The op-ed came from inside the house.
Posted late Wednesday afternoon on the website of the New York Times, the anonymous piece that everyone’s talking about reiterated all the wicked things anonymous White House sources had been telling the Times, the Washington Post, POLITICO, Axios, Bloomberg News, et al., about Donald Trump. The president is amoral, Anonymous wrote. He’s anti-democratic. He’s impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective. He flip-flops. He can’t stay on topic and is given to repetitive rants. He’s unstable, says the piece, whose headline and dek tell the story: “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration: I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
Anonymous, perhaps the deepest Deep Throat since Watergate, continues: He’s only one member of the Trump administration’s internal resistance—he and others monkey-wrenched the White House operation to “do what’s right when Donald Trump won’t.” That’s not news, either, as the press has charted the foot-draggers in the administration. Just Tuesday, we learned from Bob Woodward’s anonymously sourced new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, that aides have pilfered papers from the president’s desk to prevent him from signing them. But the Times’ anonymous op-ed writer makes the case that there’s an ongoing insurrection within the administration. If true, that means 1) Donald Trump, our elected president, isn’t in control of his own team and 2) that the show is being run by anonymous bureaucrats who, depending on how you look at it, are self-anointed patriots or traitors. (We know where the president stands: As I filed this, Trump tweeted simply: “TREASON?”)
The op-ed sent Washington ass-over-applecart because it breaks with the Washington tradition that holds that the accepted way for a government whistleblower to undermine an administration is to leak information to the press (Mark Felt, the original Deep Throat), pilfer documents (Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers), or make themselves visible and resign in protest (Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus in Watergate’s Saturday Night Massacre) and join the opposition. For somebody with the paranoiac tendencies of Donald Trump, the op-ed has got to look like something worse than the “deep state” he’s always harping about. It’s like a silent coup.
It goes without saying that the president and his muscle will tear the plasterboard off the West Wing to unmask and punish Anonymous and his confreres. But seeing as Anonymous’ identity is news, the press hounds will be baying, too. Ordinarily, reporters avoid exposing the anonymous sources of other reporters because they don’t want to set a precedent that will result in their sources getting outed.
Journalists suffered no compunctions about revealing the identities of both authors, and they will work as hard as Trump to uncover him.
The rare violation of this mutually assured destruction pact came after Watergate, when everybody and their brother tried to identify the original Deep Throat, Bob Woodward’s secret source in All the President’s Men. Once in the early 1980s, when Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen came close to correctly naming Mark Felt as the mysterious source, Woodward did everything he could do to wave him off. “It’s not him, I said, adopting the well-tested Watergate strategy that when all else fails, lie,” Woodward confesses in his 2005 book, The Secret Man. “Cohen didn’t do the column.”
The New York Times did the right thing in publishing Anonymous because the “first duty of the press “is to obtain the correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation.” But having posited the ongoing conspiracy against the president, he can’t expect the press—maybe not even reporters on the news side of the New York Times—to protect his identity. He’s not an anonymous source for a journalist; he’s an anonymous author publishing his work.
This puts him in a separate, more vulnerable category. He’s less like Deep Throat and more like journalist Joe Klein, the anonymous author of the best-selling novel Primary Colors, or Michael Scheuer, the CIA officer turned anonymous author of 2003’s Through Our Enemies’ Eyes and 2004’s Imperial Hubris. Journalists suffered no compunctions about revealing the identities of both authors, and they will work as hard as Trump to uncover him. Don’t feel bad for Anonymous: In Washington, such acts of subterfuge are automatically rewarded with big book contracts.
Trump’s response to the op-ed was predictably loopy, helping to make its case that the president wallows in a world of delusion. He rushed onto TVto recite the economic accomplishments of his administration and denounce the New York Times and other outlets as “phony.” Somewhere, the Resistance that Anonymous helps lead was busy sharpening its pencils and shredding documents they don’t want the president to sign. And the 25th Amendment was trending on Google.
Jack Shafer is POLITICO’s senior media writer.