Three Conversations With Donald Trump is a promotional excerpt from Maggie Haberman’s controversial new book, Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America. I hope for her sake that the book is better than the turgid excerpt she chose for The Atlantic. She has spent most of the last decade covering Trump, full time, for the NY Times and everyone knew she would have a lot of stories to tell. “To fully reckon with Donald Trump, his presidency, and his political future,” she wrote today, “people need to know where he comes from. The New York from which Trump emerged was its own morass of corruption and dysfunction, stretching from seats of executive power to portions of the media to the real-estate industry in which his family found its wealth. The world of New York developers was filled with shady figures and rife with backbiting and financial knife fighting; engaging with them was often the cost of doing business. But Trump nevertheless stood out to the journalists covering him as particularly brazen.”
Brazen and driven— for whatever reasons— by extreme and unrelenting greed. Haberman noted that “Almost immediately after his defeat in 2020, Trump began fundraising off his claims of fraud, turning to his ardent fans for support. Plenty of people donated small amounts of money to continue a fight he swore was valid and building toward action. It was difficult to discern, though, whether Trump actually believed what he was saying about the election. I learned in the spring that Trump was repeating a claim from one of his most vocal allies, the self-made pillow-company CEO Mike Lindell, that Trump would be reinstated as president by August 2021. Trump liked the idea, telling aides he did not want to have to sit through another three and a half years of a Biden presidency. He quietly encouraged some conservative writers to publicize the idea in their own voices, telling the National Review editor Rich Lowry as well that he anticipated being reinstated by August 2021. Trump encouraged Lowry to write about it, saying it could help the magazine. When Jenna Ellis, his former adviser, protested on Twitter the notion that Trump could be reinstated to office, Trump told Ellis that her reputation would be damaged. She took that as pressure to reverse her statement. Trump conceded to her that the scenario was ‘almost impossible,’ but that he wanted to keep the idea alive. Other moneymaking opportunities arrived, ostensibly tied to the reverent memory of the Trump presidency. The most audacious plan was for a social-media company of Trump’s own. In the days immediately following the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Trump was suspended from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube; he spent most of the next year insisting that he did not care about being banned while also suing the companies to get his accounts restored. In October, he announced that he would launch his own social network as part of a merger with a so-called blank-check company, whose stock price shot up when the merger was announced. The funding mechanism, which sparked an SEC investigation prior to the platform’s launch, was completely opaque.”
I have found myself on the receiving end of the two types of behavior Donald Trump exhibits toward reporters: his relentless desire to hold the media’s gaze, and his poison-pen notes and angry statements in response to coverage. His impulse to try to sell his preferred version of himself was undeterred by the stain that January 6 left on his legacy and on the democratic foundations of the country— if anything, it grew stronger. He had an almost reflexive desire to meet with nearly every author writing a book about him. Trump’s aides offered me an interview, and I asked for two additional ones.
…At one point, Trump made a candid admission that was as jarring as it was ultimately unsurprising. “The question I get asked more than any other question: ‘If you had it to do again, would you have done it?’” Trump said of running for president. “The answer is, yeah, I think so. Because here’s the way I look at it. I have so many rich friends and nobody knows who they are.” He then went on to talk about how much easier his life would have been had he not run. Yet there it was: Reflecting on the meaning of having been president of the United States, his first impulse was not to mention public service, or what he felt he’d accomplished, only that it appeared to be a vehicle for fame, and that many experiences were only worth having if someone else envied them…
Trump eventually entered the room, having lost a noticeable amount of weight since I had seen him last. Graham followed a minute later and gestured toward Trump. “The greatest comeback in American history!” Graham declared. Trump looked at me. “You know why Lindsey kisses my ass?” he asked. “So I’ll endorse his friends.” Graham laughed uproariously.
…Over the course of our conversations, he appeared reluctant to take shots at many of those people on whom I knew him to have been toughest behind closed doors. His campaign manager Brad Parscale spent money “unwisely,” he said, but he did not criticize him beyond that. I asked why he had given Jared Kushner expansive power. “I didn’t,” Trump said, although he had done exactly that. When I pressed, Trump said, “Look, my daughter has a great relationship with him and that’s very important.” (In the fall of 2016, ahead of the election, Trump once tried to call Kushner to complain about why the situation in Florida was bad for him. Kushner, who usually didn’t answer his phone on the Sabbath, was unresponsive. “Fucking Shabbat,” Trump groused, asking no one in particular if his Jewish son-in-law was really religious or just avoiding work. When I later asked him about this, he denied that he had said it.)
He was not so sanguine about Mike Pence, who had begun to defend his own actions on January 6 with increasing stridency, prompting Trump to escalate his condemnation of his former vice president’s judgment that day. “I said, ‘Mike, you have a chance to be Thomas Jefferson, or you can be Mike Pence,’” Trump recounted to me, repeating an inaccurate comparison to the election of 1800. “He chose to be Mike Pence.”
I brought up another potential future primary rival, by mentioning that he had been compared to New Jersey’s feisty Governor Chris Christie before the two men faced off in the 2016 primary. Trump replied, “I was compared to him? Why? I didn’t know I had that big of a weight problem.” A small smirk followed. Then: “He’s an opportunist.” I heard that Trump was describing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in similar terms, calling him “fat,” “phony,” and “whiny,” while claiming credit for making his candidacy in 2018.
Even as he talked about launching another campaign for the presidency, Trump was more comfortable looking backward than forward. When I told Trump I wanted to talk about 2024, he asked, quizzically, “2024?”
…The reality is that he treats everyone like they are his psychiatrists— reporters, government aides, and members of Congress, friends and pseudo-friends and rally attendees and White House staff and customers. All present a chance for him to vent or test reactions or gauge how his statements are playing or discover how he is feeling. He works things out in real time in front of all of us. Along the way, he reoriented an entire country to react to his moods and emotions.
I spent the four years of his presidency getting asked by people to decipher why he was doing what he was doing, but the truth is, ultimately, almost no one really knows him. Some know him better than others, but he is often simply, purely opaque, permitting people to read meaning and depth into every action, no matter how empty they might be.
In his analysis of the midterms this morning, Aaron Blake, included the Trump factor, even beyond McConnell’s loud declaration that the GOP had “a shot at a good 2022 midterm election, but some of these Trump candidates could screw it all up for us. At the time,” wrote Blake, “there was evidence of a GOP candidate problem— especially in the lagging poll numbers of some key Senate candidates. Today, there’s considerably more. An increase in public polling at the tail end of the primary season reinforces McConnell’s point— and not just in the races he and others might have had in mind. While it doesn’t count the GOP out of potentially winning the House and Senate and some key governor’s races, candidate popularity presents a significant and unnecessary hurdle in what should, historically speaking, be a good election for Republicans.”
A careful analysis across the country show that “the Trump-aligned candidates… [are] potential liabilities in those states. Oftentimes, the polls show voters in these states will be pretty evenly divided on which party they want in power when it’s presented as a generic choice— but then they’ll side with the specific, more popular Democrat.”
He wrote that this gap is most pronounced in the two statewide races in Pennsylvania, where Dr. Oz and Doug Mastriano are “broadly unpopular.”
The gap is perhaps most pronounced in Pennsylvania, where both GOP Senate nominee Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano have trailed consistently in the polls. He noted that in one poll “even 36 percent of Trump voters dislike” Oz. Fetterman may not be beloved but he scores astronomically better than Oz like favorability. “The story is similar in the governor’s race, where Mastriano’s image ratings are about as bad as Oz’s; he’s also double-digits underwater in all three polls…Mastriano’s net image rating is consistently more than 30 points worse than his opponent.”
Blake found similar conditions for Republicans in play in on Ohio and Arizona. “Two recent polls show Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) with a net image rating 12 and 20 points better than Republican J.D. Vance.” In Arizona Blake Masters has the same didsadvatgae— a low net favorability rating which is about 20 points worse than incumbent Mark Kelly’s.
This popularity gap is immense in the Michigan gubernatorial race “where Trump-backed Tudor Dixon was double-digits underwater in two recent polls— including an EPIC-MRA poll that pegged her favorable rating at just 24 percent and her unfavorable rating at 44 percent. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) remains popular, with a majority approving of her job performance. In both polls, her net image rating is 28 points better than Dixon’s, and she leads by double digits in the head-to-head matchup.”
There’s an almost identical situation in Wisconsin, where the Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate and the Trump-backed Senate incumbent are generally disliked by the voters. “[F]ewer than 40 percent of voters like two-term incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes’s (D) net image ratings are nine and 15 points better.
In Georgia, “Herschel Walker is consistently both underwater and less popular than Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-GA)… And in New Hampshire, new GOP nominee Don Bolduc is 17 points underwater in a new University of New Hampshire poll (26 percent favorable to 43 percent unfavorable), compared to Sen. Maggie Hassan’s (D-NH) minus-nine image rating. Hassan led in that poll by eight points and has led Bolduc in every poll.”
One thing we’ve alluded to— and which you’ll notice if you dig into these polls— is that these popularity gaps are often bigger than the margins in the actual head-to-head matchups. And there’s one main reason for that: partisanship.
As The Post’s Philip Bump recently wrote, the CBS/YouGov poll showed Fetterman led Oz on several key issues when it comes to voters’ decisions, often by double digits. Yet Fetterman led by just five points on the ballot test. That’s because party often wins out on voters’ decisions.
Even more telling: The same pollster showed that, in both Pennsylvania and Georgia, a majority of people supporting the Democrat said they were doing so primarily because they liked their candidate. But 8 in 10 supporters of the Republican said their vote was primarily about supporting their party or voting against the other candidate.
That’s undoubtedly in part because those Republican candidates aren’t exactly setting the campaign trail on fire. But those numbers also show that how much voters like a particular candidate is hardly their only consideration at the ballot box— and often, nor is it the most important one.
Indeed, what these polls suggest is that if Republicans can win in these states— and by extension win the Senate— it’ll be in large part because of a favorable environment and the ever-present pull of partisanship.
And it will apparently be in spite of some of the candidates they’ve put forward.
In other words, McConnell, who Trump told Haberman is “a piece of shit,” was right about Trump’s interference in the GOP primaries, forcing subpar candidates on the party and putting the Republicans on the defensive where they should be on offense. A year ago, the Senate elections looked like they would be all about the Republicans beating weak Democratic incumbents in New Hampshire, Nevada and Arizona and maybe expanding the playing field into Colorado and Washington. There will be no realistic expansion into Colorado and Washington, where the Democratic incumbents are strongly ahead of their opponents. And the Democratic incumbent in New Hampshire and Arizona look safe and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada also looks like she will probably beat Trumpist putz Adam Laxalt.
Instead, Republicans are having trouble keeping up with Democrats in states that are currently held by Republicans: Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina… even Wisconsin and Ohio. And as far as expanding the field, Marco Rubio looks a lot less secure than either Patty Murray or Michael Bennet. Even as red a state of Missouri could have been in play this cycle, had the Democrats not shot themselves through the brain with Trudy Busch Valentine, a worthless candidate who probably won’t even be able to consolidate the shrunken Democratic vote, let alone appeal to swing voters and anti-Trump independents and moderates.