What did we learn from this week’s bombshell essay in the New York Times about President Trump, written by a person identified only as a “senior official in the Trump administration”?
That the president is amoral? Already knew that.
That there are grownups in the White House who try to rein in the toddler-like impulses of the man with the nuclear codes? Knew that, too.
That the New York Times editorial page is willing to blatantly violate one of journalism’s most sacred tenets — transparency — to hammer a president against whom it has raged for the past 21 months? Wow, that one came as a surprise.
I expected better from the nation’s paper of record.
In a note at the top of the essay, The Times took pains to explain its decision:
“The Times today is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”
It saddens me to read those words. I’ve been a reporter, editor and columnist for nearly 40 years, and in that time, I have had rip-roaring fights with colleagues about using anonymous sources. In almost every story I have ever written about politics, or the movie business, or even fashion, back when I covered that backbiting field in the 1980s, sources have requested anonymity.
As a reporter, I want to be able to use anonymous sources; after all, I know who they are and what their agendas are. As an editor, though, I have almost always argued against using anonymous sources, especially to launch one-sided character attacks or to deliver information we already know.
One thread runs through every request: self-protection. Some are legitimate. Most are not. Some, as in the case of this senior official, are worthy of intense debate, and ultimate rejection.
If someone’s life were jeopardized by an important disclosure, by all means, that person’s name should be withheld. If a relatively powerless person fears losing his or her job for speaking out honestly about a boss’ transgressions, that is a worthy reason for anonymity.
But why shield a high-ranking person, with potentially unlimited job prospects, who is only giving the American people information we already know? And mostly vague information at that?
“In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations,” writes our anonymous official. “The rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals.”
This idea that the administration is slip-sliding along two tracks is nothing new; it has been a constant theme of Trump administration coverage.
This essay has allowed the New York Times to turn up the heat in a White House that is already at a rolling boil. If that was the point, it should have been explained in the editor’s note: We know there is nothing substantively new here, but we want to see the White House squirm and we love making Trump crazier than he already is. This is a publicity stunt.
I’m not the first person to note that it would be sweet indeed if the paper’s crack White House reporters were able to ferret out the person’s identity, and publish it in the news pages.
If I had to paraphrase the senior official’s essay, here’s how I’d put it: Hey, the president is a horrible human being with no moral compass. He’s not a real Republican, but I love his policies on taxes, national defense and immigration. I really want to gaslight him without making any sort of personal sacrifice. But it’s all your fault — you elected him!
What disgruntled employee wouldn’t want the platform of the most powerful newspaper in the world to anonymously criticize the boss’ temperament while actually lauding his accomplishments?
But why would the Times’ editorial page cede its valuable real estate to a person whose goals are so nakedly self-serving? And whose “important perspective” is hardly fresh? And whose writing style is kind of a rambling mess?
For instance, the author says there were “early whispers within the cabinet” of invoking the 25th Amendment, which provides for the replacement of a president in the event of death, resignation, removal or incapacitation.
But in the very next paragraph, the official writes, “The bigger concern is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency, but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us. We have sunk low with him and allowed our discourse to be stripped of civility.”
Seriously? “We as a nation” are not the problem here. You are, anonymous official, and so are all your political allies who heap praise on Trump during his cult-like Cabinet meetings and public appearances, but refuse to take a public stand against him for fear of activating his twitchy Twitter finger.
Second, most rational people — Democrats and Republicans alike — worry that Trump is undermining our national and international institutions, and potentially the entire world order. He has worked hard to delegitimize the media, his own intelligence agencies, the Justice Department, international alliances and our constitutional commitment to equality.
Uncivil discourse is hardly the “bigger concern” of Americans, the people for whom this person pretends to speak.