On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have To Ask, I spoke with Olivia Nuzzi, New York magazine’s Washington correspondent. (Her cover story in the magazine’s Sunday issue is about Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, and their fraught relationship with President Trump.)
Below is an edited transcript of part of the show. In it, Nuzzi and I discuss how women working for Trump deal with his behavior, what his staff really thinks about him, and whether or not his personality is getting worse.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire program with Nuzzi is available here. And please subscribe to I Have To Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: I heard you say that people in the White House either can’t tell you the truth or don’t know the truth. How anxious are you when you’re writing stories that require quotes from White House sources given that this is obviously not a normal White House in terms of telling the truth?
Olivia Nuzzi: I think of it less in terms of, well, you know I need an answer to this question. I have to contact the White House, I have to contact a senior official, or the White House press office and I look at it more as like, it’s an interesting part of the story’s color to figure out what the White House is trying to tell you or what White House staffers are saying amongst themselves.
So the meta story in a way is the story.
Yeah, and the thing about this White House and [the] thing about Trump in general—I covered him during the campaign as well—is that everyone in his orbit is always trying to fuck [over] someone else. And once you determine who it is that they’re trying to fuck over, it’s sort of easier to process what they say. You know you can figure out where these allegiances lie at the moment, and although they’re ever-shifting, you know it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s on which team. And there are all these different factions within the White House. I think [New York Times White House correspondent] Maggie Haberman referred to it recently in that [New Yorker editor] David Remnick interview as being like actual gangs.
Is there any sense of actual comradery among different factions in the White House?
If that exists I haven’t seen it. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Other reporters may have seen it, but I just haven’t. It’s more like everyone seems to be out for themselves and sometimes people’s interests will align, and then they will be aligned [with] one another. I think this has happened with Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. Initially they hated each other. And they did an interview with me very early on in the administration to try and convince me that they were in love with each other and that they were best friends, and they put on this whole show about how they were giving each other back massages and they were best friends and they were bonding and they would fall asleep texting each other at night. And they did that with a number of reporters, and I think as time has gone on they’ve found that they have to be on each other’s side oftentimes because people in the White House are basically trying to shiv each other.
Maggie Haberman, who you mentioned, said to me that she thought people in the White House talk to her as a form of therapy or a sort of a reality check, because they viewed reporters—even in spite of what the rhetoric may be—as offering a certain amount of truth telling about what was actually going on. Is that something that you feel that you get when you talk to people in the White House?
Yeah I mean it’s funny, oftentimes all sorts of different officials will ask you for your assessment of a given situation, or your assessment of them, or your assessment of what their relationship with another official looks like. And I certainly have never experienced that before. Granted, I did not cover the Obama administration so I can’t really speak to how different that is, but most reporters seem to be in agreement that this is something—the vibe here, it’s very different than we’ve seen in the past. But yeah, I mean they will just ask you, “Well do you think that, how do you think this looks?” Or “do you think I’m qualified for this job?”
And Trump does this a lot too… I mean one of Trump’s most consistent traits is that he’s always polling everyone around him to figure out what they think before he decides anything. He did this famously at Mar-a-Lago on Thanksgiving, where he was asking random party guests who he should pick as secretary of state. So I think maybe it’s the function of being around Trump, you just start to do kind of the same thing…
Leadership starts at the top.
Yeah the fish, what is it, the fish rots from the head.
You’ve written about some of the women in Trump’s orbit—for example, Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks—and not to sound euphemistic here, I was wondering what you think it’s like to be a woman working in this White House and specifically what you think the women who do click with Trump, what it is they’re doing or are forced to do in this environment?
I profiled a number of the women in his orbit, and it’s kind of been a recurring theme throughout my campaign coverage and now my White House coverage.
They’re very fascinating to me because he’s someone who women don’t like broadly and then who obviously has said all sorts of horrific things about women, whether it’s about their looks, or their intellect, or he’s assessing their mental health—he likes to call women crazy a lot. I think basically, to survive here as a woman you just have to kind of be able to let things roll off of you in a way that—I always think about the first time that I interviewed Trump in person. I went to Trump Tower and Hope Hicks let me into the office and she seemed very nervous because I was profiling her and she said to him, “Oh well this is Olivia, she’s very young.” And I just sort of looked at her like ‘why would that be your intro for me?’ And he looked me up and down and he was like, “Very young and very beautiful.”
And I always think, if that were a job interview, I would have run out of there. I would never have wanted to work in that place. But he was about to be the Republican nominee at that point and now he’s the president and I have to cover him all the time. But I always just think, if I was going in for an interview at New York magazine and that’s how I was greeted by the guy in charge I never would have accepted the job. But I think you just have to kind of look at Trump as being very different, as being almost like an alien figure in order to be able to deal with what it’s like to work there. You just can’t really assess him by normal human standards.
And you think that’s what the women in his orbit do?
I think so. I think there’s been a lot of wink-wink coverage of Hope Hicks, who’s arguably one of the most powerful people there. She really is a gatekeeper: She controls access.
And is very young as well, not as young as you—
You told me before the interview that you are 24.
You asked, but yes. And at least when it comes to her, I mean he really does seem to regard her as a daughter. And granted he’s said some very creepy things about his own daughter. … But he does seem to really think of his staff here like family, and I think that’s why it’s been difficult for him to let people go even when he has reason to fire them.
You’ve now been covering Trump for a couple years I guess. Have you noticed any changes in him as a person?
No, that’s the thing. I just profiled [Joe] Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski for New York magazine. … Their whole idea that they want people to believe, that Donald Trump is in any way different than he was, is absurd. I mean this is a man who, I think he was in the second grade when he gave his music teacher a black eye because quote “I didn’t think he knew anything about music.” You know? The idea that he’s any different than he’s ever been is so silly to me. I think he’s probably lonelier than he was when he was in Trump Tower. I think maybe he’s unhappier, maybe he’s a little bit more paranoid than he was. But I don’t think fundamentally he’s any different as a human being than he’s ever been.
Do you get a sense of that there are people in the White House who genuinely think Trump is a great leader and have great respect for him and see this as deep down as something other than a shit show?
I don’t. I mean, I haven’t really gotten that vibe. Sometimes I’ll talk to someone and I’ll think like, wow they really drank the Kool Aid this week. They sound like a mini Trump or they’re arguing something to me that has no basis in reality in a very Trumpian way. But broadly speaking I think most people are here for very self-serving reasons. I think you only really work for Donald Trump for very self-serving reasons. I never get the impression that anyone thinks that he’s some kind of genius.