On a week when Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation or Bob Woodward's book were seen ahead of time as the two big stories that would consume media coverage, along came an anonymous source, a senior administration official, to the New York Times with a scathing op-ed on President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE that has Washington and the press (again) aflutter with talk of this being THE moment that changes everything.
Let's first unpack who, at least in general terms, the source of the column is ... a column that includes describing the president’s leadership style as "impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective," among other things that come right out of a Michael Moore script.
Note: To the average or even above-average reader outside the Washington-New York bubble, the Times refers to the op-ed as being written by a "senior administration official," which sounds like a cabinet member, or at least someone who interacts with the president on a daily basis. Pretty serious stuff from a high place, right?
Fwiw, based on my experience with NYT sourcing rules for Administration officials, this person could easily be someone most of us have never heard of & more junior than you’d expect. Like a deputy at legislative affairs or NEC.— Jennifer Palmieri (@jmpalmieri) September 6, 2018
Most DC journalists, incl. me, have quoted a "senior administration official" in stories. But I feel as though an op-ed like this should have an editor's note explaining what an SAO is. There are 1,212 Senate-confirmed positions, incl. 640 'key' jobs https://t.co/9WNva10ZOr https://t.co/CySe7znom1— David Nakamura (@DavidNakamura) September 5, 2018
RE: the NYT anonymous editorial. The federal government always has been honeycombed with officials resistant to this and all GOP administrations. They are government workers and nearly all Democrats. And don't be misled by the words "senior officials." There are loads of them.— Brit Hume (@brithume) September 5, 2018
So here's the question: Should the Times have narrowed down the actual governmental level of the writer in a way that at least tells the reader if this person was indeed as close to the president as they portray, unintentionally or otherwise? That doesn't, of course, mean giving away obvious clues that would reveal identify. But, as the Post's Nakamura asks, does this person actually work in the White House? The National Security Council? A federal agency? On domestic or foreign affairs?
As the Post's Dana Milbank pointed out years ago: "The only people who can’t be senior administration officials are the interns."
Narrowing down the writer's role in the administration to at least a place or department is a fair ask of the Times, which clearly reaps benefits from the ambiguity of "senior administration official." But such ambiguity leads to the kind of dangerous speculation so many see from some quarters of the media on a daily basis, which only leads to increased cynicism about the institution.
NYT tweet suggests the anonymous senior admin official is a man -- "he."— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) September 5, 2018
The official complains Trump "engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions." https://t.co/HsNLRTCK5d pic.twitter.com/6GRD4Lbdbn
And, in a related story, Jacobs reports that several sources tell her "they have doubts the anonymous senior administration official works in the West Wing."
Several sources now saying they have doubts the anonymous senior admin official works in the West Wing — more probably works elsewhere, in one of the departments. @KellyannePolls on Fox says “hundreds of folks that would qualify for that title alone.”— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) September 6, 2018
If true, that's a pretty big deal. And if that is indeed the case, the person behind the op-ed shows his (or her) hand in terms of access, or lack thereof, he (or she) had to the president:
"Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back," the writer claims.
Yet, instead of providing personal examples to support this claim, the writer pivots to what he only heard from another unnamed official. In other words, he wasn't in the room, didn't attend the meeting and maybe hasn't attended any.
"'There is literally no telling whether he might change his mind from one minute to the next,' a top official complained to me recently," the writer says of the president, adding that the "top official" — which apparently shouldn't be confused with "senior administration official" — was "exasperated by an Oval Office meeting at which the president flip-flopped on a major policy decision he’d made only a week earlier."
Then there's the question of timing: Did this person — or "gutless coward," as the president referred to him on Wednesday — just suddenly happen to have an epiphany about getting all of this off his chest via the New York Times? Or is he a primary source for the Woodward book, which comes out in less than a week, and wanted to build on the attention said book is already receiving in forming a sustainable narrative?
In the end, this sort of tactic only plays into Trump's argument around people inside the government working against him who cannot be trusted. Talk to any Trump supporter, and they are likely to say this op-ed not only doesn't change their mind but actually reinforces their mistrust in the establishment.
"The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in and around the White House. Some of his aides have been cast as villains by the media," the anonymous writer says, in patting himself on the back for, in his eyes, saving the country from Trump. "But in private, they have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing, though they are clearly not always successful."
National Review's Jonah Goldberg, no fan of the president, sums up why the statement above is a fruitless endeavor to go down this path. "If you’re part of a secret cabal to contain the president’s erratic behavior, it seems counterproductive to notify the erratic president about it. What better way to fuel his paranoia and his persecution complex?" Goldberg asked in a Wednesday column.
The New York Times called its decision to print this op-ed anonymously as a "rare step." Politically, it's unprecedented.
Should the paper of record have printed it? Absolutely.