The New York Times’ Dynamic Duo Who Put Trump on the Couch
Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush’s NYT exclusives have preoccupied or infuriated Donald Trump—yet he can’t stop talking to them.
Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush are perhaps the most recognizable double byline in The New York Times covering Donald Trump’s fledgling presidency.
Over the past 82 days since the former reality-television star’s inauguration, they have shared reporting and writing duties on more than two dozen stories in the newspaper of record—many of them front-page exclusives that have seemingly preoccupied or otherwise infuriated the notoriously thin-skinned, media-fixated Leader of the Free World.
Their collaborations have been authoritatively reported portraits of the president’s work and private life, and the often-byzantine internal machinations of Team Trump—and they generally cause a stir, sometimes for surprising reasons.
Their early February tour de force chronicling the Trump White House’s disorganization and seat-of-the-pants policymaking—“building the airplane while it’s taking off,” as Haberman described it to The Daily Beast—is most remembered now for press secretary Sean Spicer’s over-the-top denunciation of a single detail: that Trump watches nighttime television in his bathrobe.
Claiming that Haberman and Thrush owed the president an apology, Spicer vented at reporters aboard Air Force One, “There were literally blatant factual errors, and it’s unacceptable to see that kind of reporting.” Asked for an example, all he could come up was: “I don’t think the president wears a bathrobe, and definitely doesn’t own one.”
(That, however tendentious, was an alternative fact that pales by comparison to Spicer’s outrageous assertion during his daily briefing Tuesday that Adolf Hitler, unlike Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” never mind that the Nazi leader gassed millions of Jewish concentration camp victims with Zyklon B pesticides; Spicer then added the unwelcome clarification that at least Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”)
Trump, meanwhile, apparently can’t help his compulsive tweeting about “the failing New York Times” and has singled Haberman out for special insults as a “third-rate reporter,” “totally in the Hillary circle of bias” and, of course, “sad,” even while granting her extraordinary access and newsmaking interviews—personally calling her cellphone March 24 to let her know that he had just given up on his much-anticipated but now dead Obamacare repeal-and-replace legislation.
Most recently, just last week, the president invited Haberman and Thrush to the Oval Office for a discussion of his plans to repair and expand the nation’s crumbling infrastructure (and what a “good person” embattled Fox News star Bill O’Reilly is, among other unexpected topics).
At one point during the rambling session, Trump accused NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell of being “Hillary Clinton’s P.R. person,” and pointedly told Haberman: “’Course you’ve been accused of that also.”
“Mostly by you, though,” Haberman shot back.
“No, no, no,” the president insisted. “Mostly by a lot of people.”
Trump clearly enjoys needling Haberman, who has known and reported on him for nearly two decades, since his days as a tabloid-obsessed celebrity press hound while she was toiling at different times for both the New York Post and Daily News.
One night in late December, a couple of days before New Year’s Eve, Haberman found herself joining Newsmax CEO and Trump pal Chris Ruddy’s table for dinner at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, where she was working on a story. The president-elect stopped by the table and teased Haberman good-naturedly about her February 2016 television appearance as a panelist on ABC’s This Week program in which she appeared to be joining in general laughter at the very idea that Trump could be a serious candidate.
“It was not my finest moment,” Haberman conceded to Trump, according to a witness—although she has maintained that she wasn’t laughing at him, but merely chuckling at the premature claim by fellow panelist Keith Ellison, a Democratic congressman, that Trump (then widely believed to be easily beatable) had “momentum” on his way to the Republican nomination.
Thrush has yet to be personally targeted for presidential abuse—but give it time.
If the journalistic pair are not the Gray Lady’s answer to Woodward and Bernstein, investigating the weird tics and zany rivalries of the Trump White House, maybe they’re the paper’s George Burns and Gracie Allen (Haberman’s suggested analogy, a reference to the straight man/ditzy husband-and-wife comedy team of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s), or perhaps they’re like Nick and Nora Charles (Thrush’s choice, alluding to Dashiell Hammett’s boozy, bantering married private eyes).
“I think there is a real shared brain between us,” the 43-year-old Haberman told The Daily Beast. “He’s like my other sibling. I have a brother, but if I had another brother, it would be Glenn.”
“It’s the most natural collaboration I’ve ever had in my career,” said the 50-year-old Thrush. “Sometimes it’s a little hard to figure out where she starts and I end.”
Admirers identify Thrush as the graceful wordsmith of the duo, and tag Haberman as the fanatical reporter, and clearly the expert in all things Trump.
As Haberman put it, “Glenn is an exceptional writer and framer of narrative, and I have covered Trump for a very long time. I think we are pretty equally matched in reporting, and a lot of our stories evolve out of conversations we have.”
They frequently re-interview each other’s Trump sources to make sure the anecdotes don’t change to accommodate expedient circumstances; and they are always on guard for what both call “the Rashomon effect,” especially prevalent in this White House, which requires them to sort through competing and often self-serving versions of events in a rigorous attempt to arrive at the truth.
And, inevitably, they occasionally bicker over a line or paragraph or angle here and there.
“She is my sister. We fight all the time,” Thrush said.
“They’re both incredibly competitive,” said an admirer who asked not to be named so as not to arouse either reporter’s ire. “Thrush is a great writer, and has fundamentally a writer’s sensibility, and Maggie is fundamentally a reporter who wants to tell the world first. That’s where she gets her psychic high. Glenn gets his psychic high from reporting that takes him to an interesting place as a writer.”
This admirer adds: “I think Maggie might be tougher in a knife fight.”
They have been co-writing high-impact stories about politics and politicians for nearly seven years, dating back to their days as fellow reporters at Politico; there came a two-year hiatus in their collaboration after Haberman left for the Times in 2015, but they picked up where they left off when Thrush followed her to the Times this past January.
“They’re amazing reporters who have the absolutely best handle on Trump, his psychology and the people around him,” Times executive editor Dean Baquet said in a text message to The Daily Beast.
Politico editor in chief John Harris—who recruited each from gritty New York tabloids (Thrush from Newsday and Haberman from the New York Post)—said: “I have joked with them that they have this ability to establish a very intimate, and at the same time very tough-minded, relationship with the people they cover. They are serving as the shrinks for their sources and also the reason those sources need to see a shrink in the first place. They are both their therapists and tormentors.”
Thrush and Haberman—who are actually married to other people, with children of their own, and live hundreds of miles apart (Haberman in Brooklyn, Thrush in the Washington suburbs)—were not always so chummy.
When they first ran across each other as competitors covering City Hall during the latter term of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, they couldn’t even bring themselves to speak to each other.
“In the New York market,” Thrush recalled while interviewing the woman he calls his best friend for Politico’s “Off-Message” podcast, “reporters from different outlets treat each other terribly.”
Eyeing him warily in the roach-infested Room 4A—the junior reporter’s annex a floor below City Hall’s main press quarters, Room 9—Haberman saw Thrush as an intense, uncommunicative and fedora-wearing rival.
Thrush saw Haberman, a onetime bartender and New York Post copy girl who had been promoted to the City Hall beat, as an equally intense chainsmoker—sometimes with two or three cigarettes going at once—who colonized her desk with unruly stacks of papers, punctuated by the uneaten portions of aging salads.
Their first conversation, as she recalled during the podcast, occurred as she sat a row ahead of him in City Hall’s Blue Room, waiting for a press conference to begin and overhearing Thrush mention being Jewish to 1010 WINS radio reporter Stan Brooks.
“Since when are you Jewish?” Haberman demanded, turning around to face her adversary.
“Since they cut my foreskin off when I was a baby,” Thrush blurted out.
Thus they became fast friends. Sitting opposite each other at their City Hall desks, they engaged in an endless dialogue.
Both are Jewish and New Yorkers, however, they come from decidedly different backgrounds. Haberman, the sister of Daily News content chief Zach Haberman, is the daughter of New York Times journalist Clyde Haberman and Manhattan public relations executive Nancy Haberman; she grew up steeped in the city’s media-political culture. When she was 6, her dad introduced her to then-Mayor Ed Koch at City Hall.
During the podcast with Thrush, Haberman recalled sitting on hizzoner’s lap and talking nonstop, not letting the loquacious Koch get a word in edgewise—a close encounter memorialized in a widely circulated photograph.
Thrush, by contrast, grew up in Brooklyn not far from Coney Island, a world away from tony Manhattan. His late mother was a secretary and his father, a watchmaker by trade, operated a Carvel Ice Cream franchise on Brighton Beach Avenue.
Glenn covered the poverty beat for a newspaper in Birmingham, Alabama, and later freelanced for magazines, among other gigs, and worked for Bloomberg News before landing a job at Newsday; he joined Politico in 2008 and covered Hillary Clinton’s first unsuccessful bid for president.
“As reporters coming out of the New York arena, they bring a combination of political sophistication and insight into the human motivation and character of politics,” said Politico’s Harris. “And they bring a sharp tabloid toughness, and an incisiveness of mind, that’s very compelling.”
Thrush, for his part, insisted, “Flat out, Maggie Haberman is the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met in journalism. I’m incredibly lucky to be along for the ride.”
Haberman, not surprisingly, returns the compliment, and says that they both must cope with a reporting challenge peculiar to Donald Trump.
“We have a president who is fairly imprecise about his language, as we have seen,” she said. “And that actually puts a greater onus on reporters to be more precise. It’s important to bear in mind that this is a White House, and more broadly, an administration, where the Rashomon effect is more significant than in most administrations I’ve ever covered.”