
Thank you for listening to the Axe Files brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Allison Siegal. The show is also produced by Miriam Finder Annenberg, Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonnell. And special thanks to our partners at CNN, including Rafeena Ahmed and Megan Marcus. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics dot u Chicago dot edu.