Two down … one thousand, nine hundred and ninety-eight to go. Speculation has run rampant over the identity of the anonymous author of a New York Times op-ed criticizing Donald Trump as unhinged from inside the administration, and reporters are demanding responses from top officials. Vice President Mike Pence’s spokesman called the op-ed “false, illogical, and gutless” in a denial:
The Vice President puts his name on his Op-Eds. The @nytimes should be ashamed and so should the person who wrote the false, illogical, and gutless op-ed. Our office is above such amateur acts.
— Jarrod Agen (@VPComDir) September 6, 2018
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied any connection to the op-ed while on a diplomatic mission to India. He had a couple of choice words for the New York Times for publishing it, too:
— NBC News (@NBCNews) September 6, 2018
“It’s not mine,” Pompeo said during a trip to New Delhi, India.
Pompeo, who previously served as Trump’s CIA director, also slammed the Times for publishing the piece.
“If it’s accurate … they should not well have chosen to take a disgruntled, deceptive, bad actor’s word for anything and put it in their newspaper,” Pompeo told reporters.
So who did write it? Chris Cillizza suggests a baker’s dozen of possibilities, ranging from “Javanka” to Dan Coats, and then circles back around to Melania. The NYT describes the anonymous author as a “senior administration official,” a label which applies to literally hundreds of people at the moment. It covers everyone from Pence and Pompeo to subordinates in Cabinet agencies that required Senate confirmation. And in that range of people, there are many who are important, and many more who just think themselves important and might be grinding an axe or two over their lack of access to actual policymaking.
That’s why one hint of who it might not be is the utter lack of any new substance in the op-ed. The general thesis is that Trump isn’t running the show, and that it’s his subordinates who are governing in the face of Trump’s mercurial moods, but that’s hardly a unique argument. Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple points out that the essay conveniently consists of the same points that journalists have been reporting for most of the last two years. It’s nothing more than “a PR stunt,” Wemple concludes, and the president is correct to call it “gutless”:
Perhaps the New York Times’s op-ed managers missed the approximately 10,000 quotes from anonymous administration officials raising questions about Trump’s capabilities, not to mention some on-the-record comments, as well. For instance: Rob Porter, the former staff secretary, told Woodward, “It felt like we were walking along the edge of the cliff perpetually. Other times, we would fall over the edge, and an action would be taken.” …
Like most anonymous quotes and tracts, this one is a PR stunt. Mr. Senior Administration Official gets to use the distributive power of the New York Times to recast an entire class of federal appointees. No longer are they enablers of a foolish and capricious president. They are now the country’s most precious and valued patriots. In an appearance on Wednesday afternoon, the president pronounced it all a “gutless” exercise. No argument here.
Even the more explosive allegation of discussions about removal via the 25th Amendment seems pulled out of the newspapers:
In a more newsworthy moment, the unnamed op-edder writes, “Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.” Two issues there: What, precisely, are whispers? Are they emails? Are they water-cooler discussions based on some opinion piece about the imperative of removing our president?
And: Did the op-ed page’s editors work their sources to firm up that contention? We’ve asked the New York Times for clarification on that matter.
Prediction: The answer will be no, because everything in that op-ed seems calculated to appeal to the media’s already-ongoing narrative about Trump. It’s a big, steaming pile of confirmation bias, cleverly packaged as an insider tell-all. There’s not much news value in it, except that it allows the New York Times and other media outlets to shriek, “WE WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG!” And that is why the NYT ran it without attribution — it’s basically a leak they can allow to self-spin, while the author gets to see himself lauded as a heroic truth-teller for, er, enabling what he’s decrying.
So who did write the op-ed? At this point, who cares?