Confidence Man review: Maggie Haberman takes down Trump

<span>Photograph: Jonathan Drake/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Drake/Reuters

Maggie Haberman, the New York Times’ Trump whisperer, delivers. Her latest book is much more than 600 pages of context, scoop and drama. It is a political epic, tracing Donald Trump’s journey from the streets of Queens to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, his Elba. There, the 45th president holds court – and broods and plots his return.

Related: Kushner camping tale one of many bizarre scenes in latest Trump book

Haberman gives Trump and those close to him plenty of voice – and rope. The result is a cacophonous symphony. Confidence Man informs and entertains but is simultaneously absolutely not funny. Trumpworld presents a reptilian tableau – reality TV does Lord of the Flies.

For just one example, Mark Meadows, Trump’s last White House chief of staff, is depicted as erratic and detestable. Then there’s the family. Haberman reports how, after the 2016 election, Melania Trump won a renegotiated pre-nuptial agreement. Haberman also describes Trump repeatedly dumping on his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. If only he looked like Tom Brady and spoke in a deeper register. If only Ivanka had not converted to Judaism.

The abuse gets absurd – even a kind of baroque. According to Haberman, at one 2020 campaign strategy meeting Trump implied Kushner might be brutally attacked, even raped, if he ever went camping: “Can you imagine Jared and his skinny ass camping? It’d be like something out of Deliverance.”

The reader, however, should not weep for Jared. In Haberman’s telling, he is the kid who was born on third base and mistakes his good fortune with hitting a triple. For his part, Kushner is shown trashing Steve Bannon, the far-right ideologue who was campaign chair and chief White House strategist but was forced out within months.

Haberman catches Kushner gleefully asking a White House visitor: “Did you see I cut Bannon’s balls off?”

To quote Peter Navarro, like Bannon now a former Trump official under indictment, “nepotism and excrement roll downhill”.

‘I love being with her,’ Trump says. ‘She’s like my psychiatrist.’ Haberman is not flattered or amused

As it happens, Bannon’s testicles grew back. Like Charlie Kushner, Jared’s father, he received a Trump pardon. Bannon also helped propagate the big lie that Trump won the election, stoking the Capitol attack.

These days, Bannon awaits sentencing, convicted of contempt of Congress. He also faces felony fraud charges arising from an alleged border-wall charity scam. In Trump’s universe, there is always a grift.

For Confidence Man, Haberman interviewed Trump three times. He confesses that he is drawn to her, like a moth to a flame.

“I love being with her,” he says. “She’s like my psychiatrist”.

The daughter of Clyde Haberman, a legendary New York Times reporter, is not flattered or amused. She sees through her subject.

“The reality is that he treats everyone like they are his psychiatrists,” Haberman writes. “All present a chance for him to vent or test reactions or gauge how his statements are playing or discover how he is feeling.”

Also, Trump and Haberman have not always had a rapport. When he was president, she would interview him and he would attack her. In April 2018, Trump tweeted that Haberman was a Clinton “flunkie” he didn’t know or speak with, a “third-rate reporter” at that. He called her “Maggot Haberman” and even contemplated obtaining her phone records to identify her sources.

Trump is 76 but he remains the envious boy from a New York outer borough, face pressed against the Midtown glass. Haberman is not the only Manhattan reporter he has courted and attacked. In 2018, he threatened Michael Wolff for writing Fire and Fury, the Trump book that started it all. Later, he welcomed Wolff to Mar-a-Lago.

Haberman vividly captures Trump’s lack of couth. For just one example, according to Haberman the president chose to enrich his first meeting with a foreign leader, Theresa May, by asking the British prime minister to “imagine if some animals with tattoos raped your daughter and she got pregnant”.

Each of Trump’s three supreme court justices voted to overturn Roe v Wade. One might wonder how the young woman in Trump’s hypothetical would feel about that.

Haberman also pierces Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. All that talk about an “audit” was a simple dodge, birthed on a campaign plane.

In the run-up to Super Tuesday, the crucial day of primaries in March 2016, aides confronted Trump about his taxes. The candidate, Haberman writes, “thought for a second about how to ‘get myself out of this’, as he said. He leaned back, before snapping up to a sudden thought.

“‘Well, you know my taxes are under audit. I always get audited … So what I mean is, well I could just say, ‘I’ll release them when I’m no longer under audit. ‘Cause I’ll never not be under audit.’”

These days, the Trump Organization faces criminal tax fraud charges. Together with Ivanka, Don Jr and Eric, his children from his first marriage, Trump is also being sued for fraud by Letitia James, the New York attorney general.

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As a younger reporter, Haberman did two stints at the New York Post, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship US tabloid. Murdoch’s succession plans – it’s Lachlan, he told Trump – appear in Confidence Man. So does Tucker Carlson, the headline-making Fox News host and kindred spirit to Vladimir Putin.

Related: Trump made up audit excuse for not releasing tax returns on the fly, new book says

According to Haberman, Carlson met Kushner and demanded Trump commute Roger Stone’s conviction for perjury.

“What happened to Roger Stone should never happen to anyone in this country of any political party,” Carlson reportedly thundered, threatening to go public.

Stone has since emerged as a central figure in the January 6 insurrection. Apparently, he has a thing for violence. For some Republicans, a commitment to “law and order” is elastic.

When it comes to the attempt to overturn the election and the Capitol attack it fueled, Trump’s fate rests with prosecutors in Washington DC and Fulton county, Georgia.

That old campaign chant from 2016, “Lock her up”? It carries its own irony.

  • Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America is published in the US by Penguin Random House