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How Maggie Haberman and David Fahrenthold accidentally became Trump experts

On the latest Recode Decode, the two journalists explain how their careers set them up to cover the Trump Era.

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New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman and Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc (L); The Washington Post (R) / Getty Images

Maggie Haberman started working at the New York Times in 2015 — with just one little problem. She didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing there.

“I was looking for a lane, so I picked up Trump because nobody seemed very interested in Trump,” Haberman said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “I knew him and I knew his people.”

Just two years later, she’s one of the NYT’s best-known reporters thanks to her coverage of Trump’s campaign and, now, his presidency. But for most of her career, Haberman had dreamed of one day being the Times’ chief New York correspondent, covering the city’s “broken” political system.

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Speaking with Swisher at the 2017 Texas Tribune Festival, along with Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, Haberman said she learned “the No. 1 rule” about Donald Trump while working at the New York Post, which he would call frequently as a “source” of gossip about himself.

“In his brain, two things are true,” she said. “No one speaks for him except him, even if he actually has a spokesman, and he believes that facts can be changed so that they can be something other than what you thought they were a day ago.”

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Fahrenthold said he similarly had not been on a career trajectory to write about the president, bouncing from covering the police to the environment to New England before 2010. But then he began covering two things that would deeply inform his work today: Unlikely presidential candidates and government waste.

“I wrote a long story about the national raisin reserve, then [a story about] a giant underground cavern underneath Pennsylvania, where the government has 28,000 file cabinets full of personnel records,” Fahrenthold said. “Writing about an agency doing something stupid and they’re hostile to me and don’t want to help me, I got practice building a story around the outside.”

“That actually turned out to be useful for covering Trump because his reaction to a lot of these things was to say, ‘No, the only person who knows the facts about me is me, and if I don’t want to cooperate, you’re screwed,’” he added. “That was good preparation. There is a way to tell the truth about you without you, it’s just a lot more work.”

Fahrenthold has since become known for his investigations into the President’s often-dubious charity donations, which won him a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. That shady philanthropy has been part of his routine since his days as a New York social figure, he said.

“There’s two sides to Trump’s character, at least his pre-presidential character,” Fahrenthold said. “One was, ‘I’m the richest man you could possibly imagine, I live the life of Scrooge McDuck.’ The other side was, ‘I need your money. Give me money.’ He was always hustling to get you to give him your money; how do you square that? The way he would always do it was, ‘This is for charity.’”

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