Maggie Haberman, White House correspondent: Well, I think a few things. Part of it speaks to Trump’s whimsical approach to all things. He shifted course so he could celebrate a needed (albeit short-term) victory on the repeal bill for the Affordable Care act.
And that ceremony was the happiest that Trump had seemed in some time. But I also think that it speaks to his lack of concern for protocol, and perhaps his lack of belief that he has some making up to do with the prime minister.
Damien: People here were also interpreting it as a sign of his transactional nature and his short memory, or lack of focus, on longer-term strategic relationships. Does that sound accurate to you?
Maggie: I think that’s precisely it. In other words, it’s not an intended snub of the prime minister, but it is a reminder that Trump will handle everything at his own pace, and try to do so on his own terms – a tricky approach internationally.
Damien: Speaking of international policy, Australians often tell me the most important relationship in the world of foreign policy is the U.S.-China relationship. And I think a lot of people are wondering who really drives that policy in the White House. Do you have any insight on how that works in this very divided White House? Is this a Jared Kushner thing, a Steve Bannon thing, or does someone else take the lead?
Maggie: It is an all-of-the-above thing. Jared has had an interest in China policy for some time, and Bannon is equally intrigued. But there has been a very definitive effort to nudge the president in the direction of a friendlier relationship with China to deal with North Korea.
Damien: And is there consensus on that point?
Maggie: That has been generally agreed upon by a wide range of advisers. And remember there is an axis comprised of Henry McMaster, Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and they are very strongly guiding the president at this point.
Damien: Do they see a role for Australia to play in the standoff with North Korea?
Maggie: I have gotten conflicting signals on that. Right now they don’t seem certain of what their goal is diplomatically with Australia. It’s worth noting here that one of the most significant voices for the president here is Rupert Murdoch’s.
Damien: Interesting point. How does that play out? I think tonight might give us a clue! Murdoch is among the attendees on the Intrepid.
We just got the pool report with a few quotes from President Trump and Mr. Turnbull and they seemed to be trying to sound pretty chummy. There wasn’t much detail on policy but Trump said the argument at the center of their first phone call, about a deal to bring refugees from Manus Island and Nauru to the United States, was all worked out. “It’s been worked out for a long time,” Trump said. What do you make of what they said?
Maggie: I am struck by the degree to which they are downplaying the fight. I don’t take much more from it.
Damien: What else are you looking at as you continue to report out the Trump-Turnbull meeting or the dinner?
Maggie: I think President Trump’s body language will tell us a lot. When he is in an uncomfortable situation, or when he doesn’t really know someone very well and doesn’t want to, he’ll be quite stiff. So how he behaves, especially after their introductory phone call months ago, will say a lot, and I am curious to see how the president describes Murdoch compared to how he describes Turnbull. A 30-minute meeting — if it even is that much — is not a long time for a relationship reset.
Damien: That’s what seems to be frustrating a lot of Australians. It looks like a second act of disrespect.
Maggie: By any objective measure, it is. The question to me is how much the president tries to mitigate that in person.
Damien: Getting back to Murdoch for a second, can you describe the Murdoch-Trump relationship a bit? Are they friends, mates in the Australian sense, or is there another dynamic at play?
Maggie: They’ve known each other obviously a very long time. The president, when he was a real estate developer and man about town in New York City, was a regular feature on the gossip pages of the New York Post, which Murdoch owns. In the years since, Ivanka Trump has become close with Murdoch, as well as his ex-wife Wendy.
The president speaks to Murdoch now almost every day. And Murdoch speaks with Jared Kushner as well. Murdoch is one of the people who urges the president to stay focused on the economy narrowly and foreign policy more broadly.
Damien: Do we know if Murdoch advises him on China or Australia, or is just more general?
Maggie: My sense – and again this is a sense – is that he speaks with some specificity on both, but the details are not clear.
Damien: People here often wonder what it’s like covering Trump. For you, what’s the hardest part of covering Trump and his White House these days?
Maggie: The incessant nature of it all. And to a lesser degree in fact the president has so little grounding in history or how politicians are covered that he perceives all coverage as somehow specific to him, as opposed to the way presidents are covered.
Damien: Can you give us an example of what you mean?
Maggie: Sure. As a for-instance, he is said to take great umbrage at coverage about his habits in the White House, or some of the focus on his looks. Some folks around him think it’s some sign of disrespect from the media specific to him.
In reality these types of issues are always the focus of coverage with presidents. Obama was marked for his ankle-length jeans. Bill Clinton parodied on “Saturday Night Live” for his love of McDonald’s hamburgers. There is very little new under the sun but it feels new to this president because while he has been in the media spotlight for decades, he never so much as run for City Council before he was elected president.
Damien: For many, it’s fascinating that he still talks to you and to us at The Times given all his criticism of the media. After a tough story that he doesn’t like, what happens?
Maggie: Sometimes after a tough story that he doesn’t like his aides will send angry emails. Sometimes they won’t send anything at all – they will just go complain publicly. And other times he will stop talking for a while or his press aides will stop talking to you.
Damien: What brings them back?
Maggie: There is no paper that captures Trump’s imagination more than The New York Times, except possibly the New York Post. But The Times to him represents Manhattan elites whose approval he has wanted for decades.
Damien: Anything else you think Australia should know about Trump that I haven’t asked?
Maggie: I would strongly recommend people read Tom Wolfe’s the “Bonfire of the Vanities” to better understand this president.
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