The massive messaging miscues of all the president's men (and women)
'Senior' official doesn't mean anonymous NYT writer is close to Trump
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 Trump 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?
Yet, as everyone from former Hillary Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri to the Washington Post's David Nakamura to Fox News's Brit Hume point out in rare bipartisan fashion, "senior administration official" could apply to hundreds and even more than 1,000 people.
No matter: We're already seeing some in the media go the full Alex Jones in attempting to figure out - with zero basis whatsoever - who the anonymous writer may be, with the most egregious being CNN political editor-at-large Chris Cillizza.
In listing 12 names of people with "motive," in Cillizza's latest CNN.com piece, the only thing missing is that the writer was Mrs. Peacock in the kitchen with the candlestick or Mr. Green in the library with the lead pipe.
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.
Another note regarding one more small but telling error by the Times: In one tweet from its official Twitter handle, the paper appears to have revealed the gender of the anonymous source, as noted by Bloomberg's Jennifer Jacobs:
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."
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.
Should it have been less ambiguous, at least giving its readers some hint as to whether this person has even sat in one meeting or is of any relative importance within the administration? Again, absolutely.
And, so, Wednesday's big story that has extended into Thursday, that next huge moment that finally will be a game-changer for Trump, will come and go not unlike the Omarosa book ... or like whatever leak from the next "senior administration official" serves as the next game-changer that actually changes nothing.
Joe Concha (@JoeConchaTV) is a media reporter for The Hill and host of "What America's Thinking."