New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman has a new book about to be published, Confidence Man. And one of the revelations that’s been made public is that when Trump was in the White House, he would occasionally flush documents in the toilet.
This story has caused outrage across social media. The thing is, though, the outrage is not at Trump, but at Maggie Haberman. (Insert deep and heavy sigh here.) The outrage at her is because supposedly she knew about this crime and failed to report it, holding onto the story until she could put it in her book, thereby making her as much a criminal.
The reaction directed at Maggie Haberman has been beyond all reason, and I've gnashed my teeth and twisted my fingers at each new Tweet being posted. I’ve tried answering a few, but not only are there too many gnats to swat away, but each response tends to get multiply replies back smalling me in return. So, I've picked my spots when to dive in.
That's because every once in a while, a few Tweets stood out that were simply too much for me to let fly by. Those cases were either because the person had a level of responsibility and should know better, or the comment had received far too many Likes and Retweets, or…well, it was just too mind-numbing to let stand as if it made sense.
One, for example, wrote --
“I think Maggie Haberman should be prosecuted for being an accessory after the fact. She knew about a crime of national significance and kept it secret. Writing a book now doesn't make it legal to conceal a crime earlier.”
What I replied was that If one ACTUALLY thinks this, hopefully they will rethink it. Putting the First Amendment aside (which is a lot to put aside), Maggie Haberman wasn't a witness to the events, she's just reporting what she was told happened – and happened at least a year earlier. Which therefore wouldn’t even be inadmissible in court. Further, being only TOLD about it, she is not even a witness. For that matter, we don’t even know what “it” is, other than just torn up paper flushed in a toilet – which, on that level only, is not a crime. Just something suspicious, worth looking into. Moreover, separate from when the event occurred, this outraged crimebuster doesn’t have the slightest idea when Maggie Haberman was told about it. Perhaps, for all he knows, it was something she learned only a few months ago, long after the fact. She did not commit a crime. She is not going to be prosecuted. And she should not be. And to think she should be is seriously misguided. Which is the polite word.
When my friend Don Friedman (who actually is a lawyer and doesn’t just play one on social media) saw this back-and-forth, he jumped in and added some important points on top of it all. Saying, “And -- neither she nor we know for a fact whether what was being flushed were government documents he had a duty to preserve. There's a lot of faux outrage at journalists holding small anecdotes for their books. Real time disclosures of these things wouldn't have changed anything.”
Another social media comment that caught my eye enough to respond was something much shorter, pithy, in fact, yet impressively was just as empty in only six words --
“Maggie Haberman is a national disgrace.”
I wrote back that given Trump, given the GOP, given the RNC calling January 6 a "legitimate political discourse," given the insurrectionists, the white supremacists, the anti-vaxxers, the anti-maskers and given, too, that Maggie Haberman in fact did report what she was told by a third party happened at least a year beforehand -- we have a very different view what a “national disgrace” is.
There’s a phrase known as “Keep your eyes on the prize.” This “outrage!!!” at Maggie Haberman not only doesn’t have its eyes on the prize of Trump's crimes looming up from the miasma, it has created a false outrage where one doesn’t exist.
Yes, I understand people wishing that Ms. Haberman had reported the story the moment it happened. But not only is that not journalism and publishing works, and not only would the third-party story she was told have less meaning as a newspaper item out of context of the full book, and not only was what she was told not for certain an actual crime…but one could argue that the story coming out right now just days after the Washington Post has broken the story of Trump taking material from the White House to Mar-a-Lago and ripping some of it up, and when there is now a House Select Committee investigating it all, the release of her reporting today may have significantly more importance than if it had been reported as a slight, random anecdote whenever she learned of it (perhaps six months ago or whenever) without any context.
And more to the point, if not most to the point, I would suggest that even if people truly feel Ms. Haberman should have reported the anecdote the moment she heard it, their outraged fury at Maggie Haberman detracts attention from what’s actually important about the whole event – which is not “when” Maggie Haberman reported Trump tearing up paper and flushing it, but that…Trump tore up paper and flushed it! Getting outraged at Maggie Haberman, rightly or wrongly (and it’s wrongly) to the point of calling it a crime, a national disgrace and she should be prosecuted divides the focus where it all should be. All of it. On Trump.
Saying that you wish that Maggie Haberman had reported the story when she heard it told to her is a fair opinion (though as I noted above, doing so likely would have had significantly-less impact than her reporting it now). But this outrage that explodes at seemingly the same level (let alone even remotely close to the same level) of Trump’s possibly-criminal actions that may have been to hide treasonous actions is not fair, but rather it's wrong, divisive, misplaced and counter-productive. And that, in a word, is stupid.
What I sense is that not only have the claustrophobic realities of the pandemic for two years put added pressures on society, but when that overlaps with anger and concern about an insurrection to overthrow democracy, then that outrage needs an outlet to vent. And if one can’t do something about Trump, you can take it out at whoever gets in our way. Which today is Maggie Haberman.
If so, I totally get it. But that doesn’t make it any less wrong, divisive, misplaced, counter-productive and wrong.
And it will happen again. And again.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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